Yesterday’s Republican Coalition

To understand why Americans chose to unite under Barack Obama and shed their ‘red’ and ‘blue’ identities,  one must look at where our deepest contemporary fissure began: the Vietnam War.  It’s hard for our younger generation to imagine how the struggle over Vietnam divided this country.  Nixon articulated the division well by describing the Silent Majority: the group of Americans who did not protest Vietnam or engage in progressive politics during the 1960s and 1970s.  This majority witnessed the cultural turmoil of the 60s and 70s via traditional media (radio, TV and newspaper) and from Vietnam.  They saw the most sensational aspects: anti-war demonstrations, civil rights marches, student uprisings, Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, Charles Manson, Roman Polanski.  The far left defined the cultural political environment with their actions and the Silent Majority responded en mass during the 1970s: first unorganized and indignant, and then organized and confident.  The Silent Majority was a predecessor to the socially conservative coalition that delivered five elections to conservatives over the last 30 years.  This coalition had three main subgroups, nationalists, traditionalists and libertarians, each of which existed in American politics since (at least) the New Deal.

  • Nationalists believe that their countrymen deserve more than other people.  Historically, nationalists were rabidly anti-communist.  When the USSR fell, the neo-con doctrine of using American military power to impose its economic interests on other nations became more apparent and nationalism became a less significant issue for most Americans.  9/11 brought it back with a vengeance.  These hawkish ‘patriots’ are distributed throughout socioeconomic brackets and are well represented among urban intellectuals (the neo-con variety), as well as more traditionally ‘conservative’ populations in inland America.  The ’security mom’ subgroup of suburbanite parents who were unconcerned about national security before 9/11  bolstered the nationalist coalition significantly.
  • Traditionalists could also be called Christian Conservatives.  Their ideology has developed from an unspecific anger at the Federal government for imposing ‘liberal’ programs on small towns.  Forced school integration, evolution, sex education, abortion, gay rights, media culture and other issues were used by Republicans to whip traditionalists into a culture war frenzy and united Christians together to fight liberal social objectives.  Unfortunately for this grouping, the Republican party could do little to advance their objectives.  Abortion remains legal in America, despite much conflict schools have changed little about their curricula, our culture has become more accepting of gays and the ‘culture war’ has fizzled.  In short, traditionalists put a lot of effort into getting their Republican candidates elected and have little to show for it.
  • Libertarians have been a force in US politics since the anti-federalists fought the ratification of the Constitution.  These people (and this author considers himself some type of libertarian) believe that government should be as small and as inexpensive as possible.  Libertarians found friends among the traditionalists who disliked how the government was imposing ‘liberal’ values on their communities and were a natural ally of any American who wanted lower taxes.  The guns rights debate both attracted more people to libertarianism and redefined libertarianism as a populist opinion.

Each of these groups became more active during the Vietnam era as a response to liberal cultural progress.  The nationalists grew more anti-communist so they could spar with the anti-war left.  The traditionalists tried harder to insulate their communities from outside progressives.  The libertarians fractured: the moderates rallied behind Republican tax cuts while the small government core became dejected and isolated as neither party offered a real small government program.

This coalition solidified under Reagan and it proved to be much more useful than the Democrat’s hodgepodge of interest groups: labor, leftists, minorities, college educated ‘liberals’ and others.  Due to the stability of the Republican coalition of the 80s, the Democrats responded by embracing more centrist policies and rhetoric.  In response to this centrist threat, the Republicans created the ‘culture war’ of the 1990s, a political crow bar that forced Americans apart and into either ‘red’ or ‘blue’ values communities.  This was done to obscure the centrist nature of the post Reagan Democrats and the increasing similarities between the two parties.

