The electoral system in the United States almost assures that politics will be divided into two major coalitions. Most of us accept that America’s primary schism is between progressives and conservatives, and settle into a camp that satisfies us. It may have been inevitable Americans would be limited to two viable political choices, but the ideological specifics of our two options were not preordained, even if they seem natural to us now. The Republicans and Democrats could have developed differently.
We can imagine many reasons a party would change its priorities and ideological emphasis. A powerful president could align his party with his interests. Debates between intellectuals and pundits could shift how people think. The public’s preferences could change, and parties would need to change to remain competitive. High-dollar donors may insist on the promotion of certain issues. We must consider all of these possibilities using multiple methods if we want to understand ideological change in the United States.
Public opinion, elections, money, and highbrow philosophical debates are not the entire story, however. In his new book, First to the Party: The Group Origins of Political Transformation, Christopher Baylor argues that none of these things are the most important factor in explaining political change. According to Baylor, organized groups, which have specific interests not necessarily tied to an ideology, are the main catalysts for changes to a political party’s platform. To make his case, Baylor described how two groups transformed political parties and became crucial participants in American political life: African Americans and theologically-conservative Christians. Baylor’s work is not just an interesting new look at political history. It provides important insights into current political developments.
According to Baylor, organized groups are the key movers in American politics. More important than even politicians, and far more influential than pundits and intellectuals. Alliances between groups form out of convenience, not necessarily because of shared principles. Once a group has reached a threshold of influence, it is able to be a major player in its political party’s nomination process, and can force politicians to advance its agenda. Some of the most important changes occur when a previously weak group gains influence within one of the parties. According to Baylor, however, this can only occur when an outside group cultivates alliances with groups already powerful within a party.
Civil Rights Reform
Although they followed very different paths, Baylor’s discussion of African Americans and the Democratic Party and the religious right and the Republicans illustrates his point well. Blacks faced dismal prospects for civil rights reform in the 1920s and 30s. Their previous advocates, the Republicans, had lost interest in the subject. In fact, the “Lily-white movement” within the GOP sought to push blacks out of positions of influence within the party. Although the Democratic Party contained some liberals who were sympathetic to blacks, keeping Southern whites in the fold was deemed a more pressing concern during the Roosevelt Administration and beyond.
To find a party that would put civil rights back on the table, African Americans needed an ally to help them get their foot in a party’s door. According to Baylor’s narrative, they eventually found one in the labor movement. At the time, this did not seem like a natural association. Organized labor and civil rights organizations previously had an antagonistic relationship. Major unions were overtly discriminatory, and blacks were often employed during strikes. It took many years and many compromises on all sides, but eventually major groups like the CIO and the NAACP concluded that their interests were aligned, and they needed to back each other’s agendas.
By the mid-1940s, both groups were enjoying dividends from their alliance, and their combined power made them a powerful force within the Democratic Party. According to Baylor, it was practical considerations, not ideology, that brought these groups together. Over time, advocates for civil rights gained enough allies and influence to overrule the white Southern Democrats who previously held so much power in the party.
Rise of Evangelicals
Like African Americans in the early 20th century, culturally conservative Protestants were politically weak in the 1960s and 1970s. They represented a large share of the U.S. population, but neither party wanted much to do with them, nor did they have a unified political identity – on most policy issues, fundamentalist Christians were no more conservative than other groups in the electorate.
Although the conservative movement had a “traditionalist” element from the beginning, it was culturally and politically distinct from the evangelical movement that later became such a crucial part of the Republican coalition. In the 1960s, most Christian conservative intellectuals were Catholic, and not especially interested in the “culture war” issues that later dominated American politics. Baylor correctly noted that the traditionalism Frank Meyer and other early conservative theorists envisioned was different from that of Pat Robertson.
For their part, white evangelicals were slow to make their religion a key element of their political identity. Although Billy Graham was an ardent anti-communist, he preferred to maintain some distance from partisan politics. It was not until the late 1970s that politicized evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell emerged as important figures. As political neophytes, they needed a gateway into existing GOP networks. According to Baylor, they found it with the so-called New Right, that group of belligerent political operatives such as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, who were looking for a new demographic base that would help them push the country further to the right – their earlier efforts to organize former Wallace supporters were unsuccessful. Their political expertise helped the nascent religious right form powerful organizations.
It took many years for theological conservatives to become dominant players in GOP politics. The religious right was often more focused on internecine disputes than fighting a broader culture war. Southern Baptists were never comfortable with Pentecostals, and neither were enthusiastic about Catholics. By the mid-1990s, however, the religious right had learned to be ecumenical, and more importantly learned that real power in the GOP could be obtained by dominating states that are important in the presidential primary process, especially Iowa and South Carolina. Although we can question whether the religious right ultimately won many lasting policy successes, their rise in GOP politics was remarkable and deserves additional analysis.
Baylor’s study is a monumental effort. He sifted through archives across the nation, and interviewed public figures who provided fresh insights into the groups that reshaped American political life.
Is Right-Wing Populism Next?
Baylor’s argument is persuasive, but I wonder if he overstates his case. Although his case studies are congruent with his theories, we can think of groups that achieved influence by other means. For example, the neoconservatives became a powerful force in GOP politics without first mobilizing any kind of mass movement. Their history indicates that there may be other paths to influence. Baylor was also unclear as to what qualifies as an organized group, which makes it harder to know if a counter-example challenges his thesis. Despite those quibbles, Baylor’s argument is compelling and has important implications.
If Baylor’s theory of political change in correct, the right-wing populist movement that put Trump into office will probably not outlive the Administration. There is clearly a market for what has come to be called “Trumpism,” but there are no stable institutions pushing for it. Nor are the existing elements of the Republican coalition – big business, the religious right, the conservative intelligentsia – interested in welcoming new partners who reject several key elements of traditional conservatism.
The religious right did not become a major player in Republican politics because of a Machiavellian political strategy. It resulted from an enormous amount of work, much of it done by volunteers. Conservative evangelicals formed institutions, donated money, filled local unelected positions in state parties, and ran for office themselves.
Since President Trump’s election, the Trumpist element of the GOP has done little organizing. Steve Bannon’s attempt to promote primary challengers to mainstream Republicans ended after the Roy Moore fiasco, and no one has since picked up that banner. There are no significant organized interests insisting Trump and congressional Republicans follow through on an “America First” agenda.
This has been a perennial problem for right-wing populist movements in the United States. These voters occasionally rally behind a charismatic candidate – Wallace, Perot, Buchanan, Trump – but they can never be counted on to do much beyond that. Part of their problem is that their agenda is not aligned with significant moneyed interests. This was also true of the religious right in its early days, but that community of voters was already organized into religious institutions, giving them an advantage when it came to political organizing. The Trumpist bloc remains atomized, and thus largely irrelevant. It is unlikely that Trumpism will lead to organizations analogous to the Christian Coalition or the NAACP.
President Trump has been less disruptive to the political status quo than many people feared or hoped. To better understand why, I recommend First to the Party. The 2016 GOP primaries and presidential election may have provided a mandate to change the Republican Party’s priorities. However, the absence of an organized group committed to the agenda Trump articulated in the campaign allowed the Republicans to maintain the status quo.