A friend sent me an article from Politico that he thought I would much enjoy. It’s titled, “What Happened the Last Time Republicans Had a Majority This Huge? “ And sub-titled, “They Lost It.” The piece is by historian Josh Zeitz, who taught both history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton, and whose books include Lincoln’s Boys. You can read it here. It's pretty short -- one page, though a longish page.
It was definitely interesting to read and enjoyable, and he has some good points in it (and one extremely good point which I'll get to), but much as I’d love to have been "heartened" by it, I thought it didn’t really make the thesis it seemed to be trying to make and even surprised me at times for being sort of empty.
For starters, I thought the article was going to deal with the Republican majority during the time of Bill Clinton, when Republicans swept the House and had their “Contract with America.” Or perhaps when the GOP had its George W. Bush era sweeps. And each then collapsed only two years after each. Both were recent enough to have direct applicability to today.
The time it was referring to, though, went back to 1928 and the huge Republican majority during Hoover Administration. Mr. Zeitz writes –
“But victory can be a fleeting thing. In 1928, Republicans won 270 seats in the House. They were on top of the world. Two years later, they narrowly lost their majority. Two years after that, in 1932, their caucus shrunk to 117 members and the number of Republican-held seats in the Senate fell to just 36. To borrow the title of a popular 1929 novel (which had nothing whatsoever to do with American politics): Goodbye to all that.”
Of course, there was notable event that impacted the 1930 election -- the Stock Market Crash of 1929. And for the 1932 presidential election, the full-blown Great Depression profoundly affected the results.
Mr. Zeitz keeps trying to make the point that there was more to the results in 1930 (which the article is really more about, than 1932), and that the Stock Market Crash didn’t affect many Americans directly, so economics weren’t such a huge issue yet. He repeatedly writes things like, “But in the moment, hard times struck many Americans as a normal, cyclical part of their existence” – which may well be an absolutely spot-on valid point, except that he never gives any evidence to support it. And writes, as well, “If the election was not exclusively or even necessarily about economics...” – but never really says that what else the election was substantively about. He touches on a few matters, but almost only in almost general passing. Economics and the Great Depression permeate the article, even while he keeps saying it wasn’t that important in 1930. But other things were.
Most importantly, though, while writing several times about how many House seats the Republican Party lost only two years later, he ignores the critical fact that unlike 1928, today (thanks to statehouse victories in 2010) Republicans have gerrymandered seats in Congress that make it near-impossible to lose their majority until the next census, almost whatever happens.
The one very valid point with connections to today is when he writes --
"To be sure, the Republicans of yesteryear were victims of historical contingency (the Great Depression), but they failed to appreciate and prepare for a long-building trend—the rise of a new urban majority comprised of over 14 million immigrants, and many millions more of their children. Democrats did see the trend, and they built a majority that lasted half a century.
"The lesson for President Obama and the Democrats is to go big—very, very big—on immigration reform. Like the New Dealers, today’s Democrats have a unique opportunity to build a majority coalition that dominates American politics well into the century."
It's a strong historical perspective. And important as it is, I don't think it addresses the point of the article. He doesn't show how this helped Democrats win in 1930, and I don't think it has any relation to 2016. It's a long-term point -- which stands a good chance of holding. But the article focuses on the short term.
What I do think is true, and have written about in the past, is that conservative Republicans seem to have a tendency to rule with hubris. The kind of “I have political currency and intend to use it” attitude by George W. Bush, yet not recognizing that the country was vastly divided in his squeak-through victory. Conservatives seem to take any razor-thin victory as a “mandate” and begin to act that way with a far-right agenda, offending not just Democrats but importantly independents. The past quarter-century has shown Republicans being united and effective when in the minority and able to block issues contrary to their agenda, but become their own worst enemy when in the majority, repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot, and all the Democrats have had to do was get of the way and let it go on.
The author very slightly touched on that, but not much. Overall, the article was fun to read as a piece of valuable history, but didn’t seem to come close to making the point about how it relates to today that he was seemingly trying to do. Nor the “emotional support” my friend thought it was. There is such historical support to draw on, but I didn’t feel this article did it. But his long-term view is very good.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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