The Republican Party was formerly the party of thoughtful intellectuals like Lincoln (who loved to cite the ancient classic of geometry, Euclid’s Elements, in his speeches), Teddy Roosevelt (Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard), Hoover (who translated the Renaissance work of metallurgy De Re Metallica out of Latin), Eisenhower (graduate of West Point, war hero, and President of Columbia University), Nixon (who hired Harvard professor Henry Kissinger as his National Security Advisor, and took the courageous and strategically brilliant step of renormalizing relations with mainland China), and George H.W. Bush (also Phi Beta Kappa at Yale). Now it is the party of Rubio (“We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers“), Cruz (“We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate“), and of course Trump (“You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass“).

What went wrong with the GOP? And what surprising implications does this have for the future of the Democratic party?

I think Trump et al. are the unfortunate outcome of the GOP’s “Southern Strategy,” which was strategically clever in the short term but turned out tragically for the party. For almost a century after the Civil War, the former Confederate States were “the Solid South” of the Democratic party, largely because Lincoln was a Republican. (African-Americans were also largely Republican voters during this time, at least when they were allowed to vote: Jim Crow Laws and physical intimidation disenfranchised many African-American voters in the South.) For almost a century after Reconstruction, the Democratic party had a history of very ugly racism. Whether one agrees with the Princeton students who are pushing to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from buildings and facilities, the undeniable fact is that as President he openly supported segregation.

The early Democratic party’s racism was combined with anti-intellectualism. William Jennings Bryan was the (unsuccessful) Democratic candidate for President three times, and later became Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. Bryan famously opposed evolutionary theory, taking the stand for the prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial, where he was skewered by Clarence Darrow. In addition, Bryan supported openly racist political candidates, and, like Trump, earned the strong support of white supremacist groups like the KKK.

Cracks began to show in the Solid South, though, as the mainstream Democratic party gradually adopted a more progressive attitude on race. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was no more progressive on race than were earlier Democrats, but his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was.  She repeatedly tried to get FDR to support an anti-lynching bill in Congress, but he declined for fear of alienating Southern senators. Eleanor also resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow Marian Anderson, an African-American singer, to perform in one of their halls.  (My daughter is entitled to membership in the DAR through her mother’s side. She has made quite clear that, like Eleanor Roosevelt, she has no interest in being associated with the DAR. However, when she annoys me, I sometimes threaten to sign her up behind her back.)

Vice President Harry Truman succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of FDR in 1945, and began to lead the Democratic party in a new direction on racial issues. In 1948, he ordered that the US military be desegregated. (This was as controversial at the time as repealing the ban on gays in the military would later be.) That same year, the Democratic National Convention nominated Truman as their Presidential candidate, on a platform that included a call for greater civil rights. Thirty-five Southern delegates to the convention walked out in protest, and the “Dixiecrats” were born: they nominated Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for President on a platform of segregationism and states’ rights.

Although no one expected Thurmond to win the Presidency, the loss of support from these former Democrats seemed to doom Truman’s candidacy. However, in the end, the Dixiecrats only carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and Truman eked out a surprise victory against Republican Governor Thomas Dewey. The Dixiecrats rejoined the Democratic party (at least temporarily).

Strom Thurmond is such an interesting part of the story that he deserves a paragraph of his own.  Governor Thurmond became a Democratic Senator, but switched to the Republican Party in protest against the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protected the rights of African-Americans to vote and have equal access to schools. After Thurmond’s retirement, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott said, “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” (Lott apologized for his comments, but resigned his post as Senate Republican Leader a few weeks later.) After Thurmond passed away, it became known that, at the age of 20, he had fathered a daughter with an underage African-American housekeeper who worked for his family, and had paid his illegitimate daughter’s college tuition.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. The only states Goldwater won were Arizona (his home state) and several former Confederate states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina. (Notice that four of these are states that Thurmond won in 1948.) The only bright side for the GOP was that this was the first time a Republican had won any states in the deep South since reconstruction. Many white voters in 1968 supported Goldwater because they were angry about the new direction the Democratic party was taking on racial issues.

By 1968, President Johnson was increasingly unpopular because of the escalation of US involvement in the Vietnam War, so he decided not to run for re-election. The Democratic National Convention nominated Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. This alienated many Democratic voters, who preferred anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. In addition, voters who disliked Johnson because of his passage of legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were sure to also dislike Humphrey, who had authored the plank on civil rights in the 1948 Democratic National Convention.

In a replay of what happened to the Democratic party in 1948, former Democratic Governor of Alabama George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate, on a pro-segregation ticket. (In one of the more bizarre footnotes to American political history, Wallace apparently considered Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Friend Chicken, to be his Vice-Presidential running mate, before settling on retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay. As it turns out, Colonel Sanders might have been a better choice. In his first address to the press after being added to the ticket, LeMay stated: “We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons. . . . I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons.” It probably would have been more Presidential to say, “States’ rights are ‘finger-licking good!'”) On an openly segregationist platform, Wallace ended up getting almost 10 million votes in an election in which Nixon beat Humphrey by a little over 500,000 votes, and won five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi.

Although his name is anathema in liberal circles to this day, Nixon was an intellectual and a serious political thinker. He saw clearly from the elections of 1948 and 1968 that Democratic voters in the South were dissatisfied with their party, and could be effectively wooed by Republicans. However, even he did not foresee the long-term consequences of this Southern Strategy. To keep the formerly Democratic voters they had won over, the GOP has increasingly adopted rhetoric to please them. In every Presidential election since 1980, the Republican candidate has won in the Bible Belt states of Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. But this has come at the cost that successful GOP candidates cannot offend conservative Christians.

