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The Southern Captivity of the GOP The GOP Today

In a geographic and cultural box, with political demography tilting against it, the Republican Party is an "obsolescent one," argues the author, a senior writer for the conservative Weekly Standard

by Christopher Caldwell

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.
  • Web-Only: Is the Party Over?
    Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, said that a house divided cannot stand. Does the same now apply to the Grand Old Party? Join The Atlantic's Jack Beatty and a panel of political insiders for an Atlantic Unbound Roundtable on the fate of the GOP.

    Discuss this article in The Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

    From the archives:

  • "America Right and Left," by Nicholas Lemann (April, 1998)
    Political intellectuals of both parties call for something more bracing than Bill Clinton's flabby syncretism -- and think we want it too.


  • "The Conservative 1960s," by Matthew Dallek (December, 1995)
    A review of Mary C. Brennan's Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP.


  • "The New Shape of American Politics," by William Schneider (January, 1987)
    "After six years in office Ronald Reagan has changed everything about American politics except ideology. Democrats and Republicans agree that Reagan has transformed the agenda, but in a peculiar way."


  • "The Myth of America's Turn to the Right," by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers (May, 1986)
    An argument, based on polling data, that the conservative shift in public policy during the Reagan years has not been matched by a shift in public opinion.


  • "The Democrats' Dilemma," by David Broder (March, 1974)
    Watergate haunts the opposition, and the Democrats have healed many of the wounds of '68 and '72, but what does the Democratic party really stand for? That very much remains to be seen, says one of the country's most respected political reporters.


  • "The Party's Over," by David Broder (March, 1972)
    "The alternative to making policy in the streets is to make it in the voting booth. But if that proposition is to be more than a cliché, there must be real choices presented at election time -- choices involving more than a selection between two sincere-sounding, photogenic graduates of some campaign consultant's academy of political and dramatic arts."


  • For more Atlantic articles about party politics see the Atlantic Unbound Politics Index.



    Related links:

  • The Interfaith Alliance
    "A diverse group [whose] members have come together for the purpose of standing up to the Christian Coalition and other radical right wing groups and individuals who wrap themselves in the language and symbolism of religious faith."


  • Republican Main Street
    The Web site of the Republican National Committee.


  • Hillsource
    The Web site of the House Republican Conference.


  • Conference Call
    The Web site of the Senate Republican Conference.


  • SpeakerNews
    The News Page of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.


  • The Heritage Foundation
    "The Heritage Foundation's World Wide Web site was created to spread the ideas of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense, the same ideas which caused a political revolution in the 1994 elections."



  • SHORTLY before the 1994 midterm elections, when House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich began talking about a coming Republican takeover of Congress and outlining plans for his speakership, David Dreyer, a White House aide, remarked, "He's done Lord Acton one better. He's corrupted by power he doesn't yet have." After Election Day it was Dreyer who had egg on his face. The Republicans did take over the House and the Senate, controlling the two for the first time since 1955 -- and by a broad enough margin that they seemed likely to hold both houses indefinitely. Everyone spoke of a "revolution" -- both politicians and the wider public, both those who favored and those who feared one. Pundits resurrected the decades-old metaphor of the political analyst Samuel Lubell, according to which America has essentially a one-and-a-half-party system. One party is the sun, illuminating all the planets. The other is the moon, giving off only reflected light. For the first time since before FDR's election, it looked as if Republicans were the sun and Democrats the moon.

    Today Dreyer and others who scoffed at a Republican ascendancy seem likely to have the last laugh. There has indeed been a movement to the right on some issues, but it has not translated into a partisan shift. A stunning mid-1997 ABC/Washington Post poll, asking voters "Which party do you trust more to ...," showed the Democrats besting the Republicans on practically all issues, including such Republican staples as taxes, crime, and budget balancing.

    Trust more to ... Democrats Republicans
    Improve education 51% 30%
    Help middle class 51% 30%
    Handle economy 43% 39%
    Hold down taxes 41% 38%
    Balance budget 39% 36%
    Handle crime 38% 34%
    Handle foreign affairs 38% 40%
    Reform campaign finance 34% 31%
    Maintain strong defense 32% 50%

    Suddenly it looked as if either the 1994 election was a fluke or the 104th Congress had done something dramatically wrong. The Republicans have narrowed the gap in party registration until they're only four percentage points behind the Democrats (39-35), but the Democrats still lead on the issues. The Republicans hold a majority in Congress, but that Congress has been trumped by a Democratic President on every major policy initiative of the past three years. And when a midwinter sex scandal initially sees the President's job-approval ratings rising to about 70 percent, the Republicans have cause for worry. There is now no sense in which they are the sun of American politics. Far from it: they are a majority giving rise to second thoughts among those who made them one.

