In the wave of horror following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his considerable political acumen to pass legislation including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and implementation of the War on Poverty.
These policies marked the high water mark of the progressive agenda begun by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Throughout Reconstruction, the Republican and Democratic parties fought for political control of Texas. The Democrats represented the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. They solidified control of Texas through white primaries, poll taxes and Jim Crow laws.
Curiously, after Reconstruction the Texas Democratic Party was both progressive and populist. The former was reflected in a profound opposition to banks and railroad monopolies. The latter contained significant elements of nativism and racism, manifested by a strong Ku Klux Klan presence. But it was less extreme than that found in other former Confederate states.
This tempering occurred partly because of Texas being a border state with a large native Mexican population. By 1890, the Democratic Party had overturned the last vestiges of Reconstruction and broken the back of the Republican Party.
Democratic Party dominance continued throughout the 20th century and didn’t begin to break until Bruce Alger defeated Wallace Savage in 1954. Then came dapper John Tower, another country club Republican.
Tower ran against Bill Blakely in a special election to replace Lyndon Johnson in the Senate. Tower won on a ticket that emphasized he would bring the two-party system to Texas and that the Democrats were liberals bent on destroying our way of life. The former appealed to progressive Democrats who may have sat out the election because of Blakely’s conservatism.
Richard Nixon saw the opportunity to crack the Democratic Party’s hold on the solid south. In the light of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the rise of black power, he emphasized “state’s rights” and “law and order.” By 1972, the strategy won every state in the south including Texas by more than 65 percent of the vote.
In 1978, Bill Clement capitalized on wide-spread dissatisfaction with President Jimmy Carter to upset John Hill in the governor’s race. Carter’s endorsement of Hill broke the support of the conservative Democrats, assuring the victory of the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction.
Things were clearly changing as the Republicans realized they could win by portraying Democrats as big government liberals. The populist wing had gradually become more and more disaffected with the possibility of improving their lot through federal intervention. Moreover, the southern strategy appealed to the more racist elements of the Democratic populists.
Ronald Reagan expanded the Republican appeal to Democratic populists by adding social conservatism and a genius for publicity. Being a spokesman for 20 Mule Team Borax paid big dividends. His political machine recruited from farms and suburbs alike.
By unifying the country club with the evangelists, he fractured the Democratic Party like a crushed pecan with its populist wing rushing to join the Republican red wave.