Why Does ‘Flyover Country’ Vote GOP?

It goes without saying that regional voting preferences and patterns in American presidential elections have varied over time. To date, the United States has held 58 presidential elections. As the Electoral College results of these elections shows, swaths of states have voted red and blue back-and-forth over time.

For instance, once upon a time, California, Illinois, and New York were reliable Republican strongholds. Even more mind-blowing, a few decades ago, Texas was a solid Democratic state. My, how things have changed.

Obviously, gradual electoral shifts should be expected. However, in the past few years, these shifts have abated. We seem to be living in an environment where red states are getting redder and blue states are getting bluer.

As we approach the 2020 election, we almost assuredly know how the vast majority of states will vote well before November. In fact, presidential elections, by and large, now hinge on just a few so-called “swing states.”

This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. However, it might help us to understand our current electoral environment (and incredibly divisive discourse) by examining the history of our modern two-party system.

Perhaps we should begin the story with the creation of our contemporary two-party system. In 1828, the Democratic Party was created by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Originally, the Democratic platform supported limited government, states’ rights, and slavery. Jackson’s party was supposed to represent the “common man,” which is how Jackson portrayed himself.

Three decades later, in 1854, the Republican Party was born. Unlike its political opponent, the Republican Party opposed slavery in principle (and its expansion into new territories). The Republican Party was also founded upon economic modernization and social reform.

By 1860, the main difference between the two parties was simple: slavery. As we all know, this led to a brutal Civil War when Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election. The rest, as they say, is history.

After the Civil War, Republicans dominated presidential elections for decades. Apparently, most Americans (aside from Southern whites, of course) agreed with the GOP platform in the post-Civil War era. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans won eight of the next 10 presidential elections. That would be unheard of in today’s age.

In 1912, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was victorious because he was the first Democrat to win several northern states in decades. During his two terms, Wilson and the Democratic Party embraced progressivism and America’s entry into WWI.

In the blink of an eye, the one-time advocates of federalism and limited government abandoned these principles for an expansive federal government that superseded states’ rights. Welcome to the “modern” Democratic Party.

Around the same time, the GOP was doing some internal contemplation of its own. Consequently, by the 1920s (aka the Roaring Twenties) the Republicans became the de facto party of limited government, federalism, low taxes, reduced red tape, etc. As President Calvin Coolidge said, “the business of America is business.”

This pertinent political pivot resulted in a GOP electoral bonanza throughout the booming Twenties. And then came the Great Depression.

Once again, Americans longed for big government. And the Democrats had just the man to deliver it: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In many ways, the Great Depression (and FDR’s political savviness) changed the American political game for good. One party, the Democrats, saw the writing on the proverbial wall. The American people wanted the federal government to “help” them more than ever before, and that is just what the Democrats claimed to be doing.

During this period, the Democratic Party, under the leadership of FDR, won five consecutive presidential elections, including Harry S. Truman’s improbable defeat of Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Yet, in some ways, the American public soured on the Democratic Party’s policies by the early 1950s.

As the 1950s dawned, Americans longed for a familiar face in the White House, and elected World War II hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower to two terms. Looking back, this period also marked the height of America’s post World War II golden age, and the beginning of an electoral battle for the heart and soul of the nation. This battle still rages today.

By the early 1960s, the Baby Boomers were coming of age, and looking to make their mark on the political discourse. The election of John F. Kennedy Jr. epitomized this sentiment. As the 1960s dragged on, America found itself embedded in a contentious civil rights debate.

And this, as they say, is where the plot thickens. Up to this point, the “Solid South” had been under Democratic control for decades (since the Civil War, basically). From Reconstruction to the mid-1960s, the ex-Confederate states consistently sent Democrats to Congress who unanimously opposed civil rights legislation. At the state and local level, the South was dominated by Democrats who passed Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.

At this time, Republicans had a snowball’s chance in hell in the South. After all, the GOP was responsible for ending slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, as well as passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed blacks equal rights under the law and gave freedmen the right to vote. Of course, Democrats quickly ensured those newfound rights were worthless with Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.

And then, in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson -- a Texas Democrat -- decided to back civil rights legislation. However, when southern Democrats in Congress got wind of this, the backlash began. In short, congressional Democrats in the South fought tooth and nail against any and all civil rights bills.

Fortunately, there were enough right-thinking Republicans (no pun intended) to right this wrong. Due to overwhelming support from congressional Republicans, a spate of civil rights legislation was passed that finally afforded equal rights to blacks. Hallelujah, indeed.

As a logical reaction to this, Republicans made inroads in previously all-Democratic districts throughout the South. After all, do you think newly enfranchised blacks voted for Democrats when they received the right to finally vote? Highly unlikely.

Obviously, this is a simplistic view of the complicated matters that led to the so-called “Southern Switch.” However, it is important to remember that Republicans overwhelmingly supported civil rights legislation, while a major contingent of Democrats vehemently (and violently) opposed it.

By the mid-1970s, this history was turned upside-down. All of a sudden, the Republicans were mislabeled as anti-civil rights bigots hellbent on reimplementing Jim Crow. Because the mainstream media (and academia and Hollywood, among others) despised Republicans such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, etc., the GOP was misbranded as the party of anti-civil rights. This was and is false.

During this time, the Republican Party continued to support equal rights for all -- not equal outcomes -- as the Democrats now claimed to do. This period marked a turning point. From then on, the Democrats were generally heralded as the “good guys” who fought for the “underdogs” while the GOP was derided as “racist” and “out-of-touch.” This could not be further from the truth.

Unfortunately, this disturbing (and untrue) depiction of both political parties has lingered and gotten worse over the decades. In my lifetime, presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and especially Donald Trump have inherited their respective labels, whether they fit or not.

And, if current voting patterns and demographic shifts can teach us anything, it is that more and more Americans are buying into this false depiction. Today, most Democratic voters have settled along the coasts and in big cities. On the other hand, GOP voters have fled cities and the coasts and flooded the American heartland, where they seek refuge from Democratic policies that are wreaking economic havoc and social turmoil.

As the current social unrest and economic fallout from the coronavirus are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, one would expect these demographic and electoral shifts to become even more entrenched. One question that remains, however, is if this trend is a one-way road to another major civil disturbance or the new normal in American politics.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.orgis an editor at The Heartland Institute.

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