    This is something the Republicans seem not to realize. Their party was thrashed in the 1996 national elections. In presidential politics they were stuck on the Goldwater-McGovern-Mondale landslide-loser plateau of 40 percent, as they had been in 1992. They lost nine seats in Congress. Yet the party is approaching the 1998 election as if it won the last time out. Republicans of all persuasions view their party's problems as temporary, remediable through either ideological fine-tuning or image buffing and spin. Certain Republicans -- particularly cosmopolitan governors on the East and West Coasts, such as Christine Todd Whitman, of New Jersey, and Pete Wilson, of California -- claim that the party has moved too far to the right, and that its stances on social issues, notably abortion, are driving away centrist voters. Others -- particularly those at Christian organizations, such as Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council, and James Dobson, of Focus on the Family -- say it's too far left, lacking the guts to assert itself on family dissolution and related family-values issues on which the public is in its corner. Still others -- among them such Class of '94 congressional firebrands as Steve Largent, of Oklahoma; Linda Smith, of Washington; and Mark Neumann, of Wisconsin -- say that the party has ignored centrist, Reform Party-style outrage and made itself a campaign-finance-swilling incumbency-protection machine. Another line of thinking is that the party has merely been victimized by accidents of personality: the mysterious ability of Newt Gingrich to generate loathing and of Bill Clinton to generate support.

    Many, if not most, Republicans view the 1994 election as a mandate stolen from them by accidents of leadership and the collusion of the press and other "elite" institutions. In this reading Bill Clinton lifted "their" issues by mouthing conservative positions on the budget and welfare reform, and the credulous media have abetted Clinton's public-relations war of "micro-initiatives" such as school uniforms, the V-chip, portable phones for neighborhood-watch groups, and various small education proposals.

    Priveleged conservative Republican problems go deeper than that, however. The party faces a crisis of confidence that has many symptoms -- repudiation in the most sophisticated parts of the country, widespread distrust of the Republican leadership, an inability to speak coherently on issues. All of them grow out of the same root cause: a vain search to rediscover the formula that made that unformulaic President, Ronald Reagan, so broadly appealing -- even beloved. Congressional Republicans triumphed decisively in 1994 on such Reaganite issues as free trade, welfare reform, and shrinking the government. But thanks to a deficit-dissolving economy and a dwindling memory of the Cold War, those issues were of declining importance even then, and they have given way to a bipartisan consensus. "Consensus," of course, is only another way of describing the issues that have been taken off the table. What remains for the party to talk about? On first thought, not much. The Republican strategist Ed Gillespie says, "We're like the dog that caught the bus."

    Now that there is no longer any force on the political landscape to challenge their general principles, the Republicans are clinging to power, even as they grow confused about what exactly they are supposed to do with it. They are infuriating voters by blaming them at every turn for the party's failure to win their hearts. In other words, the Republicans are looking more and more like the Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s, and less and less like the party that overthrew them.

    Stolen Bases

    SINCE the 1960s Republican gains at the national level have been built on two trends. One is regional -- the capture of more and more southern seats. The other is sociological -- the tendency of suburbanites to vote Republican. The party's 1994 majority came thanks to a gain of nineteen seats in the South. In 1996 Republicans picked up another six seats in the Old Confederacy. But that only makes their repudiation in the rest of the country the more dramatic. The party has been all but obliterated in its historical bastion of New England, where it now holds just four of twenty-three congressional seats. The Democrats, in fact, dominate virtually the entire Northeast. The Republicans lost seats in 1996 all over the upper Midwest -- Michigan, Wisconsin (two seats), Iowa, and Ohio (two seats). Fatally, they lost seats in all the states on the West Coast. Their justifiable optimism about the South aside, in 1996 it became clear that the Democratic Party was acquiring regional strongholds of equal or greater strength.

    Voting demographics As Walter Dean Burnham, a political scientist at the University of Texas, has noted, the 1996 elections almost diametrically oppose those of 1896. (See maps below.) Anyone who is today middle-aged or older was born in a country with a solidly Democratic South and a predominantly Republican Midwest and Northeast, and probably will die in a country in which the Republicans hold the Old Confederacy and the Democrats dominate from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. In effect, the two parties have spent the twentieth century swapping regional power bases.

    Since it is the southern and mountain states -- the Republican base -- that are adding voters, congressional seats, and electoral votes, this constituency-trading was supposed to be all gravy for the Republicans. It isn't. The bad news for the party in 1996 was not so much regional as sociological. In the suburbs -- home to 40 percent of voters, by conservative estimates -- Clinton ran even with Bob Dole. Clinton won among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in 1996 and 1992, reversing Reagan and Bush victories among that cohort in 1984 and 1988, and he also won among Catholics, who had voted Republican in the three previous elections. (In Congress the Republicans won the Catholic vote for the first time ever in 1994; one election later they were routed, by 53 to 45 percent.)

    And the Republicans lost heavily among Hispanics, America's fastest-growing voting bloc, who added 1.5 million voters from 1992 to 1996, and will probably add as many again by the next presidential election. This alarming result confounded an earlier Republican optimism. Democrats who had arrogantly assumed that standard-issue minority politics would easily pull Hispanics into the party fold were proved wrong throughout the 1980s. Hispanic voters turned out to be disproportionately entrepreneurial and disproportionately receptive to Republican family-values rhetoric, and gave the party roughly a third of their votes in the three presidential elections from 1980 to 1988. Leaving aside Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, who do fit the Democrats' minority paradigm, the Republicans were doing better with the Hispanic vote than might be expected.

