In two prior columns, I showed that the Republican Party has been America’s second-place party since the 1930s and that Ronald Reagan was the only GOP president who had significantly narrowed the Democratic Party’s lead. Is Donald Trump the man to lead the party, and by extension those who want to reverse the progressive course America has long been on, out of its 80-plus year wilderness? The answer will dismay both his critics and his fans: we just don’t know yet.
This doesn’t mean he or the GOP can’t win elections. Clearly, Trump won in 2016 despite having only a 38 percent favorability rating on election day, according to the exit polls. Republicans have also won elections up and down the ballot for over seventy years despite their partisan disadvantage. Being second place doesn’t mean a party cannot win.
It does mean, however, that that party is always fighting on turf owned by their opponents. Republicans must always show they conform to certain progressive verities in order to be competitive, and in office they often must advance some progressive goals even if, in their hearts, they don’t want to. That is the state of affairs that Republicans want to reverse. You will know progressives are losing when they have to agree with “conservative” priorities in order to gain office.
Elections are about two things: “rallying” and “persuading.” Candidates “rally” voters when they show they share their views and priorities. A clever candidate knows how to do this for many groups simultaneously. Attempting to create a coalition that can win elections when speaking to only a couple of groups would make one the leader of an intense, but powerless, minority. Virtually all elections are at bottom about rallying, bringing people out to the polls by echoing concerns they already have.
“Persuading,” by contrast, means making common cause with people who don’t already share values common to the candidate’s normal groups of supporters. A persuader can show how a group of voters have interests or views they have not previously prioritized, or which they have sublimated under a previous set of attachments or goals. The persuader appeals to these deeper values, brings them to the forefront, and makes those this group’s new primary voting touchstone.
Successful mass persuasion occurs very rarely in American politics. Political scientists have identified what they label “realigning” elections, brief periods when a new voting coalition emerges that then reforms regularly in subsequent elections to move the country in its direction over time. That has happened only five or six times in our entire history. Looking at a few of those efforts can help us to understand what one must do to accomplish this seemingly herculean task.
Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our greatest persuader. The Republican Party, which formed in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854, initially was a rallying party of people who deeply opposed slavery expansion. It brought many former Whigs and a few former Democrats to together, but it was a minority party. It won only a third of the national vote, almost all of it concentrated in the farnorth and northeast. The party could rally true believers, but it needed to expand if it wanted to win.
Lincoln came to national prominence as a result of his campaign against Democratic Party leader (and Kansas-Nebraska Act author) Senator Stephen Douglas. Lincoln knew that he needed to add voters who had backed the American/Know Nothing/Whig Party candidate in 1856, former President Millard Fillmore. Those voters prioritized keeping the Union together over fighting slavery. Lincoln’s—and the Republicans’—task was to bring a clear majority of those voters in Northern states over to their cause without diminishing the support of core rank-and-file Republicans. They had to be both anti-slavery expansion and pro-Union. This meant they would be directly opposed to such staunch abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper The Liberator had boldly proclaimed “No Union With Slaveholders.”
Lincoln accomplished this task by appealing to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as containing guiding principles. The Declaration boldly declared the principle of human equality, that all men regardless of skin color had natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution, however, recognized the existence of black slavery in the South, denying these people their rights. Even so, Lincoln argued that the Constitution was the document that allowed for the orderly determination of the application of the Declaration’s principles and would apply within the United States. Thus, where the Constitution did not recognize an exception to the Declaration’s principles—which was the case in the territories that had not yet become states—one could and must bar slavery expansion. But within those states whose practice of slavery was already established, freedom could only come through Constitutional means, which meant it could come only with those states’ consent whether internally through state action or through a national system of compensation that those states consented to.
Lincoln’s formulation did the trick. By 1860, he won nearly 40 percent of the vote, extending Republican power into areas of the free states that had rejected the party just four years prior. The party Lincoln created stayed intact for over thirty years, producing very similar majorities into the 1890s.
