When we look back in history, it’s fascinating to see how things change. Some of these changes seem so sudden, but that’s probably because a decade can feel like a second through the lens of history. The democratic party, for instance, stood for so many things that modern democrats would be ashamed of.
The democratic party was the party of slavery and opposition to slavery was a defining feature of the republican party. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed largely along party lines, with republicans supporting ratification and democrats opposing it. One hundred years later, when congress voted on the civil rights act, more than 80% of elected republicans supported the law, whereas only 60% of democrats voted in favor of it. Yet today, on related issues (voting rights, affirmative action, the black lives matter movement), support is much higher within self-identified democrats than it is by self-identified republicans. In one poll, for instance, 53% of self-identified democrats, but only 12% of republicans, reported supporting affirmative action. That’s certainly not an overwhelming majority of democrats, but the difference between 53% and 12% is pretty obvious.
The Scopes Trial (The State of Tennessee v John Thomas Scopes) marked a pivotal event in American culture. A substitute teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty of violating a Tennessee law that made it illegal to teach anything in a public school that would contradict the story of human origin in the Bible. And who was the famous, hotshot lawyer who represented Tennessee, siding with the opponents of the theory of evolution? William Jennings Bryan, the three-time democratic party candidate for president. Bryan lost to McKinley twice, and lost a third time to Taft. He was a key figure in the democratic party, and he represented his party well when he fought against the teaching of evolution, because that’s where the party was at the time. Move to today…well, almost today, and a 2013 update of a Pew Research Poll tells us that only 60% of Americans accept the scientific evidence for human evolution, and a full 33% believe that humans existed in our present form since the beginning. Break this down by party affiliation and we find that 67% of democrats and only 43% of republicans say that humans have evolved. So the party that fought the hardest against the teaching of evolution has become the party of members more likely to accept the scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution. That’s a pretty big shift. (It does, however, make me sad that the number isn’t higher across the board.)
All of this brings me to what’s been stuck in my head for the last couple of weeks. This video:
Listen to these republicans, Bush (who would eventually become the vice president and then 41st president of the United States) and Reagan, who would win that nomination contest, and the presidency. Bush says he doesn’t want to see kids be totally uneducated and made to feel like they are living outside of the law. He wants policies that are sensitive to business needs and human needs. There is no demonizing immigrants as criminals, even though the question is about “illegal aliens,” but a contest to see who can be the most compassionate. Reagan, who wins the nomination, and the election, takes it a step further. Reagan doesn’t just want us to feel compassion for immigrants (illegal or otherwise), he wants to “open the border, both ways.” Can you imagine a candidate today saying anything like that? Even on the democratic side of the debate, the candidates wouldn’t dare call for an open border. Yet Reagan did it, and is adored by republicans.
Think about Reagan’s words in contrast to today’s republican primary: “Rather than making, or talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit…” Today we have Donald Trump boasting that he’s going to build a giant beautiful wall separating Mexico and the United States. Not only is he going to build it, but he’s going to get Mexico to pay for it. Is Trump representative of the views of republicans? A poll last year would argue that he is. When republicans were asked, “Should the United States build a wall along the Mexican border to help stop illegal immigration,” 70% of them said yes, and only 17% of them said no (13% weren’t sure). When democrats were asked the same question, an almost equal percent weren’t sure (12%), but only 30% said yes, whereas 59% said no.
Nixon, largely seen as a stain on the republican brand, had some redeeming qualities (unless, of course, you’re an all-or-none thinker, like I wrote about here). One thing that is often pointed to as a Nixon administration success is the progress he made restoring diplomatic relations with China. Nixon was the first U.S. President to visit China while in office, and diplomatic ties between our countries hadn’t existed for 25 years. Although Reagan gets a lot of the credit for ending the Cold War, many historians say that Nixon’s diplomacy with China was a critical event in the US-Soviet conflict. Fast forward to today: Obama has made strides to improve many of the diplomatic relationships that were soured during the Bush presidency. Does he get any credit for this from republicans? Not a chance. They still refer to trips that he took early in his presidency as an apology tour (even though I didn’t once hear him say he was sorry for anything — but I didn’t listen to or read every word he said on those trips, so I could be missing something).
These are just a couple of examples of ways the GOP has strayed so far from their roots. I’m willing to accept that some of this is fear and emotional thinking (something I’ve focused on plenty before here and here and here). Some based on a changed world since 9/11 and concerns for security that weren’t there before. That’s fair, and not unreasonable, but I think we may be witnessing a real change in a political party, perhaps as big a shift as we saw slowly take place between the slave-proponent democratic party of the past and the pro-affirmative action party of today. This may take years, or decades, but it could happen faster. We hear about this battle that’s happening in the party. A division between the establishment and the outsiders. It will be very interesting to see how this resolves itself, how many republicans they lose in the process, and where those lost republicans find a home in the years to come. It was interesting to see the rise in self-described libertarians during and just after the second Bush presidency. Many of these people seem to have gone back to the GOP, or at least still vote in their primary. I wonder what the new “libertarian” will be if the GOP nominates an establishment candidate this time. It might be even more interesting to see how the establishment GOP types come to the support of one of the outsiders who gets the nomination. I think many of them will have a real hard time getting behind Trump or Cruz, but elections are about choice, and when it comes down to it, for many, Trump or Cruz may be a more palatable choice than Clinton or Sanders. Bloomberg? On thing’s for sure: I’ll be watching, and maybe even writing about it.