The culture war was a red herring because there was little anyone in the political sphere could do to influence the primary culture war issues (abortion, gun rights, federal education guidelines, gay rights.)  Abortion is a judicial issue that will be resolved through slow progress via judicial channels.  Abortion in cases of rape and incest will not be criminalized and late-term abortions will not be mandated legal.  Gun rights is another red herring: the issue is deeply entrenched in complex state and community rights issues.  Guns will never be illegal to own in less dense areas and assault weapons will always be restricted.  Our federal education system is broken but the debate surrounding schools has been one of content, not structure.  The content debate has not prevented evolution from being taught to another generation of students, nor have this new generation been taught about the amazing diversity of world religions and worldviews.  Watch the film Philadelphia and you’ll be shocked at how much more tolerant our society is of homosexuals than we were just 15 years ago.  There is little politicians can do to stop our mainstream culture from continuing on it’s increasingly tolerant trajectory.

Despite these relatively simple facts, the ‘culture war’ propelled a generation of cultural conservatives into office, George W Bush being the most prominent.  These men and women were savvy politicians but were also incompetent leaders.  Their obvious and undeniable failures left America fractured and angry with it’s political class.  During Bush’s second term pop-political science authors were writing books about a second civil war.  More astute political observers noticed the growing and unsatiated demand for a truly centrist leader.  Enter Barack Obama and the emerging purple America coalition.

15 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Republican Coalition”

  1. By most measures (voting record, working with republicans, etc) Obama is pretty far left. Do you see him as “a truly centrist leader”?

  2. I was thinking just the same thing as Dimitar. In numerous articles you have referred to Obama as the purple candidate.

    Where does this feeling come from? I know Obama has spoken about being a different type of politician, but is that really realistic? I know that there are in fact some issues in which he is a bit more moderate (particularly ones regarding his faith) but on the bread and butter issues (economy/taxation, foreign policy, energy, health care,) he seems to be pretty far to the left. In his short Senate career, his greatest bi-partisan act was a bill regarding nuclear proliferation with Dick Lugar. Not exactly crossing partisan lines.

    Obama may have serious desires to involve everyone in Washington in policy making, but when he realizes not everyone thinks like him, is he going to accept their opinions or stick to his guns? Now that he’s won the election, is he really going to fulfill those promises? If so, in what ways/issues? In particular with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid running Capitol Hill and alienating their already angry Republican colleagues, I can’t see a purple coalition involving anyone from the right other than Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar. Can you?

  3. Obama’s first decision as President-elect seems to disprove this purple coalition. It looks even more unlikely that an Obama White House will cooperate sincerely with Republicans on Capitol Hill since his Chief of Staff is one of the most hated men on the Hill.

    Now obviously Boehner would be expected to have a negative response to whomever was chosen, and that is probably him being a sore loser. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Boehner and am pretty happy that his 2nd in command, Ray Blunt, has given up the Whip post to Eric Cantor who should bring some youth to the Republican’s in the House.

    All that being said, Rahm’s reputation proceeds him. He has even been known to butt heads with his own party. Washington insiders say the happiest person with this decision is Pelosi, because now Rahm can’t steal influence from her in the House.

    Doesn’t look like we’re heading towards the middle. Partisanship will be alive and well in the Obama administration.

  4. Re: Write Wing

    As you say, Boehner is being a sore loser and would most likely bash anyone who was selected for that position. Unless, of course, Obama chose Karl Rove. I don’t see many Rovian appointments coming from Obama anytime soon, so don’t expect the GOP to get friendly on the issue.

    As you also say, Rahm’s reputation does precede him. Imagine that you are Obama for a second. Every Washington power broker is getting ready to test him in every way they can. He’s just a “liberal” and “weak”, they’re feeling like maybe he can be pushed around. Rahm “The Enforcer” Emanuel is a brilliant pick for that reason alone. He gets things done – like the Assault Weapons Ban – against huge lobbying efforts to the contrary. He DOES go against his own party, another reason that Obama took him. Everyone is talking about how Pelosi-Reid is going to grow a third evil Satan head and start pushing through the domestic agenda of Sweden. Obama is just countering that sentiment immediately. He says it himself, to paraphrase, “Power doesn’t just step aside.” He is bringing that philosophy to the White House, just as he promised. The fact that Pelosi is happy about it just proves what a brilliant arbitrator Obama truly is. Somehow, in picking a Washington attack dog to be his Chief of Staff, Obama made the Speaker of the House happy.

