The thesis of both American Greatness and the Trump Presidency is that we can recover our country and make it great again through a restoration of politics. To do that, experience has shown that a significant majority of Americans must first come together in a political party that has some core principles, and then must keep that party united under challenge to win a series of elections contested around those principles.
That, it turns out, is going to be a serious challenge for those committed to restoring America’s greatness.
The chart below shows why. It depicts American partisan identification from 1939 to 2014. The blue line represents the share of people who say they are Democrats; the red line the share who say they are Republicans; and the gold line is for the share who say they are independents.
One thing jumps out to me whenever I view this picture: the red line is never on top. Seventy-five years with dramatic changes in personalities and challenges, and every single year the blue line is on top of the red line. The Republican Party, the party that, however imperfectly, has been resisting the movement away from traditional American principles, is always in second place.
Anyone who is serious about changing the direction of this country has also to be serious about changing the direction of this chart. So long as a plurality of Americans support the party that is committed to changing America—socially, economically, and culturally—significant political change to the contrary will remain impossible.
Republicans and the self-styled conservative movement have tried to do that for decades. Yet the chart does not lie. For all the times they won the presidency, for all the times they have held one or both houses of Congress, they have not changed the basic fact that more Americans are joining the team that wants to change America than the one that seeks to preserve it. That, and not supposed betrayals by Republican leaders or the array of moneyed and powerful interests, is why America always seems to be drifting to the left.
The keen eye will note, however, that the Democratic advantage has dropped significantly in recent decades. It’s not that Republicans have had no success, it’s that the degree of their success has been insufficient to reverse the course the country has been on since 1932. That is our challenge, to do what no one has done before us—to convince a clear plurality of Americans to embrace a renewal of our founding principles rather than their reinterpretation.
We can learn some lessons from this chart to help guide us in our deliberations. Let’s start by looking at the first opportunity Republicans had to reverse direction, the Eisenhower Administration. After the 1952 election, Republicans held control of the Presidency, the House, and the Senate for the first time since 1931. Theoretically, the party now had the power to set a new course; it possessed what Ike called in his memoir a “mandate for change”.
Eisenhower’s theory was that Americans would unite behind what he called “Modern Republicanism.” That approach accepted the reality of the larger government ushered in by the New Deal, but sought to limit its growth by making its expansion subject to fiscal constraint. Taxes would not be raised and deficits would not be countenanced. Government wouldn’t get smaller, but it wouldn’t get much larger too quickly either.
The result was not inspiring. The people who established what came to be known as conservative movement did so in opposition to this idea as it, in their view, sacrificed too much of our founding principles on the altar of public opinion. Liberals, on the other hand, thought it did too little. The nation needed more government spending, they held, to build schools and roads, extend social protections to include subsidized health insurance, and—eventually—to end poverty.
The gap between the blue and red lines widened dramatically during Ike’s eight years in office. In 1952, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nine percent. By 1961, when John F. Kennedy took power, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 23 percent. Moreover, a majority of Americans, 51 percent, said they were Democrats. Despite holding the levers of power, Ike’s Modern Republicanism lost the public debate decisively.
Conservatives argued this was because Ike’s approach turned off millions of Americans who wanted a clear and forthright defense of traditional American constitutionalism. They sought to give the country “a choice, not an echo,” and set out to take over the Republican Party. They succeeded in 1964 and nominated Arizona U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, a man whose best-selling book, Conscience of a Conservative, argued America needed to undo much of what it had done in the prior 30 years and return to its pre-New Deal way of life.
Goldwater was annihilated in the 1964 election. He received only 37 percent of the vote and lost nearly every state in the Union. If one looks at 1964 in the chart cited above, one finds the largest gap ever, 26 percent, between Democrats and the GOP. Eisenhower had failed to stem the liberal tide, but Goldwater had shaken up the ocean enough to make it a tsunami.
Democrats then began to squander their lead. They used their landslide victory to enact the Great Society and declared the War on Poverty. Within three years they had lost 9 percent of Americans, dropping to only 42 percent support. But the bulk of those people moved into the independent camp: Republican identification only moved up by two percent. Many people were looking for something that wasn’t old Republicanism but also wasn’t the new Democratic Party.
Republican President Richard Nixon tried to give that to them, but he also failed. Nixon never had a grand theory like Eisenhower. Instead, he tried to make a series of tactical moves that steered (or veered, depending on your viewpoint) between Right and Left. It succeeded for him personally—he won re-election in 1972 in a great landslide—but not for his party. Republicans never came close to winning either House of Congress during Nixon’s tenure and party identification barely budged during his administration. When he became embroiled in the Watergate scandal, GOP identification began to drop. When he resigned from office in disgrace in 1974, only 23 percent of Americans said they were Republicans the lowest level on record.
That did not change over the next few years.
Despite personal unpopularity, Democratic President Jimmy Carter did not cost his party much. Democrats in 1979 led Republicans by a 44-21 percent margin. The only political debate that seemed to matter was that between liberal and moderate Democrats as to the pace and degree of the changes they would enact.
Enter Ronald Reagan. Within two years Reagan had cut that lead to a mere 14 points. It widened as the nation sank into a deep recession, but when the economy started to recover so too did Republican identification. Reagan won his own smashing landslide re-election in 1984, but his victory redounded to his party’s benefit unlike those of Ike and Nixon. By 1985, the Democratic identification lead had shrunk to 2 percent, the smallest since before the Great Depression. Republican identification was 32 percent, the highest since 1957. And Democratic identification had dropped to 34 percent, the lowest on record.
The rest of the chart shows how Reagan’s gains solidified but were not expanded upon by his successors. Democratic identification has never exceeded 36 percent since the Gipper, but Republican identification has also not grown. That 1985 mark of 32 percent remains the GOP’s high-water mark, and Republican party support dropped throughout the Obama Administration.
Data so far indicate that Trump’s victory has not altered this trajectory. The last three Gallup polls of 2017 show GOP identification averaging about 25 percent, with Democratic backing dropping to about 30 percent. Nearly half of Americans do not consider themselves part of either major party, a record high.
These data show just how great Ronald Reagan was. He is the only President since FDR to dramatically change the nation’s partisan makeup during his time in office. Only Reagan persuaded millions of people to rethink their basic political orientation, to change their minds rather than simply change their votes. What did he do? How did he do it? Can we do that again? That will be the subject of my next column.
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