Since the founding of our country we have predominantly had two large political parties. Fringe or “third” parties occasionally gain some notoriety but never replace one of the two major parties.
Voters tired of the two major parties frequently look to third parties to pin their hopes on. Unfortunately for them this has proved time and again to be a road that leads to oblivion. Third parties however do have a strong track record for dividing one of the major parties enough that the party they have the strongest affinity with loses. Ralph Nader hurt the Democrats in 2000 and Ross Perot hurt the Republicans in 1992 and 1996. Teddy Roosevelt of Mt. Rushmore fame split the Republican vote in 1912 by forming the Bull Moose Party thus handing Democrat Woodrow Wilson an easy victory.
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
Many folks erroneously believe the current Republican party was a third party success story. However they rose from the ashes of the dissolved Whig party. Many elected Whig officials switched to them when the Whig party collapsed giving the Republicans instant major party status. From their start in 1854 the Republican party was one of the two major national parties. The new party called themselves after Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party as, like him, they favored limited government, state’s rights, and opposed aristocracy and elitism. The party’s early platform advocated for free men living in a free society. The GOP (nickname for the Republican party which stands for Grand Old Party) were pro business and free US markets. They also favored high tariff’s against foreign products.
The Republican party ran John C. Fremont on the presidential ticket in 1856 and won the presidency in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln. Republicans controlled the presidency through the Reconstruction period following the Civl War.
Teddy Roosevelt was elected in 1900 and he favored trust busting as a way to break up monopolies and reintroduce competition into the marketplace. He also favored a strong military, aggressive foreign policy, and Progressive ideals of increased government regulation during his time in office.
Roaring Twenties Era
Warren Harding was elected in 1920 by a landslide vote. He ran on the platform of “Return to Normalcy” following the freedom limiting actions taken by Democrat Woodrow Wilson during WWI. His administration though would ultimately be known for its numerous corruption scandals. Calvin Coolidge took office upon Harding’s death and inherited a recession. Coolidge cut taxes and government spending dramatically and the economy roared back to life. Herbert Hoover was president during the stock market crash of 1929. However, despite popular belief, it did not singlehandedly create the Great Depression. Unemployment in particular and the stock market to an extent had recovered much of the losses by the following June. At this time however, Congress got involved and passed protective legislation that created uncertainty in the markets. Hoover continued government interference in the economy and was defeated by FDR in 1932.
The Republican party did not regain the presidency until Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Ike’s ideology was unknown and both parties tried to get him to be their candidate in 1948.
Barry Goldwater began the modern conservative movement in the Republican party by capturing their nomination in 1964. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson but regained his Senate seat in 1968 and served until 1987.
Republicans elected moderate Richard Nixon who resigned over his role in the Watergate scandal and just ahead of an impeachment attempt. He was replaced by Vice President Gerald Ford who lost his subsequent election to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Ronald Reagan led a conservative revival and recaptured the White House for the Republicans in 1980 by creating a coalition of Republican, Democrat, social, and religious conservatives. The Iranian hostage crisis, which plagued Carter’s presidency, ended as the hostages were released during Reagan’s inauguration. Reagan’s first order of business was to eliminate chronic double-digit inflation. See the Economic Expectations page for a deeper explanation of this situation. Reagan squeezed the money supply and created a recession which quickly wrung the inflation out of the system then brought the economy back with tax cuts and increased military production. At the time most economists knew that only a recession would eliminate inflation. Few believed that the economy could be revived in time for him to have a chance for a second term. The economy made a spectacular recovery and Reagan won one of the most lopsided Electoral College landslides in history.
Reagan made a strong stance against communism the focal point of his foreign policy and challenged the Soviet Union on many fronts. With the aid of Margaret Thatcher of England and Pope John Paul II communism was pressed hard particularly in Poland and Germany. They supported the freedom seekers of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Reagan in his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate at the Berlin Wall, and over the protestations of his own State Department, challenged General Secretary Gorbachev of the USSR to “tear down this wall”. See this link for a partial video of the speech. Reagan also challenged the USSR to match the US in military spending and innovation. The USSR economy could not meet this challenge and eventually collapsed in 1991 during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. Reagan is largely credited for bringing about the downfall of Soviet communism.
Reagan’s presidency was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal where arms were illegally sold to Iran and the cash used to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua over the Boland amendment rider that prohibited funding the Contras (who were battling the left wing Sandinista government).
A news media hostile to Reagan’s conservatism painted a picture of his presidency in which perception was dramatically different from reality. I was taking Macro Economics in 1983 during the height of Reaganomics and saw first hand the distorted reporting on the economy. Democrats and the media also hyped his aggressive foreign policy stance as trying to provoke a war with the USSR. He was alternately portrayed as both a dunce and a grand manipulator, two identities that are hard to reconcile indeed. Reagan however had the gift of being able to touch the American people and get his message of American exceptionalism, personal freedoms, low taxes, strong foreign policy, and his faith in US citizens across to the American citizen despite the media’s attempts to filter them. No Republican presidential candidate since then has had this ability to connect with the American people.
Republicans swept to control of Congress during Clinton’s first midterm election (1994). Newt Gingrich is credited with this development as he came to the American voters with the “Contract with America” which outlined a very specific and conservative agenda. Some highlights from the Contract include: eliminating the Congressional exemption from their own laws, subject Congress to an independent audit for waste and corruption, term limits for House and Senate members, balanced budget amendment, line-item veto for the president, tort reform, and welfare reform.
The Moderate Era
Since Reagan the Republicans have elected moderates George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush as bookends to the Clinton administration. The post-Reagan era has seen the decline of the conservative movement as most Republicans moved toward the middle of the political spectrum. Republicans began to act as if government was the solution rather than the problem. As the GOP started offering government solutions the differences between them and Democrats dwindled. Democrats exploited this and pummeled Republicans in the last two national election cycles.
The advance of a leftist agenda by the current Democrats has galvanized the conservative movement and led to the formation of the grassroots 9/12 and Tea Party protesters. Republicans resist or ignore this movement at their own peril. If Republicans fail to embrace the conservative resurgence they may find themselves going the way of the Whig party. After all the Republicans had their heyday when they defined themselves as the conservative movement and championed conservative ideology.