The second in a four-part series of essays on the forces driving social division and political polarization in America.
In the not-too-distant past, the major American political parties were big tents. They were broad-based coalitions, the idea being that the broader the coalition the better the chance of winning elections.
The Republican and Democratic parties were what the recently published book Prius or Pickup? calls “mixed-worldview” parties. The book identifies two dominant worldviews — its authors label them fixed and fluid — and the two major parties had plenty of each.
Starting in the 1970s and intensifying ever since, the parties have been purifying themselves. Republican leaders embraced the fixed worldview, Democratic leaders chose the fluid. Each party purged itself of the other kind.
We are constantly being told how divided Americans are and how politically polarized our society has become. Go out and talk to people of every political stripe, and differences come to the surface for sure but still I’m left with the clear impression that most Americans continue to have a great deal in common, much more than we’ve been led to believe. From my vantage point, the political parties have made us more tribal, not the other way around.
Worldview cleansing has undeniably happened in both major parties, but is most plainly visible and pronounced in the Republican Party.
Until the most recent decades, there were Nelson Rockefeller or Lowell Weicker liberals in the GOP. Here in Wisconsin, Republican state lawmakers like John Manske were cut from this cloth. They are not found in the party’s ranks anymore. There were Teddy Roosevelt and Bob La Follette progressives in the Republican Party. As recently as the early 1980s, Wisconsin still had state legislators like Clifford “Tiny” Krueger from this lineage. Not today.
There used to be Republican moderates. Today’s GOP is a donut. No middle. Again, as recently as the early 1980s, there was an abundance of centrist Wisconsin Republicans, many of them women who favored legal abortion and women’s rights. Women like Barb Lorman, Sheehan Donoghue, Peggy Rosenzweig, Mary Panzer, Sue Engeleiter, Pat Goodrich, June Jaronitzky and Betty Jo Nelsen. Many other middle-of-the-roaders were men like Dave Paulson, Bob Larson, Francis “Brownie” Byers, Brian Rude, Mike Ellis and, of course, Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus.
Moderates were exterminated from the Republican ranks. Panzer was challenged and defeated in a primary by right-wing zealot Glenn Grothman. Lorman was taken out in another primary challenge by Scott Fitzgerald, who now leads the cleansed Senate Republicans. Rosenzweig lost to someone charitably described as “quirky” and “eccentric” who ran as a family-values conservative.
The last centrist to go was Dale Schultz, who like the others faced a primary challenge from the right, saw the handwriting on the wall and announced in 2014 he was leaving the legislature.
The GOP was started by northern abolitionists and became known far and wide as the party of Lincoln. Republicans abandoned that legacy in the 1960s and 1970s with their southern strategy taking advantage of Democratic support for civil rights to court southern whites and flip the south from a Democratic stronghold to a rock-solid base of Republican support. This north-south political realignment pushed the GOP sharply to the right and set in motion the worldview cleansing within both major parties.
What’s evolved out of this is a Republican Party that’s whiter, righter, older, extremer and smaller. Ordinarily, that would be great news for the Democrats. Hasn’t worked out that way. More on that tomorrow.