Will the Republican Party Break Apart?

Hopefully, you’ve heard the story of how Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death on the Senate floor in 1856. Sumner had delivered an incendiary anti-slavery speech a couple of days earlier in which he savagely abused his assailant’s cousin, Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina. When Rep. Preston Brooks entered the Senate with his cane, he was looking to protect the honor of his family and his state. What you might not know is that both Brooks and Sumner were Democrats at the time.

In truth, I am not certain how to characterize Sumner’s political affiliation on May 22, 1856. He had been elected to the Senate in 1850 as a Free Soil Democrat, but that political movement had effectively collapsed after the 1852 presidential election. The Massachusetts General Court gave him another six-year term in November 1856, “believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery,” but his injuries were so severe that he didn’t return to duty in the Senate until 1859. By that time, he was clearly a member of the Radical Republican faction of a new political party.

Fortunately, we didn’t see any violence inside the Capitol when, nearly a century later, the Democrats began to come apart again. When Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota gave his blistering civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, no one beat him almost to death with a cane. Instead, 22 members of the Mississippi delegation and thirteen members of the Alabama delegation walked out of the Philadelphia Convention Hall. A States’ Rights Democratic Party was formed (the “Dixiecrats”), and they nominated Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as their presidential candidate.

Throughout the 1950s, segregationist Democrats continued to dominate in Congress by holding many of the most powerful committee chairs, but they also continued to caucus with Humphrey and other like-minded pro-civil rights Democrats. It was only when Lyndon Johnson took Humphrey as his vice-president and passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts that a true schism occurred.

Keep all of this in mind when you’re reading Jennifer Rubin’s piece today. She argues that the Republicans should “fire their base” regardless of the short-term political implications. And she uses as a moral comparison, the actions of the Democrats in the early 1960’s.

Like the proverbial dog that caught the bus, the GOP now finds it impossible to govern rationally with an irrational base and equally irrational media echo chamber…

…In other words, if politicians and voters on the right and center-right want rational, productive governance, they need a new base of voters. That sounds strange. A party or section of a party that wants to fire its base? Well, that is precisely what happened in the 1960s, when the Democrats unloaded white Southern anti-integrationists, ceding the South to the GOP.

Here is how Bill Moyers recounted President Johnson’s mood the day he signed the Civil Rights Act.

When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,” he said.

I think it’s pretty clear that President Johnson did not want to cede the South to the Republican Party. The prospect made him melancholy. It’s also not clear that this result was obvious to less savvy political operators. As the current Republican Party never tires of reminding us, only 61 percent of House Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, but fully 80 percent of Republican house members gave it their support. Likewise, 67 percent of Senate Democrats voted ‘aye’ compared to 82 percent of Senate Republicans. LBJ intuited something that would not have occurred to most people that night. He could imagine something almost unimaginable, which was the GOP transforming itself into a Lost Cause party for the Jim Crow South.

Nonetheless, it’s true that the pro-Civil Rights Democrats were willing to take that risk, however remote it might have seemed to most of them. They didn’t want to “fire their base,” however. They didn’t need to. What they needed, and what they got, was a lot of Republican support.

And that’s what doesn’t seem possible today. I don’t see some great moral cause that moderate Republicans are pursuing, so it’s even less possible to envision eighty percent of the Democrats lining up to help them achieve their cherished goal. The leader of the party isn’t a courageous visionary like Lyndon Johnson, but a man whose Secretary of State thinks is “a f—ing moron.” The leadership of the party is cowed into following Donald Trump’s vision of a racially polarized electorate more like the Dixiecrats than anything else.

Now, it’s not like there aren’t any indications that Rubin is on to something. On Sunday, Ohio Governor John Kasich, a presidential candidate in 2016, appeared on CNN and told the host Jake Tapper that “If the party can’t be fixed, Jake, then I’m not going to be able to support the party. Period. That’s the end of it.”

But if the day ever comes that Kasich and like-minded Republicans decide they can no longer support the party, the question becomes what they will do at that point. Will they walk out of the Republican National Convention and run their own presidential candidate, as the Dixiecrats did in 1948? Will they slowly morph into Democrats, as also happened (in reverse) with the Dixiecrats?

It should be remembered that this schism in the Democratic Party fairly quickly brought an end to their New Deal dominance of American politics. The Republicans are similarly at a high point in their historic power right now, as they dominate in Washington and in the state legislatures, and even on the Supreme Court. Maybe this is the ripest time for a schism. But few people would actually welcome it for its own sake.

A more likely scenario is painted by Jeet Heer in The New Republic who predicts that the Republican Party will become both more powerful and more insane.

There is a long history of analysts predicting the demise of one of the two major parties. In recent memory, the Tea Party wave of 2010 was allegedly making the GOP unelectable, and Trump’s extremism in 2016, especially on racial issues, was supposed to doom his presidential hopes. But like Samuel Beckett’s Godot, the Republican crack-up is always due to arrive, but never does.

Not only does the party stay together, it flourishes. The Tea Party helped the Republicans capture the House of Representatives. GOP extremism didn’t stop the party from winning the Senate in 2014. And Trump ran the most openly racist national campaign in decades, but won a commanding electoral college victory. If the Republican Party is on the verge of a crack-up, it’s a very strange one indeed that sees them gaining a stranglehold on all three branches of government.

For Heer, the crazier the GOP gets, the stronger it becomes.

What’s striking is that this so-called war between the establishment and the populists always ends in the same way: with the establishment absorbing elements of the populist agenda to win elections. Seen in this light, these so-called insurgencies or civil wars never really hurt the Republican Party. Rather, they give it more energy by riling up the base. The gamble that Bannon is making is that religious extremism will create a more powerful GOP. Alas, there’s no reason to think Bannon is wrong.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Democratic Party wasn’t a coherent party, and that made it vulnerable to a crack-up. For the Republicans today, we do see fissures opening up over foreign policy and trade, as well as on some cultural issues. On the whole, though, the vast majority of Republicans would still rather vote for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. There isn’t any regional issue like Jim Crow to break the back of the party. The closest thing we see today is a faint shadow of the civil rights battles. It’s the gap opening up between Republican-led states that expanded Medicaid and states that did not.

It remains to be seen how much trauma Trump will create for the GOP. The longer he is in office and the longer the Republicans in Congress fail to function as a governing party, the more likely it is that some kind of internal schism will arise. For now, though, their formula has brought them an almost uninterrupted string of victories, sometimes against all odds.

Without some great moral cause or crisis to split them, I don’t see them doing a course correction any time soon.

Will Trump bring that crisis?

I guess we’re all waiting to hear from Robert Mueller.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.