From Lincoln to Bush

Experts have analysed threadbare the reasons for George Bush’s victory in the US Presidential election. But let me highlight one overarching reason. USA has for decades been drifting from a Democratic to a Republican mindset, and Bush’s victory is just the latest instalment of that long-term shift.

Proof ? On the same day that Bush was re-elected, the Republicans won an additional three seats in the Senate taking their majority to 55-44, and an additional four seats in the House of Representatives, taking their lead to 232-202. Proposals to legalise gay marriage in 11 different states were all defeated by voters. Bush’s re-election was part of an overall shift towards Republican values.

This analysis will disappoint those who think Iraq and Afghanistan should have changed everything. Remarkably, not a single state changed loyalty for or against Bush in 2004 compared with 2000, save for tiny New Hampshire. Despite 9/11 and Iraq, voting trends were amazingly stable, confirming the gentle long-term drift to the right.

From the mid-1950s onwards, Democrats dominated both Houses of Congress to such an extent that they were regarded as the natural party of rule. Republicans could become Presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr), but all faced hostile legislatures dominated by Democrats. That changed only in 1994 when the Republicans led by Newt Gingrich swept back to power in the House, where they have retained or expanded their majority through six successive elections. Their hold on the Senate has been less secure, and they temporarily lost power when one of their members defected. But there too they are now firmly in the saddle.

Not only do they control both Houses and the White House, the Republicans also hold 28 state governorships against 21 for the Democrats. Truly, the Republicans have displaced the Democrats as the natural party of rule. Why? The main reasons are:

Trade unions, traditional Democratic supporters, have collapsed in numbers and clout as the US has changed from an industrial to a service economy.

The population is shifting steadily from the north-east (traditionally Democratic) to the sun-belt of the South (Republican, with the exception of California). No less than 27 electoral votes have shifted to the sun-belt since 1988. Many of those moving South are white retirees, who typically vote Republican.

Hispanics from central America are helping swell the population of the South, and were once regarded as potential Democrats. But they are also traditional Catholics, who appreciate the Republican stress on Christian, anti-abortion and family values.

Civil rights has traditionally been a vote-winner for Democrats, as they championed various minorities. But the latest civil rights issue, championing gay marriage, has proved a serious vote-loser, especially among Catholic Hispanics.

The politics of envy has changed. US voters like tax cuts even if they benefit the rich disproportionately. Inequalities grew under Reagan and Bush, yet both were re-elected. Americans are aspirational, not egalitarian.

However, the biggest overarching reason of all may be that Southerners have finally overcome their Civil War hangover, and stopped voting against Abraham Lincoln. The white South has always been conservative. But for a century after the Civil War (1861-65), the South saw itself as battling the hated Republican hordes of Lincoln. And so, the white South voted for Democrats, notwithstanding its right-wing (and racist) values.

Indian readers may not realise how deeply the psyche of the South was committed to lionising the secessionists who battled Lincoln’s Yankee Republicans. Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, says that she was all of 16 years old before she was told that the South had lost the Civil War, and she found this so incredible that she refused to believe it!

So, an odd coalition arose: conservatives and rednecks from the South combined with East Coast liberals to constitute the heart of the Democratic Party. The strength of this coalition varied over time. But from 1954 to 1994 it was so strong and durable that Democrats looked the natural party of rule.

However, the coalition started eroding with the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Initially, white Southerners resisted integration proposed by liberal Northerners like Kennedy. But later, white Southerners gradually came around to accepting that blacks were equals. Redneck values gradually faded.

This had an unexpected political consequence. With the end of race as the defining characteristic of the South, whites there no longer had a good reason to continue voting against Abraham Lincoln. Given their stress on conservative values (mainly low taxes, individual freedom, Christian values and family values), they started drifting steadily to the Republican Party.

The trend was so inexorable that the South soon became a veritable stronghold of the Republicans. The party of Lincoln now dominates the former slave states. Amazingly, the party of Lincoln has morphed into the party of Bush.

What do you think?