When Scott Walker was still in the running for the Republican nomination and visited the UK, he was ridiculed by the British press for evading a question about whether he believed in evolutionary theory. The BBC interviewer pressed Walker on the topic, stating, “Any British politician, right- or left-wing, would laugh and say, ‘Yes, of course evolution is true.’” Among the remaining GOP candidates, Cruz also evades questions about his views on evolution. However, even though “the son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity” (Ezekiel 18:20), it is difficult not to quote Cruz’s father on this topic: “Communism and evolution go hand and hand. Evolution is one of the strongest tools of Marxism because if they can convince you that you came from a monkey, it’s much easier to convince you that God does not exist.” Kasich, when he was running for governor in 2010, suggested that evolution and “creation science” should both be taught in school classrooms.

Interestingly, I cannot find any source for Donald Trump’s views on evolution. There is a widely circulated statement on the topic that appears to be by Trump, but if you read it carefully you will see that it states explicitly, “This is satire.” However, among white, Republican, evangelical voters, Trump is supported by 37%, compared to 20% for Cruz, and 10% for Rubio. In many ways, this is surprising. Trump has said that the Bible is one of his two most favorite books (the second being his Art of the Deal). However, he demonstrated in front of a huge crowd of Christians at Liberty University that he did not even know how to pronounce the name of one of the most-quoted books of the Bible. When asked to name his favorite Bible verse, he demurred, “I don’t want to get into specifics.” (Lest I be accused of being a hypocrite, my own favorite Bible verse is Micah 6:8.) Apparently sensing that his response appeared disingenuous, Trump stated in a later interview that one of his favorite Bible verses was the line “never bend to envy” from Proverbs. Unfortunately, this phrase does not actually occur in the Bible.

The GOP has won over not only Southern evangelicals but has also made a deal with the Devil to keep the sort of voters who supported Thurmond in 1948 or Wallace in 1968Consider the following statistics: of Republican voters in South Carolina, 10% believe that whites are a superior race, while 11% are “undecided.” The percentages go up among Trump supporters, 31% of whom either believe that whites are superior or are undecided. Thirty-eight percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina wish the South had won the Civil War. The support of open racists for Trump is just a manifestation of a political strategy that has been in place for a long time. In an infamous but frank interview, Reagan political strategist and later Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater admitted that the GOP had consciously decided to use coded language to appeal to racist voters:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N******, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. . . . It is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

If we consider the preceding facts about religion and race, we can see that the contemporary GOP faces a problem that stretches far beyond the 2016 election. The GOP has been relying heavily on evangelical white voters in former Confederate states. However, the majority of Americans ceased to be Protestants in 2012, and most Millennials are very turned off by the stance of evangelicals on a variety of issues, including gay marriage. Furthermore, whites will be a minority in the US by 2044. This is a demographic time bomb for the GOP. Trump is just a symptom of a deeper, more systematic problem that the GOP faces.

So are we transitioning from a two-party system to a one-and-a-half party system? Perhaps in the short run. But I believe that in the long run constituencies will realign to produce two parties (much like the original GOP arose after the disintegration of the Whig Party). Contemporary Republicans have been taught that Obama and the Clintons are Communists on domestic policy, and traitorous in the war on terror. However, the fact is that the domestic policies of Obama and the Clintons would put them squarely in the moderate, Nelson-Rockefeller wing of the GOP from the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, Obama and his former Secretary of State have been quite hawkish in their foreign policies. Consequently, I believe that in the not-too-distant future the Democratic party will become the home to many young Republicans and people who would have become Republicans, because it will combine a hawkish but realistic stance on national defense, moderate economic policy, and progressive social policies (disdain for racism, support for gay marriage, and pro-choice laws).

But this will not mean the end of a political opposition, because the Democratic party is undergoing its own identity crisis. It increasingly seems mathematically impossible for Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. However, he has very strong appeal among young voters, many of whom favor a defensive rather than an offensive military posture, more spending on infrastructure and education, and more progressive income redistribution via taxes. Currently, these voters will largely support the mainstream Democratic candidate in the general election, because they are terrified of a win by Trump, and almost as frightened of a win by Cruz or Rubio.

However, if the Republican coalition fragments and becomes politically inert, the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will have no reason to vote for candidates who don’t represent many of their most strongly held values. I predict that, if the Republican party is actually crippled by the Trump candidacy, the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will break off from the moderate Clintonian wing, forming a third party. Since Sanders draws support among the upcoming generation of voters, it may be that this party will gradually increase in strength and pose a genuine threat to Democratic dominance.

Pundits are never right about the future, so I presumably am wrong about where the Democratic and Republican parties are going. But there is no serious doubt about where the parties have been, or where they are now. The Democratic party of around 1900 has become the GOP of today. The party of Lincoln has become the party of William Jennings Bryan, in which anti-intellectual, xenophobic, racist populism is devouring all thoughtful policy and principles.


Featured image courtesy of Library of Congress.


About The Author

Avatar photo

Bryan W. Van Norden is a leading expert on Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. He is the author, editor, or translator of nine books on Chinese and comparative philosophy, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (2011), Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century (2014, with Justin Tiwald), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed., 2005, with P.J. Ivanhoe), and most recently Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (2017). Van Norden lives in Singapore, where he is currently Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor at Yale-NUS College. He is also Chair Professor in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy at Wuhan University (PRC) and James Monroe Taylor Chair in Philosophy at Vassar College (USA). A recipient of Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mellon fellowships, Van Norden has been honored as one of The Best 300 Professors in the US by The Princeton Review. His hobbies are poker (he has played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas) and video games.