    But the Republicans in the 104th Congress tried to shore up their Texas and California right wings with hostile rhetoric on immigration. They passed legislation that sought to deprive not just illegal but also legal immigrants of federal benefits. (Newt Gingrich and other Republicans backpedaled in 1997, reversing some of the measures, but the damage was done.) And California's Proposition 187, supported by Republican Governor Pete Wilson and aimed at denying benefits to illegal immigrants, brought angry Hispanics to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Clinton took 72 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, including 81 percent in Arizona and 75 percent in California; he took 78 percent of Hispanics under thirty. He nearly split the Hispanic vote even in Florida, where 97 percent of the Cuban population voted for Reagan in 1984.

    The hardening loyalty of Hispanics is a catastrophe for the Republicans' presidential prospects. According to census projections, by 2025 the country's two most populous states, California and Texas, will be 43 and 38 percent Hispanic respectively. And earlier in the decade California was hemorrhaging Republicans anyway, owing to what could be called the Fuhrman effect: a large secondary migration of older, middle-class whites who appear to have lost patience with the multiracial, multicultural society already in evidence in the state, and have moved to Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, and other more solidly Republican states of the intermountain West.

    These in- and out-migrations, coupled with the growth of lifestyle liberalism and federal Democrats' careful nurturing of West Coast interests, could make California close to unwinnable for Republicans. That would put the White House, too, out of reach for a long time. The only Democrat ever to win California and lose the presidency, after all, was Winfield Hancock -- who was defeated by James Garfield in 1880, when the state had six electoral votes.

    The Finkelstein Box

    THESE sociological and geographic shifts are part of a broad change in party allegiance. No one has been more astute in outlining its nature than the Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein, who set the pattern for Republican triumphs in the 1980s by running aggressive, ideological campaigns that went after Democratic candidates for their uncommonsensical "liberalism" -- a word that was repeated almost hypnotically in the ads and speeches he wrote. Of late Finkelstein has been criticized by some of his candidates outside the Northeast, largely for having the temerity to suggest that this message must be broadened now that liberals are drubbing Republicans on a range of new issues. These are issues on which the party has historically been silent -- education, the environment, and health care, for example. The absence of a Republican voice on them helps to explain why the party has scraped up only about 40 percent of the vote for two presidential elections running.

    The Finkelstein Box Finkelstein uses a simple graphic device to show his Republican candidates, geographically, just how differentiated the country is. Put a pen point on Washington, D.C., and draw your way across a map of the continental United States, edging up between Iowa and Nebraska, running through the Dakotas and Montana, dropping down through Washington and Oregon and along the western border of Nevada into California, and then heading back east, with the tips of Texas and Florida south of the line. The box that results leaves you with two different political countries. (See map.) The Finkelstein Box refutes a long-standing axiom among political consultants: that as people prosper and grow more educated and cosmopolitan, they become more likely to be Republicans. In states that have their largest population centers outside the box, no Republican senatorial candidate got a majority in the last election. Inside the box no Democrat got a majority except Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana (and that barely). Although most Republican governors outside the box are pro-choice, almost every single Republican governor inside the box is pro-life.

    The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South and the mountains. The southernness of its congressional leaders -- Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Georgia; House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, of Texas; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, of Mississippi; Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, of Oklahoma -- only heightens the identification. There is a big problem with having a southern, as opposed to a midwestern or a California, base. Southern interests diverge from those of the rest of the country, and the southern presence in the Republican Party has passed a "tipping point," at which it began to alienate voters from other regions.

    As southern control over the Republican agenda grows, the party alienates even conservative voters in other regions. The prevalence of right-to-work laws in southern states may be depriving Republicans of the socially conservative midwestern trade unionists whom they managed to split in the Reagan years, and sending Reagan Democrats back to their ancestral party in the process. Anti-government sentiment makes little sense in New England, where government, as even those who hate it will concede, is neither remote nor unresponsive.

    The most profound clash between the South and everyone else, of course, is a cultural one. It arises from the southern tradition of putting values -- particularly Christian values -- at the center of politics. This is not the same as saying that the Republican Party is "too far right"; Americans consistently tell pollsters that they are conservative on values issues. It is, rather, that the Republicans have narrowly defined "values" as the folkways of one regional subculture, and have urged their imposition on the rest of the country. Again, the nonsoutherners who object to this style of politics may be just as conservative as those who practice it. But they are put off to see that "traditional" values are now defined by the majority party as the values of the U-Haul-renting denizens of two-year-old churches and three-year-old shopping malls.

    Southerners now wag the Republican dog. How did the party let that happen?


    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

    Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer for The Weekly Standard and also writes a weekly Washington column for the New York Press. His articles have appeared in The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, George, and many other publications.

    Illustrations by J. C. Suarès

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; The Southern Captivity of the GOP; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 55 - 72.

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