The Republican Party’s ideological trap was set in 1968, when it turned to racially biased whites to reverse its decades-long losing streak. The South switched sides in that year’s presidential election and has stayed with the GOP, enabling it to win eight of the last 13 presidential elections. Without the support of Southern whites, it would have won only three. Yet, the South’s influence within the GOP threatens its future.
Exploiting the backlash from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy relied on racial code words like “states’ rights” and “law and order” to lure the white South. Cultural issues deepened Republicans’ Southern base. It was from Southern pulpits that abortion was most roundly denounced. Ronald Reagan solidified the gains by attacking affirmative action, racial busing, welfare spending, and federal power. The party of Lincoln, which had been a Northern-based federal party, had become a Southern-oriented states’ rights party.
Unmindful of the risk in a two-party system of straying too far from the center, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia pushed the GOP further right. As speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, he purged moderate Republicans from leadership ranks and channeled money to right-wing Republican candidates. By the time Gingrich left Congress in 1999, half of the GOP’s House committee and party leaders were from the South. Within a dozen more years, they would hold two-thirds of the leadership positions. They had held none in 1960.
The Tea Party movement prompted the GOP’s next rightward move. Sparked by anger over federal spending, Tea Party activists mounted primary election challenges in 2010 to moderate Republican incumbents. More than half of Tea Party members hailed from the South.
In his 2016 run for the presidency, Donald Trump didn’t bother with veiled racial appeals. Trump said, “Mexicans are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Except for Virginia, Trump swept the South.
As Republicans have moved ever further to the right, they have distanced themselves from the political center. Americans who identify as Republican now hold policy opinions that are sharply at odds not only with those of Democrats but also with those of independents. On average, Republicans are twice the distance from independents as are Democrats.
That’s a dangerous position for a party to be in. The risk surfaced in the 2018 midterm election, when independents sided with Democratic candidates by 12 percentage points, the largest margin in a half-century.
The large majority of Republican candidates who won in 2018 were from one-sided Republican districts that they couldn’t have lost if they tried. A look at these districts reveals just how Southern the Republican base has become. Of the 165 districts labeled “safe Republican” or “likely Republican” in 2018 by the Cook Political Report, three-fifths are in the South. If bordering states with large numbers of white evangelicals are included, the figure approaches three-fourths.
The question is whether the GOP can do what vulnerable parties have historically done — shift toward the political center. The odds are against it. Leadership would have to come from the party’s moderates, but they are now few in number and would risk their careers by doing so, as 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush, former senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, the late Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, and others discovered. A Pew Research Center poll found that staunch Republicans are four times more likely than staunch Democrats to believe that elected representatives should “stick to their positions” rather than engage in “compromise.”
Today’s GOP occupies a shrinking space, swaying to the South’s tune of race, religion, and distrust of government. If the GOP continues on that path, it could become a regional party unable to compete for national power — a position that the Democratic Party occupied in the first years after the Civil War, a time when it was captive of America’s South.
Thomas E. Patterson is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. This series is adapted from his book “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?”