by Bonnie Butcher
We all know the saying, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” Could this adage ring true when considering modern day American politics?
University of West Georgia History Professor Dr. Daniel Williams recently gave a community presentation titled, “The 2016 Presidential Election in Historical Perspective: What Can a Study of American Political History Tell Us about Contemporary Politics?” Williams has worked as a historian to connect American history to the present political climate. He has published numerous books and articles on the topic. Most recently, he had an article published in the New York Times.
The lecture, held at Neva Lomason Memorial Library in Carrollton, involved a century-long perspective on the evolution of our modern political coalitions. He discussed coalition building and how a party becomes a majority party in the United States. Williams spoke about the current state of American politics and the election just around the corner.
He explained that from 1932 through the late 1960s, the Democratic Party’s urban political strategy was based on a class-based appeal to labor unions and to a championship of social ethics that corresponded fairly closely to Catholic social teaching and to mainline Protestants as well. Philosophically, it seemed to fit where the country was in the 1960s.
“In order to win elections, candidates and parties have to identify the particular coalition that’s going to be sufficient for them to win,” said Williams. “They have to know which groups they can afford to write off and which groups they need in their coalition.
“Beginning in the 1930s, the Democratic Party won for more than three decades, most of the time at the presidential level and at the congressional level as well,” he continued. “They very successfully marketed their brand to a particular group of people who were in, at the time, a rising demographic group. It looked like a very solid coalition. This understanding of history can be useful in understanding what is happening today.”
Williams explained that Barry Goldwater could provide a possible model for what might happen in our current election.
“Goldwater is not a perfect parallel to Donald Trump by any means,” he explained. “But, there are some uncanny parallels. That is, both people were strongly hated by their party’s Republican establishment. It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which mainstream Republicans and Republican Party leaders hated Goldwater in 1964.”
“They had no idea that Goldwater was going to get the nomination. In 1960 at the end of the election where Richard Nixon lost by a razor thin margin, if you asked most Republicans who you might think would be the Republican nominee in 1960, most of the people ‘in the know’ would have said Nelson Rockefeller, a rising star in the Republican Party.”
There were a number of people who tried to stop Goldwater, but he had a grassroots movement of support.
“Goldwater was leading a movement of young conservatives, a movement of people who didn’t want to see the Republican Party stand for the moderately liberal internationalism that it had stood for before,” Williams stated.
The voters succeeded in getting the nomination for Goldwater.
“Lyndon B. Johnson tried very hard to discredit Goldwater as someone who was crazy, someone who dropped the bomb,” he stated. “Essentially what Goldwater did was reverse the pattern of party support, but in a way that was disastrous for the Republican Party, at least at the moment.”
Williams explained that although Goldwater had lost the election in 1964, he had an ideology that eventually would take hold of the Republican Party.
Following the presentation, the audience participated in a spirited question-and- answer discussion. As the event was held the night after the first presidential debate, many community members had Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fresh on their minds.
One audience member asked what has drawn so many people to support Donald Trump in this election.
“I think there is tremendous anxiety over immigration issues in the United States,” Williams stated. “Trump has continued to emphasize this issue, and he knows that is where much of his support is coming from. This is an issue that the Tea Party cared greatly about and that rural voters care about. The perception that undocumented immigration is a serious problem has fueled the rise of Trump’s candidacy in a way that no other issue has.”
When asked if this election will bring out more voters, Williams stated, “It seems to me, to an unusually high degree, voters will be going to the polls to vote against someone rather than for someone. The fear of the other candidate is going to motivate people to go to the polls.”
Some audience members wondered how the Republican Party might change on various platforms after this election year.
“It would be easier if they were operating with the old convention style,” stated Williams. “People could gather together and say this is a losing coalition; we need to nominate another candidate with a different platform. The party could retool very quickly. The best example of that is between 1936 and 1940. The Republican Party did an about-face on nearly everything. In 1936 they ran strongly against the New Deal, and in 1940 they endorsed nearly all of the New Deal. They essentially re-made the party, and you could do that in the old days of party conventions and party losses. But you cannot do that now. Whoever is going to run for the Republican nomination in 2020 is going to have to contend with all the voters who voted for Trump.”
On the topic of nationalism versus globalism, Williams explained, “If the Republican party becomes the party of anti-globalism, it means that the people who were the intellectual leaders of the Republican Party coalition in the ‘70s and ‘80s, who shaped the current Republican Party, will probably become Democrats for the rest of their lives. We really will see a realignment.”
Williams explained that as millennial age, their political presence has become inevitably
more pronounced. A curious audience member asked what the typical millennial voter
is like and how this may influence the future of American politics.
“Millennials tend to be suspicious of government,” stated Williams. “They tend to favor outsiders with charisma, such as Bernie Sanders. You might expect for Trump to appeal to them, but actually Trump is about at 26 percent or so among millennials. Most millennials who are college educated tend to value multiculturalism to a great degree. Trump’s anti-immigrant comments have really rubbed them the wrong way. For that reason they are turned off.
“The millennials came of political age during the time of the Iraq war and after,” he continued. “That has been their experience of the neo-conservative foreign policy, and they view it as a failure. At the same time, they view themselves as very open to the rest of the world and other people. They don’t fear open borders or people speaking in a different language. These values are going to carry into their political decisions.”Posted on