Washington Gridlock – A Brief History of How We Got Here

It might sound odd, but I think that had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated we might not have gridlock in Washington today. I have come to believe that the Southern state politics is the key to understanding how we inherited our current deadlocked political situation and how the assassination of Lincoln had a huge affect on how Southern politics developed after the Civil War. The following is my brief interpretation of the history that lead to the political gridlock prevalent in Washington DC today

As you can imagine Lincoln, the first Republican President, was not universally beloved in the South after the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth believed that he was striking a blow to revive the Southern cause by killing Lincoln five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. In reality he did the South a huge disservice. For you see, Lincoln’s first priority was preserving the union and his plans called for swift and orderly re-assimilation of the Southern states back into the union fold. Had he not died when he did, it quite possible that Lincoln could have supervised the relatively peaceful and orderly reunification of the nation, but that was not to be.

After Lincoln’s death a faction of his party who called themselves “Radical Republicans” made a grab for power. They wanted to punish the South and extract revenge. Lincoln had the leadership skills and moral authority which he probably could have used to keep them under control. However, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President who succeeded him was no Lincoln. Johnson tried to carryout Lincoln’s plans, but he was too weak and the Radical Republicans became too strong. They overcame Johnson’s vetoes and ultimately succeeded having Johnson impeached by the House of Representatives. The Senate failed to convict him by a single vote. In 1869 the Radical Republicans elected one of their own to the Presidency, Ulysses S. Grant. Until he left office in 1877, Grant supervised the “Reconstruction of the South” which, according to the history books, lasted from 1865 to 1877.

With the Radical Republicans firmly in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, they pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which gave the former slaves the right to vote. They also passed several laws which penalized the Southerners who had rebelled. Among these was a law which, when it was loosely interpreted, prohibited former Southern military officers and anyone who had held a public office anywhere in the South before and during to the war from voting or holding public office. With one stroke of the pen the Radical Republicans rendered most of the Southern leaders who had survived the war powerless. The newly freed slaves became the biggest voting block in the vanquished South. When groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts tried to suppress the black vote with intimidation, Grant sent an army of twenty to thirty thousand men south to supervise Southern elections and state government administrations and to ensure that emancipated slaves were not deprived of their rights.

Thousands of northern politicians and business men invaded the South seeking political power and lucrative business opportunities. These despised “carpetbaggers” (known for their fashionable carpet suitcases) were backed by Grant’s army and they essentially took over control of the states of the former Confederacy. Northerners bought businesses and plantations for pennies on the dollar. Republican politicians, many of whom had migrated from the North, along with some black leaders, swept elections at all levels of government, filling the leadership vacuum in the Southern states. Until Reconstruction ended twelve years after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1877, most state and federal leadership positions in the Southern states were occupied by Republicans, much to the chagrin of the native Southerners.

By the end of Reconstruction most of the Republican office holders lost their elected positions and either voluntarily decided to return to their northern homes or they were driven out by paramilitary groups like the Klan. Southern Democrats replaced them and they consolidated their power by enacting poll taxes, literacy tests and other laws designed to suppress the black vote. Their efforts were aided by the intimidation of potential black voters by white supremacist organizations. Jim Crow now ruled the South. The black vote which numbered in the hundreds of thousands in many Southern states during Reconstruction dropped off to a tiny fraction of that by 1780.

So strong was the resentment of the Republican Party that the Democrats dominated Southern politics for the next 80 years. I can recall while growing up in Louisiana that the candidates who won the Democratic primaries for Governor and other state offices as well as those who won the Democratic nomination for the US Senate and Congress were certain to win the general elections. The Republican Party put up only token opposition or the Democratic nominees ran unopposed. The same was true when I moved to Alabama in the late 1970’s. And of course these Southern politicians were among the most conservative in the nation.

While as a whole the Democratic Party started to drift to the left, the liberal and moderate Democrats elsewhere in the country still had to take their conservative Southern brethren into account. If the Democratic Party sponsored candidates or pieces of legislation which were too liberal, it would likely lose the support of the Southern Democrats. That was not a winning strategy so the mix of ideologies had a moderating effect on the party.

