Friday, May 2, 2008

What do "Blue" and "Red" mean? (Part I)

My state, Texas, has always been a "Red" state. When I was in high school, my Civics (as it was then called) teacher had a chart on the wall listing our president, senators, and representatives from each state. Texas was nearly solid red. Our governor, senators, and most of our representatives were Democrats. Why was that? Because they were farmers and laborers, soldiers and educators, all of whom believed that the most important things in America were freedom and individualism. For some reason, the Democrat color was "red." Some people used that during the Kennedy campaign to note that there was a genuine "red" threat if the Democrats won in 1960.

I remember the color of the Nixon stickers; they were the same color as the Goldwater ones later: deep blue. When did it happen -- the color shift? I suddenly realized in 2000 that the colors had traded. This was not the first, nor will it be the last, realignment. One of the biggest ones in history was the FDR revolution. Love him or hate him, FDR did something phenomenal in 1932: he switched parties, but kept his own values. Before FDR, the Democrats were the conservatives. There were no Republicans in the KKK meetings. The "solid South" was solid Democratic because they were the conservatives. The Republicans, on the other hand, were the socialist movers and shakers. Herbert Hoover was probably blamed unjustly for the Great Depression -- after all, it was a world-wide wave that caught up with America during his administration. But he had laid the groundwork for it: "A chicken in every pot." The Republicans before FDR were the ones who promised the moon and funded it with federal revenue. Republicans were the federalists who opposed states' rights.

Look it up. Republicans believed in a strong central government, in higher taxes and strong federal spending. They were the champions of social programs. Before FDR, almost all black Americans who could vote -- many were forbidden that right by southern (and northern!) Democrats, by the way -- voted Republican. Until the 60's, any Black congressional representation was Republican.

FDR changed everything overnight. He did this by taking the Republican ideals, and going further than they had in that direction. He replaced the Republican federalism with a welfare state that even the most liberal of Republicans would never have dreamed possible. The party was realigned, but not without great cost. The Democratic party would struggle with its own self-identity for nearly half a century.

The reason Harry Truman was our 33rd president is because of this struggle. Roosevelt's first choice for vice president had been powerful Texas Democrat John Nance Garner, who served under FDR for two terms -- 8 years. But Garner was an "old" style Democrat, and had problems balancing his loyalty to his constituency with serving under FDR. He was replaced in 1941 by Henry A. Wallace, from Iowa, who was then succeeded by Missouri native Truman. The truth was, it was hard to tell the players without a score card. "Democrat" meant something different in Washington from what it meant in Texas, Iowa, or Missouri. One of FDR's Texas contacts was a young Lyndon Baines Johnson, who somehow managed to stay on Roosevelt's good side in Washington while sticking close to Garner and Sam Rayburn of Texas. Johnson, for whatever else he was, knew how politics worked.

LBJ would be the architect of several impossible Senate victories. His very presence in the senate was a combination of masterful manipulation, being in the right place at the right time, and knowing how to run the seamy side of Texas Democratic politics in the 1940's. He somehow rose to the top of the Senate at breakneck speed, and did a thorough housecleaning. He knew when to ally with the enemy, and his greatest coup was his alliance with northern Republicans, with whose help he hammered out a massive civil rights bill. He was able to make strategic compromises with southern Democrats, who thought Johnson was one of them, and through their vote or their absence, engineered a bill that had his name on it and eventually led to his presidency.

In late 1963, John Kennedy had to go to Texas to try to cement the factions of the Democratic party. Johnson was supposed to guarantee Texas' electoral votes, at that time the fourth largest prize in the nation. Unfortunately, Johnson's buddies were looking at Republican Nelson Rockefeller, or even Lodge or Goldwater, as an alternative to Washington Democrats with whom they did not identify. Kennedy was not yet immortal because he had not yet been assassinated, and the tour in Texas was a desperate attempt to try to rally the troops for an election the next year that many were saying he would not win, no matter who his opponent was. From the Texas governor, down through the local representatives, Kennedy had few friends among the Democrats; the most notable was Ralph Yarborough, who didn't get along well with fellow Texas Democrats, and even refused to get anywhere near Governor Connally in the Texas motorcade. Kennedy had harsh words for Connally, who would eventually be a Republican in the continuing alignment.

Johnson's administration would do much to finally cut the last cords between pre-FDR Democrats and those who followed. He lost friends on both sides of the aisle. His support for the Vietnam war angered the new Democrats, and his social programs lost him the support of the old ones. When he decided not to run in 1968, it was because, among other things, he knew that the party was divided, and probably no Democrat, except maybe another Kennedy, could unite enough Democrats to win; in addition, he couldn't stand the Kennedy who would run.

True to form, Nixon won in 1968, mainly because the Democratic party was split between the new wave, represented by Humphrey, and the old wave of George Wallace. It would take something as serious as Watergate to get a Democrat back in the White House, and even that just barely got Jimmy Carter in. Carter was easily defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, who would be the last "blue" Republican.

With Ronald Reagan as president, the re-alignment was completed. The "party of Lincoln" was now really the "party of Roosevelt." Only the names had been changed. Southern Democrats were now Republicans. Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and others, would remain "red" states, not because they had not changed, but because the color-coding had.

I still don't know who made the decision to change the colors. Was it a subconscious recognition that the parties had changed roles in the nation? I don't pretend to believe that the Reagan Republican of the 1980's and 1990's is a carbon copy of the John Nance Garner Democrat of the 1930's, but the comparison is a lot closer than any other.

So, what's the difference? That's my subject for part II. What does it mean to be a "red" state or a "blue" state? It's not about parties, people, or politics. It's about one of the oldest social theories we can observe, but one that has rarely been put into print. I'll have more on it next week.

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