Republicans Don’t Own Patriotism Anymore

tags: Republicans, patriotism, Democrats. GOP

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College and the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party."

Before the 2016 election, a woman showed up at Hillary Clinton’s headquarters in Flint, Michigan, asking for a lawn sign and offering to canvass. She was told those efforts were not “scientifically” significant ways to get votes and was turned away. After Clinton lost Michigan and, of course, the election, the story, reported in Politico months later, became emblematic of a suicidal campaign locked into algorithms and metrics while ignoring messaging. But it also illustrates a larger conundrum for Democrats, one that dates to the late 1960s. It was then that the Democrats, in a shift that ultimately crippled their ability to win elections, began to rely on narrow policy arguments, each tailored toward a different constituency, over grand, national narratives capable of uniting their base.

In 1964, a political scientist named Philip E. Converse published a chapter in a book called Ideology and Its Discontents, in which he argued that voters selected leaders they thought would benefit their “group,” rather than basing their decisions on broader political ideologies. His observations launched 50 years of research into voter behavior, from push polling to the effect of weather on electoral outcomes. This changed both parties, but Democrats most of all. Republicans adopted data and metrics, too, but they also crafted a powerful story—of the little guy crushed under the heel of a huge government bureaucracy that props up lazy ingrates—that would dominate American politics for the next 40 years. It is only recently that the Democrats finally seem to be developing a clear political message of their own.

Since the end of the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century, there have been two great narratives in American politics. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal united urban Democrats and racist Southern Democrats, African Americans who could still vote, Republican businessmen, and Western Progressive Republicans—the “sons of the wild jackass”—by offering a vision of American society in which the federal government protected its citizens from the disastrous effects of runaway crony capitalism. For decades, Democrats would build their policies, including Johnson’s Great Society, on this idea.

In the 1950s, another powerful political narrative emerged, this time from the other side of the political spectrum. It was a mythological tale of the little guy against the giant; David against Goliath; “individual freedom” against the “ant heap of totalitarianism,” as Ronald Reagan put it in a 1964 speech supporting Barry Goldwater. No longer a protector, the federal government was transformed into an oppressor, an institution commandeered by liberals who took from hard-working Americans and gave to the undeserving. Developed at William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review in the late 1950s and ’60s, it was embraced by Barry Goldwater, developed by Richard Nixon, honed by Reagan a decade later, and used by Newt Gingrich in 1994 to purge the Republican Party of traditionalists.

By then, Democrats had largely ceased to articulate FDR’s ideas. But they didn’t really try to craft a new story about America either. Bill Clinton and his successors in Democratic politics bought in to the basic story conservatives had been telling for years—of an America made up of makers and takers—or they at least recognized that as the framework within which they had to work, in order to sell their policies to the American people. Clinton is perhaps the best example, famously declaring “the era of big government is over.” ...

Read entire article at New Republic

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