The big split in the Democratic Party began during the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Southern Democrats felt alienated when Johnson began to push his liberal Great Society program through Congress, and they fought tooth and nail against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It appeared to them that once again the federal government was threatening to usurp what they viewed as their state rights even as they suppressed the black vote with Jim Crow laws and continued their discriminatory separate but (un)equal policies which were encoded into the laws of the Southern states.

Using creative legislative maneuvering, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives keep the Civil Rights Act out of committees chaired by Southern politicians who would have kept the bill bottled up in committee indefinitely. The bill was passed by the House. Using similar maneuvering Johnson and his allies brought the bill up for a vote in the Senate. There the Southern Senators took their stand with eighteen of them joining with one Republican to filibuster the bill. The filibuster lasted 57 days. At that point Johnson and Senate Leaders with the help of moderate Republicans were able to put together the 67 votes necessary to break the filibuster. The measure was passed by the Senate and Johnson signed it into law. Though they ostensibly remained Democrats, at least for the time being, from that point on the Southern Senators and Represenators no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile the Republican Party, which was originally founded by ultra liberal abolitionists who elected Abraham Lincoln as their first President, and which latter spawned the Radical Republicans who alienated the South with their antics during Reconstruction, had by the 1950’s drifted to the right and become far more conservative. However they still had to contend with their so called “liberal” members. Actually the “Rockefeller Republicans” (named for their leader, Nelson Rockefeller) were probably more moderate than liberal. Still they had a moderating affect on the Republican Party in Congress. Rockefeller unsuccessfully sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968 and served as Gerald Ford’s appointed Vice President after Nixon resigned, but the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party lost most of leverage in the party after conservative Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1964. With the Rockefeller Republicans no longer a real factor, the party swung further to the right.

However it was Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” during his Presidential campaigns which initiated the migration of Southern politicians and their constituents to the Republican Party. Nixon’s strategy had its roots in the campaign of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential race. Goldwater ran a conservative campaign which appealed to Southerners, but it was his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that solidified that appeal. Goldwater had supported other civil rights legislation in the past, but he had opposed on principal the latest law because he believed the act was a federal government intrusion into the affairs of the states. This stance resonated with many Southern voters who would have rather maintained their segregated way of life. Goldwater lost the election by a large margin to Lyndon Johnson – he won only six states. However aside from his native state of Arizona, the other five states which Goldwater won were in the Deep South – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The “Solid South” was solidly Democratic no more.

In the Presidential campaign of 1968 Nixon and his advisers decided that the way to win the election was to appeal to voters in the Southern states. Their strategy was for Nixon to take conservative stances on issues such as “states rights” and “law and order”. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, countered that these were code words designed to pander to Southern voters wishing to return to days of segregation, and in truth they probably were. The strategy was partially negated by the independent candidacy of George Wallace who ran on a segregation platform. Understandably, Wallace won several states in the Deep South. However, Nixon took enough Southern states to win the election. Nixon’s strategy paid off big in his 1968 reelection bid when he won every Southern state with 70% of the vote. From that point it was just a matter of time before formally solidly Democratic South morphed into the homeland of the Republican Party.

Beginning with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1964, one by one many of the Southern politicians in the US Congress changed allegiances to the Republican Party. Gradually Republicans took over state offices as well. Currently Republicans control both houses of the legislature of every Southern state. A Republican lives in the Governor’s mansion in every Southern state but three – Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas. Of course this did not happen without the Southern electorate also joining the Republican Party. Some states in the Deep South again have one party rule. However, in those states it is now the winner of the Republican primaries for state wide offices who are assured of winning the general elections.

But this post is supposed to be about gridlock in Washington and how it came to be. Well I am about to get to that. The point that I have been trying to make is that until the South broke out of the orbit of the Democratic Party, both political parties had good reason not to lean too far to either the right or to the left. However, that all changed with the transition of the Southern states to the Republicans cause.

