This is the second of a two-part series I am writing on generational trends that have shaped/shape American politics. For those who forgot, the first piece documented electoral history and the voting patterns of multiple generations in a general sense (if I had the time I would dig through mountains of data). This second article will explore historical and current issues of modern politics, how they have played with multiple voting groups how the parties have used the issues to court groups of voters. Just so you are aware, some of these issues were alluded to in the first part of this series.
In modern American politics there is little doubt the issues voters perceive as most important drive them towards a particular party. For example, pro-life voters, primarily evangelical Southerners, have moved to the GOP. Meanwhile, moderate, sometimes religious but not practicing voters in the Northeast have moved into the Democratic camp due to abortion and gay marriage. Another example could be white Catholics increasingly voting Republican as the Democratic party grows increasingly defensive of abortion in just about any case.
Voters, especially among the generations, did not form their opinions in a vacuum. They were helped by the parties who helped these voters form their perceptions. For both the GOP and Democrats this meant exploiting issues that split electoral coalitions. What were some of these issues? Let’s start with the Great Depression just like in Part I. Before FDR the GOP had built a coalition many at the time thought was unbreakable. The GOP’s laissez-faire economic policies and successes had allowed them to court moderate, Midwestern and Northeast voters as well as largely rural voters in the West. They also had begun to make inroads in the South due to their success with African-Americans.
But come 1932 with the Great Depression erupting in full force the GOP coalition disappeared as quickly as it had appeared and a new populist, conservative Democratic coalition was formed. This coalition was built primarily on regional and geographical interests. FDR was a Governor from the Northeast but he won just about every state in 1932 and 1936. He did this by campaigning on populist, governmentally active economy policies to help the poor farmer, the young lady, the homeless child. A public desperate for change amid an economic struggle ate it up.
For the most part Democrats at the time were victims of fortune. Absent the Great Depression it is easy to hypothesize the GOP would have held the White House until at least 1936. So Democrats did not break up the GOP coalition (the Great Depression did that for them). Instead, they built their own. While cracks in this coalition would periodically appear from time to time (1938 midterms, 1946 midterms), the bulk of it would hold together until 1952.
This FDR coalition, as I refer to it, was built on a different set of voters from FDR to Truman. During FDR it was built on the votes of the Hard Timers/Happy Warriors Generation. These voters, born between 1890 and 1928 leaned Republican on most economic issues until the Great Depression. By the time Truman ran for his first full term in 1948 the Silent/Depression Generation was coming into its political own. Shaped indelibly by the Great Depression, their parents, World War II and FDR they leaned heavily Democratic. Gallup’s first set of exit polls in 1952 found the youth vote going to Dewey but we know how accurate Gallup’s numbers were when compared to the final results.
Republicans for their part, after 1932 tried several different strategies to build a new, multi-generational coalition. In 1936 they supported a candidate, Kansas Governor Alf Landon, who spouted populism but generally strayed from criticizing the New Deal. In 1940 the GOP supported another candidate with much the same message, Wendell Wilkie, but Wilkie was even supportive of the New Deal. By 1944 the GOP had turned to New York Governor Thomas Dewey, hoping he could take the Northeast from FDR. It did not work.
It would take the GOP until 1952, with the nomination of a former Supreme Commander, to find their way back to the White House. Eisenhower’s coalition was multi-generation. It incorporated elements of FDR’s coalition with a sprinkling of the Silent/Depression Generation. Eisenhower at the time was a moderate in the party (in a moderate party). Eisenhower courted voters who had former military service and had soured on Democrats due to the Korean War,
Up until 1960 few clear issues had been exploited by either party. There had been signs that certain issues would be exploited in the future however. Eisenhower’s allowing of black students to attend an all white school in Arkansas suggested Republicans would be willing to touch on racial issues. Of course Truman had already signaled Democratic intent to do the same with his desegregation of the military in 1949. However, the South’s loyalty to the Democratic Party was built on FDR era governmental policies. Eisenhower was presided over a strong and growing economy so it came as a bit of a shock when his VP, Richard Nixon, lost a close contest to JFK. Nixon was a moderate Republican in the mold of Eisenhower and JFK was a Democrat in the mold of FDR except in one key aspect, civil rights.
