Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Fashions in politics
Or, dining with the devil
Fashions change in politics as in other parts of life. What’s popular today evokes derision tomorrow. Politicians who hope for enduring success have to learn to adapt. During the War of 1812 New England Federalists, led by Daniel Webster, threatened secession by their region in protest of the feckless policies of James Madison’s Republicans, who were apparently leading the country to defeat. Then Andrew Jackson smote the British at New Orleans, making himself a hero and fools of the Feds, whose party promptly scattered and expired. Webster resurfaced as a Whig and a scourge of future secessionists.
In the 1880s and 1890s the Democratic party under Grover Cleveland clung to the de facto gold standard and the sober monetary policies it entailed. Then the Panic of 1893 tanked the economy and drove rural Dems toward the Populists, who denounced deflationary gold in favor of inflationary silver. William Jennings Bryan sensed the drift and exploited it in the most powerful speech in the history of American presidential politics. Bryan denounced the Clevelandites for crucifying the country on a “cross of gold” and stampeded the 1896 Democratic convention in his favor.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when capitalism crashed the economy again, many Americans looked toward communism as an alternative. Tens of thousands joined the Communist party, which proudly rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden and other venues. Communism remained respectable, even admirable, during America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union. Then the Cold War recast communism as diabolical, and all those American Communists had to run for their livelihoods, if not their lives. More than a few in locales like Hollywood didn’t run fast enough.
Webster, Bryan and screenwriters who ghosted for colleagues who hadn’t been blacklisted exhibited adaptation at the individual level. Institutions aren’t so nimble, yet they face the same problem: how to survive amid changing circumstances. The cleverest institutions, like the cleverest individuals, can do more than survive. They can thrive, by turning challenges into opportunities.
The second Republican party, of Lincoln, began life in the 1850s as more solicitous of the welfare of African Americans than the Democrats, the heirs of the first Republican party, that of Jefferson and Madison. But by the 1960s the conservative wing of the Republicans, headed by Barry Goldwater, had ceded civil rights to the Democrats, led by Lyndon Johnson. In their 1964 presidential matchup, Goldwater lost to Johnson by the largest popular margin in history.
Yet Johnson’s insistence on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 alienated Southern conservatives, who had been Democrats since Reconstruction. Some of this group admitted to being white supremacists. Others couched their opposition to the civil rights laws in the language of states’ rights. Either way, nearly all of them felt increasingly unwelcome in the Democratic party. They commenced a great migration out of the party in the direction of the Republicans. Some older individuals made it only far enough to vote Republican in presidential races. Others formally reregistered as Republicans. The youngest simply started their political lives as Republican.
Richard Nixon saw the wave forming and positioned himself to catch a ride. Without openly opposing civil rights, he let Southern voters know he stood for states’ rights and “law and order.” The latter phrase reminded voters of the lack of law and order in cities, mostly governed by Democrats, that had seen hundreds of riots during the previous several years.
The formula worked. Nixon won a close race in 1968, defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace. The formula improved during the next four years. In 1972 Nixon’s landslide over Democrat George McGovern was even more decisive in electors than Johnson’s over Goldwater in 1964 and almost as great in popular votes.
Nixon was criticized by the losers for pandering to racists and neo-Confederates. The term “dog-whistle politics” was applied to his Southern strategy, suggesting that those unsavory audiences could hear a message in his bland formulations missed by others. Nixon naturally responded that the losers were acting like losers.
The charge persists, again chiefly among those who don’t like the policies Nixon pursued. It’s worth examining, for it raises a question intrinsic to democratic politics: Should bad people be represented? Which gives rise to an operative question for candidates and campaigns: Should the votes of bad people be solicited?
Needless to say, these questions depend on who is considered bad and why. Southern conservatives didn’t think of themselves as bad. They thought they were justified in treating race relations as an issue for the states to deal with, as it had been treated under the Constitution for generations.
Northern liberals disagreed, as they had every right to do. But in assailing Nixon’s Southern strategy as illegitimate and unethical—in saying Nixon was wrong to solicit the votes of the Southern conservatives—many went beyond disagreement to advocating that those Southern conservatives should be, in effect, disenfranchised. Of course, much of the liberal complaint was political hot air, made for the moment and not to be taken seriously. But many liberals still get righteously indignant when they reflect on Nixon’s approach.
The question again is: Should bad people—defined by whatever standard—be represented and allowed to vote? In American history, convicted felons have often been disenfranchised, though that is changing of late. After the Civil War, Confederate officeholders were disenfranchised for limited periods. But on the whole there has been no morality test for voting.
Which means that the only morality test for representation is that enforced by voters themselves. For most of American history, voters would not elect as president a man who had been divorced. Ronald Reagan broke that barrier, and Donald Trump tripled the number of pre-presidential divorces. For almost as long, American voters refused to make a Catholic president. John Kennedy undid that veto; Joe Biden seconded the undoing. Americans have still not elected a woman to be president. This doesn’t fall in the morality category exactly, but many Americans in the past, including many women, considered women temperamentally or intellectually unfit to lead a great country. (Women have never been barred by the Constitution or law from being president, as Victoria Woodhull pointed out when she ran for president in 1872. You don’t have to be able to vote to be president.)
Former associations can hinder political prospects. Voters refused to elect Southerners president for a century after the Civil War, with the partial exception of Woodrow Wilson, who was born in Virginia but was governor of New Jersey at the time of his presidential election. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan, long tolerated and even encouraged in candidates in Southern states, became a hindrance after the 1960s. Those Depression-era communists disqualified themselves for office during the Cold War.
Until now, association with Donald Trump and his denial of the election results from 2020 has been little barrier to election in Republican states and districts. Perhaps it will become a barrier once Trump has faded from politics.
Should it be a barrier? Voters will decide.
Which, in a democracy, is the way things ought to be. If there must be morality policing in politics, voters are the ones to act as cops.