The rise of the tea party has splintered the Republican Party to such an extent that it acts like the antebellum Democratic Party.
In opposing Abraham Lincoln, Democrats pursued narrow agendas rather than victory and good governance. Lincoln’s election with a mere 41 percent of the popular vote was assured by extremists and racists splitting their votes among three candidates.
Unionist Republicans won the next 11 elections, except for the anomalous Grover Cleveland.
William Howard Taft returned to the old-fashioned roots of the party. His abandonment of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive policies assured Woodrow Wilson’s win in 1912 with only 42 percent of the vote. Republicans returned to office in 1920 and governed until the economic collapse of 1929 led to Franklin Roosevelt’s election and re-elections.
President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. Later that year, Democrats adopted a strong civil rights platform over the objections of Southern Democrats.
In response, Gov. Strom Thurmond fashioned the States’ Rights Democratic Party — the Dixiecrats — to oppose President Truman and defend segregation. Thurmond’s candidacy erased some of the perceived stains of racism from the national Democratic Party.
The party’s embrace of civil rights and Thurmond’s explicit racism motivated a large turnout by African-Americans, thereby assuring Truman’s election.
Republicans united, behind Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, to take back the White House in 1952 and retain it in 1956. Led by Richard Nixon, they nearly retained the presidency in 1960.
After two humiliating defeats, Nixon regrouped and revised his strategy between 1962 and 1968.
Two pivotal policies drove Nixon’s return to power. The first was that any Republican was better than a Democrat. He campaigned vigorously for Republicans in the intervening years, which dramatically increased the likelihood of party victories.
Nixon’s second policy was to lure the South from the Democratic Party. Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips argued that African-American votes were irrelevant, if the South could be won. This “Southern Strategy” evolved directly from the Dixiecrats. Sadly, it worked as Republicans began sweeping Southern politics by appealing to our reactionary tendencies.
I believe wise political strategy relies on outreach and strong forward-looking programs. The only reason for a political party is governance. If a party wants to govern, it must accommodate diversity to win.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama unified the Democratic Party and built inclusive constituencies in order to govern the country.
Today, Republicans obsess over attracting “the right kind of people.” Witness the notion of a Republican in Name Only (RINO).
This has led to a series of litmus tests: guns (for it), legal abortion (against it), prayer in school (for it), immigration reform (against it), and so forth. The obsession produces a finer and finer vetting in quest for the “perfect candidate” to run under the Republican banner.
As political parties have proved with their tumultuous histories, there is no perfect candidate.
Today reactionaries, such as Dan Patrick, David Brat and Ted Cruz, shatter the Grand Old Party as it yields to demands for narrowly defined political purity. “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” attributed to Mark Twain.
Dan Freeman is retired and lives in Galveston.