    Get ready for an extremely intelligent, highly disciplined and politically saavy president. So far, that’s all he’s demonstrated. That mutt joke he made at the first press conference? Obama is exuding confidence. In Washington, winners win. Obama is looking ready to prove it.

    As for partisanship, you can’t already be judging him. We still have to deal with that other president. You know, Bush. Start bashing him on January 21st, because right now you’re acting like a Boehner. (“I’ll have a Chivas on the rocks. Jokes! I’m six years old!”)

  5. “He DOES go against his own party, another reason that Obama took him.”

    Please name one instance in which Rahm has gone against the Democratic platform and led a bipartisan bill or worked with members of the other side.

    You make some valid points about how Obama has picked someone who will vigorously fight to push his agenda. However, that only accentuates the fact that it will be the agenda of one president, not the 535 Congressmen on the Hill and the country that elected them.

  6. “He has even been known to butt heads with his own party.”

    Your own words. Obama was elected to make that agenda. So were the majority of Congresspeople. How is that un-democratic?

  7. We are in complete agreement that Obama was, for the most part, elected to pursue the platform he ran on (there are certainly other reasons he won but there is no need to into that on this forum.)

    That being said, that agenda is one widely considered to be quite far to the left for American political standards. Obama’s vision for America makes many Conservatives, this humble blogger included, sick to their stomachs.

    All I am asking is how will Obama form a so-called purple coalition while enacting the far-left policies he ran on and when his Chief of Staff is someone despised by most of Washington?

  8. I simply disagree that Obama’s agenda is “far to the left” of the desires of the American people. So many people have bought into Karl Rove’s “center-right” myth, because it is self-affirming, without considering the possibility the US has simply moved to the left politically. This election was a referendum on conservative policy – unfettered markets, unfettered unilateralism, unfettered self-interest – and there was a resounding response for liberalism.

    “Still, change may come slowly to the undying myths bequeathed to us by the Bush decade. “Don’t think for a minute that power concedes,” Obama is fond of saying. Neither does groupthink. We now keep hearing, for instance, that America is “a center-right nation” — apparently because the percentages of Americans who call themselves conservative (34), moderate (44) and liberal (22) remain virtually unchanged from four years ago. But if we’ve learned anything this year, surely it’s that labels are overrated. Those same polls find that more and more self-described conservatives no longer consider themselves Republicans. Americans now say they favor government doing more (51 percent), not less (43) — an 11-point swing since 2004 — and they still overwhelmingly reject the Iraq war. That’s a centrist country tilting center-left, and that’s the majority who voted for Obama.” – Frank Rich

  9. “This election was a referendum on conservative policy – unfettered markets, unfettered unilateralism, unfettered self-interest – and there was a resounding response for liberalism.”

    Once again, we are in complete agreement. Voters were sick of George Bush’s policies and wanted to do a complete 180. I think that when America is referred to as a center-right nation, it is in comparison with Europe. Despite what, in my opinion, was an approval of socialism, the 2008 election also showed that states around the country, including California, do not accept gay marriage. And neither does the crazy liberal president-elect.

    America continues to be ingrained with socially conservative values, which is one reason why the upcoming Republican transition will be especially tricky.

    All that being said, the question Dimitar and I each posed has still not been answered so I will put it in big letters and hopefully it will grab your attention.


  10. Part 2 of The Purple America Series titled: Today’s Purple Coalition is coming today. It will address points make in this comment thread.

  11. Re: Write Wing


    I am sorry my answer to this question was not satisfactory, but I never really tried to answer it. Originally, I was merely defending the Emanuel pick as a smart, non-partisan move. I’ll leave it to Devin to try and defend the “Purple Coalition.”

  12. How can Brook discuss the future of the Republican Party without mentioning Ron Paul and the millions of self organized online supporters that thrust him into the media spotlight? There is no question the internet (the netroots) brought Howard Dean the DNC chairmanship and Obama the election. The fact that Brooks isn’t looking at the web to see the future of his party shows he’s lost touch with the real engines of change in American politics. At the end of the article you mention he says: “They will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas” so at least Brooks realizes he doesn’t know what’s going to happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *