If the mixed results in the early Republican primaries--a Huckabee here, a McCain or Romney there--portends a split between the GOP’s religious, fiscally conservative, and security-state wings, it won't be the first time a national American political coalition has failed. But it will be the third time in a hundred years an apparently strong Republican majority cracked up due to the party's inability to govern. By contrast, Democratic coalitions have failed mostly because the party has overreached after governing successes.
In the midst of an economic depression, the Republican Party assembled a presidential majority in 1896 for William McKinley and his conservative platform. McKinley won despite the revolt of many traditionally Republican western states, whose citizens believed the party's elite had grown too cozy with industrial and financial leaders, while leaving the stricken farmers of the heartland in the cold.
Within months of McKinley's election, the depression began to lift (although owing to factors outside of his or any American's control, including a worldwide increase in the supply of gold). McKinley then swept to an even more secure victory in 1900, bringing much of the West back into the fold, partly by putting Theodore Roosevelt onto the ticket.
With McKinley, the Republican Party shifted away from its post-Civil War habit of bludgeoning the South, and McKinley ran as a candidate of sectional reconciliation. He wooed the South with symbolic gestures, like declaring that their soldiers had demonstrated "American valor" in battle and taking federal responsibility for Confederate war graves. He wooed the West with promises of renewed prosperity under his tariff and monetary policies. And Roosevelt's subsequent presidency--he took 56% percent of the popular vote in 1904--appeared to show that the Republicans could campaign and govern as a truly national party.
But the seeming solidity of this coalition concealed real divisions, owing largely to the Republicans' unwillingness to give Westerners what they demanded. Out there in the new states, voters began agitating for and adopting democratic measures--women’s suffrage; initiative, referendum, and recall; and ways to popularly elect Senators and presidential candidates. Mere national prosperity, unevenly spread as it was and almost never trickling down to farmers, wasn't going to satisfy them. They actually wanted to take part in the country's government and change it for themselves.
Roosevelt made the right noises in response to this stirring insurgency--as one observer dryly wrote, "He smote with many a message." But, since he was a Republican beholden to eastern industry, he could do little more than talk, and he did that very carefully. As another student of Rooseveltiana more acutely mentioned, he was "the greatest concocter of 'weasel' paragraphs on record." This was not to say that Roosevelt accomplished nothing--rather, that he accomplished just enough to contain the forces of the western insurgency. And, for what it’s worth, the Republican Party might have enjoyed an entirely different history had he sought renomination in 1908.
Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, couldn't weasel charmingly enough for an electorate increasingly dissatisfied with Republican complacency. In 1910, the Democrats took the Congress. Roosevelt tried to push his party back in his direction, and when that failed, he led a third-party movement in 1912 that put Woodrow Wilson into the White House, along with a Democratic House and Senate.
It was a democratic as well as a Democratic revolution, as constitutional amendments brought the direct election of Senators and women’s suffrage. Moreover, through the early 1910s, Congress enacted legislation that responded materially, rather than rhetorically, to their constituents' economic concerns, passing laws to restrict working hours, raise an income tax, lower tariffs, and regulate banking by creating the Federal Reserve System--all measures that have, on balance, endured as methods of governing the United States.
Then they went too far: Not only did Wilson lead the nation into war despite campaigning on the promise not to, but he also created an immense domestic propaganda machine to promote the military effort and silence dissent. The Republicans took Congress in 1918 and, after a disillusioning conclusion to war, the presidency in 1920.
That Republican majority, again pledged to national prosperity and sectional reconciliation, even made inroads over the years into the supposedly solid Democratic South. But as with the earlier Republican majority, it too proved unable to deliver. The apparent affluence of the 1920s was not evenly spread, and through the decade farmers tried to impress upon their representatives in Washington the need to respond materially, rather than rhetorically, to their needs--to no avail. By 1932 and the depth of the Great Depression, the thinness of Republican claims to competence seemed overwhelmingly evident to all.
The subsequent New Deal coalition lasted longer than either its Democratic or Republican predecessors, but like Wilson's coalition, it collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. The New Deal strengthened the Federal Reserve System, brought unemployment, old age, and disability insurance to the nation, and, through various public works projects, the infrastructure of economic modernity to the West and South. But it also led to an increase in richer voters, which led to an increase of Republicanism, as more affluent people realized that government aid programs no longer served their direct personal self-interest. And Democratic administrations' efforts to extend New Deal-style aid specifically to black people began to alienate whites who did not see assistance to African Americans as directly serving their direct personal self-interest either.
After the fall of the New Deal coalition in the late ’60s, today's majority Republican coalition rose to power. And if it should fall now, it will assuredly be on its evident failures in governance, as the President has consistently avoided success in war, fiscal management, and social policy.
As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future earnings, but it’s not implausible to project a new, long-lasting Democratic coalition arising out of these Republican missteps--one that might, if history is any guide, eventually doom itself by overreaching.
Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.