The Age of Roosevelt
The next great persuader, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, performed a similar feat. Democrats had been the minority party for over seventy years after Lincoln, but the Great Depression meant millions of out of work laborers and farmers—people who largely were immigrants or descended from immigrants and had arrived after the Civil War—felt betrayed by a Republican Party that was seemingly incapable of restoring prosperity.
Roosevelt’s party base, however, was still the descendants of those who supported the Southern cause in the Civil War. They remained supporters of a smaller, restricted federal government which respected traditional American norms. These voters were also largely Protestant and British-descended and were culturally suspicious of the Catholic and Jewish Northerners who came from a variety of non-British backgrounds.
FDR handled his task with aplomb. Like Lincoln, he drew sustenance by interpreting American history. In speeches like his Commonwealth Club address, Roosevelt argued that America had instituted a regime of liberty for all. But the precise distribution of powers was merely a means towards that end, and when those means no longer sufficed to create a polity where all people could exercise genuine liberty—which included in his telling a sufficient income and security in that income—then the means must be altered to secure the end.
In speech after speech, FDR made the case that his New Deal was, in fact, the modern fulfillment of traditional American aspirations. And just as Lincoln quoted the Democratic Party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, in support of his politics, so too did FDR cite both Jefferson and Lincoln in support of his effort to build a new Democratic majority. FDR’s coalition not only won the election of 1932, it inaugurated the modern age of American politics in which we still live.
How Trump Could Build a New Majority
To a lesser degree, Reagan’s persuasive success followed these historic models. The Gipper’s targets were unhappy Democrats who thought the party no longer stood for their values. Reagan frequently invoked FDR and his successor Harry Truman, recalling their names and contrasting their memories with the proposals emanating from the current Democratic party. Indeed, Reagan cited or quoted Roosevelt more times than he even mentioned the word “Republican” in either of his two acceptance speeches to the Republican Party conventions that nominated him. He also regularly took the core elements of the New Deal philosophy, Social Security, and Medicare, off the table as he sought to refocus the political loyalties of the disaffected Democrats he wooed. His success was not as thorough as that of Lincoln or Roosevelt—he merely made Republicans competitive instead of creating a new Republican majority—but perhaps it was more impressive given the decades-deep hole in which his party started.
Trump so far has shown a little ability to persuade others to abandon their old party. He has never wavered in his vision of an America that respects and rewards the native-born working class. His combination of tax cuts, immigration restriction, and now trade protection is a perfect embodiment of their priorities. It’s no surprise that he converted millions of people who had voted for Democratic Presidential candidates since the Reagan era.
But he has done this at a great cost. Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan succeeded because they rallied their base while persuading others to join them. Trump’s crude rhetoric and the perception that he levels unnecessary gibes at individuals and often entire ethnic groups is alienating people who could join him. He is gaining millions of working-class Obama voters, but he is also losing millions of college-educated suburbanites. The path to a new majority, one that can own the terms of debate rather than simply win elections and tinker at the edges, runs through both sets of voters. The old GOP approach rallied one while turning off the other. If all Trump does is switch the groups of people he attracts and repels, he does not change the game, he merely changes the players who are on the teams. And that means Trump fans will still be fighting uphill against an energized Democratic Party that continues to retain more popular support, and thus usually has the political ability to call the plays the players must respond to.
It is beyond the scope of this piece to detail what sort of rhetoric and vision Trump needs to accomplish this. But it is clear the moment is ripe for him to begin employing it. Democrats continue to decline in voter surveys; they maintain their lead more because Republicans are failing to gain than because they are picking up converts. They show every sign of wanting to move further to the left, which will only mean picking more fights with more American values when most disaffected Americans want fewer fights that divide us.
The opportunity to create a new majority, one that can begin to make meaningful politics possible again, is before us. With the political power of normally Democratic voting groups projected to rise in future elections, simply rallying existing forces to win elections merely postpones the date of defeat. America will be great only if the terms of the game are changed, and that requires persuasion rather than mere rallying. Whether our President is up to the task is a great—and for now—unanswered question.
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