Freed of the need to cater to their very conservative Southern colleagues and with growing bases in large metropolitan areas and minority populations, the Democratic Party was free to become more progressive. The change in the Republican was even more dramatic. While the latest generations of Southern voters are no longer advocates of segregation, most remain deeply conservative. When they became members of the already conservative Republican Party, the Republican base veered sharply to the right. Those very conservative Southerners became the core of the Republican Party. Fully half of the current Republican Congressional delegations come from the former Confederate states.

In recent years, ultra conservative Republican PACS have targeted for defeat in the Republican primaries so called RINO’s (Republicans in name only) who held Congressional seats. They labeled these fellow party members as “too moderate” and succeeded in replacing many of them with “true conservatives”. This pushed the Republican Congressional delegations even further to the right. The Tea Party movement then sent to Washington political outsiders who are far more devoted to strict conservative principles and who are far less willing to compromise to get things done then their establishment Republican colleagues. The stage for gridlock was now set.

The ever widening ideological rift between the two major political parties is a receipt for disaster. While it is apparent that two parties have been moving in opposite directions for a long time, I am a firm believer that this movement was really accelerated with the defection of the Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. Unlike parliamentary democracies, our system of government is very dependent on compromise to be effective. Our federal government is based on a system of checks and balances designed to ensure that no one group can become overly powerful. The House and the Senate are mutually dependent on each other to pass any piece of legislation. The President must also be on board because his is the power of the veto; it is a weapon that is very difficult for Congress to overcome. These days it is increasingly an uncommon occurrence for one party or the other to both occupy the White house and have firm control of both houses of Congress. Even then serious disagreements can and do occur within the party in power.

In our country, compromise is usually the only way to get agreement and actually get something done. Compromise has been called the grease that lubricates the wheels of government and those wheels, which not very well lubricated right now, are grinding to a halt. In that respect the future does not look very bright.

Control of the Senate could very well flow back and forth between the two parties over time. However, due to carefully gerrymandered Congressional districts, the Republicans have a very good chance of maintaining control of the House for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, due to shifts in demographics, the Democrats’ chances of winning the Presidency are increasing over time. In addition, Republican Presidential candidates need to move too far to the right on the issues to satisfy their very conservative party base in order to claim the Republican nomination. This makes them vulnerable during the general election. Therefore, future Republican nominees will face very tough obstacles in their quest to be President. With the House likely to remain under Republican Control and with Democrats likely to occupy the White House for the foreseeable future, without compromise nothing of substance is likely get done in Washington for a long time.

However, there is hope. Throughout our history the political pendulum in our country slowly swings back and forth over many decades, alternating between the conservative and liberal ideologies. While for the last few decades the pendulum has been right of center, in my opinion it is slowly moving towards the progressive side. Sooner or later the leaders of the Republican Party will be forced to realize that unless their party begins to take more moderate stances on key issues and supports ever growing minorities, they will never again be able to lead on the national level. They will be either learn to ignore their very conservative base or they will be forever forced into the role of the irresponsible minority.

However, ignoring their most political active supporters will not be easy for Republican leaders and probably will not feasible over the next couple of Presidential election cycles. Because it now constitutes a large part of the Republican’s conservative base, the South will ultimately be the key factor in determining whether the party can begin its pivot towards greater moderation.

Fortunately for the Republicans the South are slowly becoming more moderate. Each new generation of native Southerners is on the whole less conservative than their predecessors. Following industry trends, more and more people are moving South and the new comers are generally less conservative than the native populations. Major Southern cities are growing by leaps and bonds, ever adding to their already progressive populations. As the Republicans’ conservative Southern base grows ever smaller in proportion, they will become easier to ignore.

On the other hand I am not at all sure that the South is changing quickly enough to have a real effect in the near term. Ultra conservative Southern Republicans will continue to be a major drag on the national party. The critical question then becomes whether, despite this, the Republicans can began their ideological transformation early enough to avoid becoming the Wigs of the 21st century.

Cajun    11/22/14

Revised 10/5/15

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