Making the GOP Great Again

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 January 24, 2018|
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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.

Trends in Party Identification, 1939-2014.  Pew Research Center 

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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About the Author:

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).
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30 Comments

  1. Dansidea January 24, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    It’s hard to be a republican or a Democrat as neither party has shown any interest in what the majority of citizens want or need, it’s so bad that the Democrats woo immigrants (both legal and illegal) and low IQ Minority people ….. why ? Just to keep their company in power.

  2. Peter January 25, 2018 at 2:47 am

    There is another part of the curve that Olsen did not address-the fact that since GWB became President more and more people in the Republican Party are describing themselves as independents. I would put the blame for that squarely on Bush with his open borders rhetoric and messianic wars. I think the rank and file believe that the Republican Party leadership does not speak for them.

    • E. +Goldstein January 25, 2018 at 6:30 am

      It goes back to GHWB when he rejected Reagan’s legacy.The Establishment has always wanted to be Democrat lite and rejected conservatism every time. If they can do it, they will return to a Romney type and put both the GOP and the US back on the path to irrelevancy. The GOPe is part of the swamp.

    • John Moore January 26, 2018 at 7:31 pm

      Trump is straightening that out pretty quickly.

  3. kentramsay January 25, 2018 at 6:08 am

    The country, according to the lines, has always wanted what the Democrats are selling. Yet Ronald Reagan won landslide victories twice. And Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America swept all the blue liners out of office in 1994 defeating incumbent powerful Democrat House and Senate members, one of the hardest feats to accomplish. How did this happen when the blue line shows way more Democrats? It happened by making compelling conservative arguments and taking on the leftist media without fear. It did not happen by trying to be like Democrats.

  4. RAM500 January 25, 2018 at 7:40 am

    How would the result have changed if Republicans in office had kept their campaign promises?

    • Brian B January 25, 2018 at 2:59 pm

      Or even meant them in the first place.

      • chris schmidt January 26, 2018 at 3:16 pm

        Or even remembered what they were five minutes after spouting them.

        • Micha_Elyi January 26, 2018 at 5:39 pm

          How is Trump doing on his promises to deport all the illegals and to deport all the Muslims? Just askin’.

  5. hamburgertoday2017 January 25, 2018 at 9:42 am

    Here’s what I see: The only upward trendline is for independents. However, no third party — one that one could assume ‘independents’ would support — has won an election in the entire time covered by the chart. Essentially, the US is a ‘two party’ electoral environment and independents have to ‘find’ policies in either party to convince them to vote for a party representative. The charts shows that party affiliation as a whole has declined. This problem is not unique to political parties. Decline in party affiliation coincides with theoverall historical trend of a decline in participation in voluntary organizations (See Murray’s ‘Bowling Alone’). The reality is that both political parties have been ‘selling’ ideas that do no draw the allegiance of independents sufficient enough to garner long-term allegiance. This coincides with the general impression that political consultants give that most elections are decided by narrow margins and the margin of victory is provided by independents. Find out what independents want (or are willing to live with) and you win elections. Like Trump.

    • Micha_Elyi January 26, 2018 at 5:39 pm

      “Independents” is another word for ‘the people with no skin in the game’.

      • hamburgertoday2017 January 26, 2018 at 9:11 pm

        No, it is not.

      • hamburgertoday2017 January 27, 2018 at 8:04 am

        I disagree. Independents have ‘skin in the game’ as citizens and as partisans of particular policies. Independents are simply not partisans of a particular party. To me, this is just being an ‘American’ with an interest in particular policies, versus a ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ who, in theory if not always in practice, support a particular platform.

  6. ADM64 January 25, 2018 at 10:47 am

    Reagan caught the country at a time when the failing of the progressive vision of government were overwhelming, and more importantly he tried to CONNECT THE DOTS. He did so imperfectly because people still think – and Mr. Olsen has argued on multiple occasions – that you can somehow have the New Deal without having the Great Society and all the rest that the former enabled. Republicans have done a poor job of showing people that all the things they dislike are in fact the result of government, in part because they lack the temperament or philosophical convictions, and in part because they’re scared of being out of power. Reagan could point to Goldwater’s predictions if he wanted to. He could, on occasion and correctly note that fascism was the basis of the New Deal. Until we have both a message and an argument with the left that can show people how policies sold as helping them produce the opposite, the gap won’t close.

  7. BiDiOne January 25, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    Let me guess, the Child Tax Credit? No thank you.

  8. chris schmidt January 26, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Every day most people go about trying to change some things in their lives. They want to change their status, their income, their options. We embrace change.

    The conservative movement has never quite figured out how to embrace change as a political movement.

