Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition was one of history’s most amazing juggling acts.
FDR was able to convince poor, young, black, single mothers that they had something in common with affluent, middle-aged, white, married Ivy League professors. And vice versa. Farmers who produced crops linked arms with factory workers who had to buy groceries. Good ol’ boy Southerners voted the same way as slick NYC personal-injury attorneys. Veterans looking for a good college education made common cause with pacifists. Civil libertarians joined forces with alphabet-agency government regulators.
It was really pretty amazing that this ragtag collection of constituencies was able to overcome its innate centrifugal force for even a single election, let alone holding together long enuf to govern the country — and pretty well, too — for half a century.
But it was already on the wane thru a combination of fatigue, complacency, and corruption by the time Ronald Reagan came along in 1980 and started the Republicans down the road to a different coalition — one that would rule from the right — which Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” would cement in place a decade later.
This one too had its odd bedfellows. See if you can find a common theme among these:(1) Traditionalists.
Their parents or grandparents voted for Ike or Reagan (apparently nobody ever voted for Nixon), so they grew up Republican and that's the way they always vote. No thot involved; it's just who they are and what they do. (Think Tommy Thompson.)(2) Small-Business Conservatives.
The classic Adam Smith laissez-faire entrepreneurs, not much different from Thomas Jefferson's sturdy yeoman farmers, who as rugged individualists just want to be left alone to run their own businesses without a lot of burdensome interference. For them, government is the oppressor, with all its regulations. (Think Duncan Hunter.)(3) Big-Business Conservatives.
People who have figured out how to game the system with their armies of lawyers, lobbyists, and tax accountants. For them, government is the sugar daddy, with its no-bid, cost-plus, sole-source contracts, an endless source of corporate welfare. (Think Mitt Romney.)(4) Social Conservatives.
Decent people, usually religiously motivated, who sincerely believe that abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sinful perversity, America's biggest enemy is moral decay, and the 1950s were a glorious era when everything was right with the world. (Think Mike Huckabee.)(5) American Triumphalists.
In an earlier era, these were the people who flocked to the banner of “manifest destiny”. They think that the US of A is the greatest nation on Earth, and it's our bounden duty to export our culture to the poor, benighted inhabitants of the rest of the planet, who will gladly welcome it as soon as we patiently explain what they've been missing. (Think John McCain.)(6) Neo-Monarchists.
You may have heard the parental theory of politics, where people who need nurturing want a mommy (the Democrats), while those who need protection seek a daddy (the Republicans). These are the people who totally buy into the daddy side of things. They want a strong, decisive leader and are basically suspicious of too much messy democracy. In an earlier era, they would have been rooting for MacArthur to become America's Mussolini. (Think Rudy Giuliani.)(7) Holy Warriors.
These come in 2 subflavors: (7A) 2nd-Coming Christians
, who want iron-clad control of Israel so the end-time prophecies will be fulfilled in time for Jesus to fight the big battle at Armageddon; and (7B) 1st-Coming Jews
, who want iron-clad control of the Promised Land so the Messiah can finally get here to save his Chosen People. Each of these factions thinks the other is nuts, if not heretical, but they have a common end goal, so they work together for now. (Think Sam Brownback with a side of Joe Lieberman.)(8) The Disapprovers.
Also coming in 2 subflavors: (8A) Men
, who (while slamming down boilermakers at the corner bar) rail at permissive laws than mandate only 20 years in the jug for those dope-smoking long-haired hippie freaks; and (8B) Women
, who despair of hip-hugger jeans, ear piercings, and “what’s become of today’s youth”. However, neither subflavor disapproves of massive overgeneralizations based on sex, race, or national origin. (Think Tom Tancredo.)(9) The Brahmins.
Old money. It’s not as if they’re single-interest voters, but nobody else cares more about the inheritance tax (which they call the “death tax” and see as a threat to the legacy of their noble descendants). (Think Jim Gilmore.)(10) Libertarians.
They figure we can get by with as little government as possible, and that almost all human interactions can be handled by contracts entered into and enforced by enlightened individuals with their eyes wide open. For them, government is just a giant mistake, a trip down the wrong fork in the historical road. (Think Ron Paul.)
If there’s a common thread there, I sure can’t find it. Quite the contrary. There’s an inherent tension between big vs. small businesses, Christians vs. Libertarians, and so on.
But every Republican nominee or wannabe since Gerry Ford and Jack Kemp has had to show solidarity with each of these disparate factions, promising to look out for their interests. And they’ve had to appeal to all
of them. As we saw in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the country is so evenly split that they needed every vote they could earn (and many that they didn’t earn but were handed to them gift-wrapped by Katherine Harris and Ken Blackwell). They couldn’t afford to let even one of these subgroups slip away.
As you can tell from my ability to attach the name of a Republican presidential aspirant to each of the above paragraphs, by 2008 each group figured that its own turn had come up — time to reap the rewards for the loyal support they’d shown in the past. Each managed to put forth or belch up an old white guy to carry its banner. Each such aspirant was clearly a product and exemplar of his particular group. And, probably for that very reason, each was held suspect by all of the others.
After all the shouting finally died down, and the Rs had ended up with the oldest, whitest guy of them all, they’d managed to at least disappoint if not infuriate all the other groups.
And this brings us back to George W. Bush’s greatest accomplishment. Not once but twice he not only convinced every one of those groups that he’d advance their particular agendas, he totally sold himself as being one of them!
It was, of course, a total con job, a masterpiece of snake-oil salesmanship, the repeated success of ingratiating but unexamined claims like “Yo hablo Español” from a guy who could barely manage English. It was the triumph of Karl Rove’s version of manufactured reality.
But, in the pragmatic world of politics, it met the only test that ever matters: it worked!
And, hard as it may be to believe for those of us who think that history will judge Bush the Lesser as one of America’s all-time worst presidents, within just a few years GOP stalwarts will be looking back on him fondly as having delivered — at least for them — on his claim of being a uniter, not a divider.