The Civil Rights era, spearheaded by moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats deeply influenced the Boomer Generation. As mentioned in Part I the Boomer generation soon became a split generation which different partisan and policy preferences. Primarily they viewed Civil Rights legislation as appropriate as well as a growing government with constraints. With the economy growing at a rapid clip worries about spending were eclipsed as well.
Nixon’s election in 1968 kept moderate Republicans in charge of their party. But while his victory heralded a strong GOP era it also indicated turbulent economic waters ahead. Between 1968 and 1980 voters would be influenced by Vietnam, Watergate, environmental novels and governmental regulations, stagflation and the Oil Embargo. Voters would elect Nixon twice, see him impeached, elect Jimmy Carter narrowly over Gerald Ford and end the decade by electing conservative Ronald Reagan.
Nixon’s two campaigns were built on courting conservative Democrats in the South on government overreach and Midwestern moderates. Democrats, lacking strong candidates after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, watched Nixon crush their candidate. The election of 1972 proved no different. Nixon peeled off elements of the Democratic coalition based on the wedge issue of race. A monkey wrench would be thrown into American politics in 1973 when the Supreme Court officially legalized abortion.
The new issue of abortion proved promising for Reagan to campaign on. While Ford avoided it, Reagan made it clear where he stood on it (ironically he was pro-choice as Governor of CA). Reagan’s pro-life stance and public annoyance with the ruling allowed him to win Southern voters, Baby Boomers and new immigrants from Eastern Europe. Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric was also well-timed. Government action in the economy was viewed distastefully by the growing Boomer voting base. Though not laissez-faire by any means Reagan was not a progressive liberal on fiscal issues either. Finally, Reagan made his hawkish foreign policy preferences well-known. Not as hawkish as Truman or JFK, Reagan was a new kind of Republican on foreign policy. His successor, H.W. Bush, would be even more so.
Reagan’s exploitation of key issues of the time, abortion, fiscal issues, and defense defined politics for a generation. Many voters from Generation X thus grew up evaluating politics through this issue set. They also came of age during a turbulent economic and social time (stagflation, Roe vs. Wade) and as mentioned seemed jaded on politics. But they also shared the partisan preferences of their Boomer parents.
Clinton, a new kind of Democrat used the same issue set Reagan did. But unlike Reagan, he was not pro-life and he was nuanced in foreign policy. A growing economy helped ensure him two terms but it was not enough for liberal Al Gore to keep the White House in Democratic control. George Bush moved away from Reagan on foreign policy and in doing so helped hold the Boomer vote and peel away some of the shrinking vote of the Silent Generation. In 2004 George Bush would largely adopt Clinton’s 1996 gay marriage stance by opposing legalization. Republicans took it one step further and promoted the efforts of many states vote to ban gay marriage in their state constitutions.
The modern era of issues would be on full display in 2008 and 2012 with distinct differences between the parties. John McCain and Barack Obama disagreed on abortion, gay marriage, fiscal policy, national defense, etc. Romney in 2012 had even more differences with the incumbent. Millennials are truly the only voting bloc who grew up with the full modern issue set to choose their political preferences from. Apparently that has pushed them to the left (though race, GWB’s economic performance and social issues have had an impact as well).
This short history should provide some background on how the political parties have attempted to court voting groups through the issues. Today’s Democratic coalition is built on the young, minorities and single women who favor government intervention. The GOP is increasingly older and downscale (often losing in the suburbs they once won handily). Should Republicans change course? Maybe. But Republicans might be smarter to start injecting less talked about issues into the political conversation; entitlement reform, streamlined government, etc. It just might be a winning strategy.