    Perhaps Trump’s notion of Make America Great Again is a move in the right direction. People will embrace ideas that are forward thing, positive, and embracing of success. Americans like the notion of competition. Tie that to the political message and it’s a winner.

    Sad that most of our political class is too out to lunch to see the big picture.

    • Micha_Elyi January 26, 2018 at 5:37 pm

      Slogans such as “Make America Great Again” are just talk.
      Talk is cheap. Show me all the voters you brought to the polls.

      Trump failed to win a majority of the popular vote. He didn’t even come within 100,000 votes of a plurality. This failure of Trump’s fan base to deliver votes is the top reason for Trump’s inability to rally Congress to his agenda the way Reagan could. It’s gotta burn Trump’s fan base that without the elitist Electoral College, Trump would not be President.

      • chris schmidt January 26, 2018 at 7:07 pm

        Well, there is the fact that he is now the President. And that his team delivered enough votes, at far, far lower cost against a legacy media onslaught that was/is overwhelmingly pro Hillary. Yeah, I know the media delivered him his primary victory but that was the only part of the Dems plan that went right. And he’s governing surprisingly well given the amazingly persistent hostility from that same Dem press.

        Pretty damn funny all in all.

        Still, in terms of execution. A fantastically pro growth tax package coupled with a dergegulatory push that just happens to coincide with energy production scaling that is already seeing massive levels of capex spending for business expansion here in the USA is looking like the most promising set of events in my lifetime.

        Trump is helping the political class see the world in a brand new way. I’m enjoying the heck out of all of it.

  9. Severn January 26, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    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.

    I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the Republican party leadership and so-called “conservative movement” desire to preserve America, and a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Their desperate desire to go along with the lefts racist scheme to transform this into a minority-white country is the most notable example, but far from the only one.

  10. Dantes January 26, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    Not going to happen as long as the keep lying to us. Repeal Obamacare. No DACA amnesty. No Chain Migration. No birthwright citizenship. No lottery Visa. And build the wall. Now.

    They we’ll talk.

    • Micha_Elyi January 26, 2018 at 5:29 pm

      Talk is cheap. What do you do besides talk belly-ache?

      Hey, I told you Trumpists that he wasn’t what you thought he was. He’s ready to sell you out on amnesty for the DACA Daqueños and you’re still licking his hands. Hah ha.

  11. Reformed Trombonist January 26, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    > “The Republican Party, the party that, however imperfectly, has been resisting the movement away from traditional American principles, is always in second place.”

    > “…however imperfectly…”

    My nomination for understatement of the century.

    It’s like saying, “Marshal Petain, the leader that, however imperfectly, had been fighting for French freedom, was always in second place.”

  12. Severn January 26, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    The fact that Olsen makes no mention of the Uniparty in this article just shows that the pundit class remains doggedly out of touch with reality. The evidence is overwhelming that the the people at the top of the Republican party (excepting Trump) view the Democrats far more favorably than they do their own voters. They have not failed to defeat the left in spite of their best efforts to do so, they have failed to defeat the left because they desire the left to win.

    See e.g their frantic efforts to hand the Alabama Senate seat to the Democrats for just the latest in a long, long, long line of examples of their favoring the left over the right.

  13. HA January 26, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    The GOP will always be second place to the Santa Claus party.

  14. Micha_Elyi January 26, 2018 at 5:25 pm

    I’m suspicious of Henry Olsen, who labels Republicans red. Red is the historic color of socialism. Britain’s Labour Party flies red banners, so do the German Social Democrats (SPD). Why help the Democrat Party of Pelosi and Schumer run away from their party’s natural color?

  15. John Moore January 26, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    I suspect that a lot of independents vote mostly Republican, but just don’t want to admit that they do so. I know some of these.

  16. AJ Scott January 26, 2018 at 8:37 pm

    Wow, that has to be the worst political analysis since, well, forever.

  17. Michelle Teller January 27, 2018 at 3:00 am

    1. Trust in Trump
    2. TRUST IN TRUMP
    3. Ivanka will be first Gold Lion party President of USA

  18. BCML January 27, 2018 at 7:26 am

    The GOP is doomed. They nominated a barbarian who lost by 3 million but won by an electoral college fluke. Won’t happen again. Their negligent inactivity while Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his psychological unfitness will earn them oblivion.

  19. Bruno_Behrend January 28, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    I can’t prove this with out much deeper survey analysis, but the first thing I saw in the graph is that the PC / SJW / Ultra progressive pop culture succeeded in getting people un-identify as GOP, but didn’t make them change the way they vote.

    The nation is on the border between center-right and center-left, and seemed to be trending center left until Trump. Trump could be the unconventional candidate that forced a reversion to America’s center-right mean. That is just as good a theory as the idea that America is moving sharply left.

    It just doesn’t seem to be.

Comments are closed.