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October 21, 2003

Why There is no GOP Majority

Fred Barnes argues for The (Finally) Emerging Republican Majority, citing the fact that the GOP has more office holders than they used to.

The Long Existing GOP-Conservative Democrat Majority: Sounds like a sound argument, except for one thing-- the GOP often had majorities even when they didn't have "a majority," cause conservative Democrats would vote with them. As far back as Franklin D. Roosevelt, coalitions of conservative Democrats and Republicans were blocking progressive legislation, whatever the nominal Democratic "majority." In 1938, the GOP gained 75 seats, but they still trailed Democrats by a rate of 261 to 164. But the New Deal was dead (see the linked quick history):

The result was a Republican-Southern Democratic "conservative coalition" shutdown of nearly all New Deal initiatives. There were indeed no major domestic New Deal programs after 1938, and liberal reformers were obliged to redefine liberalism itself away from reforming capitalism and toward a civil rights orientation in subsequent years.
The Great Society would be passed only based on the dead body of John Kennedy and MASSIVE Democratic majorities in Congress that could ignore defecting conservative Democrats. In 1966 there were 68 Democratic Senators, enough to pass progressive legislation even with the defection of conservative southern Democrats. By the Carter era of 1978, there were ten fewer Democrats in the Senate, so legislation faced filibusters and opposition from coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats.

When Reagan took office, despite nominal Democratic control of the House, large numbers of "boll weevil" Democrats led by then-DEMOCRAT Phil Gramm, voted in support of Reaganomics.

No Big Change from the Past: So the hair-thin GOP control of both houses of Congress along with a Republican President is really no different from the situation that existed in Reagan's first term.

The good news is that almost all of those kinds of conservative Democrats who vote like Republicans are gone. Aside from Zell Miller (departing) in the Senate and a couple of House Democrats, there are no Democrats who vote more with the GOP than with their own party, as once was routine.

If you look at postwar America as a standoff between progressive Democrats and the GOP-conservative coalition, it's been a back-and-forth battle for control of the national agenda since 1938. The bizarre race politics of the south confused party labels for years, but in ideological terms, the Democrats never had stable political control, so there was never anything to "realign."

All you've had is a process of GOP-voting, conservative Democrats changing their nominal party affiliation. And actually a bunch of liberal Republicans switching over to the Democrats.

Yes, fewer people identify themselves as "Democrats", but who cares? A lot of them used to think that meant keeping blacks out of their schools and busting unions in the South, so if they now think that makes them a Republican, all the better. It won't change how they vote-- they'll vote for conservative Republicans rather than conservative Democrats-- but it does clarify national politics.

Partisanship Now Matters: What partisan redistricting in Texas meant was that partisanship now matters. Once upon a time, redistricting meant conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats fighting for control of seats (with liberals usually losing). Now, it's more nakedly about Republicans and Democrats -- no ideological monickers needed mostly -- dividing up the landscape (and Democrats usually losing).

But this is NOT about "realignment"-- Democrats are within striking distance in a lot of states and, where they win, that now means a far more real chance of progressive change.

So ignore the supposed large shift in "Democrats" to "Republicans"-- look at the ideological shift in elected leaders and it's just not that big a change.

See more at this post on Why the 50-50 Kaus Analysis is Bunk .

Posted by Nathan at October 21, 2003 06:19 PM