No, Republicans Are Not the ‘Democrats Following the Civil War’

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At The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last offers up a piece of historical illiteracy so remarkable that it can’t be left unremarked upon. Describing the Republican Party as a “revanchist minority,” Last writes:

The Republican party is a minority party. It has won a national plurality once since 1989, a period of minority status that compares more or less with that of the Democrats following the Civil War.

The Republican party has no prospect for regaining majority status. At some point in the indefinite future, such growth might happen. But it is far enough over the horizon as to be unseeable right now.

“That compares more or less with that of the Democrats following the Civil War”? Really? Thirty-two years have elapsed since 1989, and the Republican Party has not only run the House of Representatives for 20 of them, but in eight of those 16 House elections, it has won a majority of the mythical “popular vote” upon which assertions such as Last’s always rely. In the same time period, every state other than Oregon, Washington, and Delaware has elected a Republican governor at least once; Republicans have taken control of Texas and Florida, and held it unbroken (for 26 and 22 years respectively) even as large Democratic-leaning states such as California and New York have flitted around; and the party has become so adept at winning in different circumstances that, by 2016, the Chicago Tribune was noting that it was close to being able to change the Constitution on its own:

The November election put Republicans in full control of a record number of state legislatures around the country, a level of power that gives the party an unprecedented opportunity: change the U.S. Constitution.

Republicans already control Congress, the White House and more governors’ offices than they have in nearly a century. But it’s the state legislatures that hold perhaps the greatest promise for lasting change.

The GOP now holds numerical majorities in 33 legislatures, one shy of the two-thirds required to initiate a convention on constitutional amendments

Republicans improved upon their position in the states in 2020.

It is true that the GOP has struggled to win the presidency since 1989, yes. (It is also true that Democrats have struggled themselves: Between 1968 and 1992 they were mostly hopeless; in the 1990s, Bill Clinton won twice but never with the “majority status” that Last himself believes is so important; and, in the 2000s, Gore won a razor thin “popular vote” margin against a Republican whose victory in the following election led the Democratic Party to conclude it was toast.) It is also extremely silly to take this fact, extrapolate it out to all of American politics, and then swing wildly for a historical comparison that doesn’t work by any measure — or even on its own terms. In 1876 and 1888, the Democrats lost the White House despite having won the “popular vote.” How, one wonders, does Last square that circle?

Or any circle, really. Last writes acerbically that Republican success is “far enough over the horizon as to be unseeable right now.” To get there, though, he has to ignore Congress and the states; to set the presidency up as the only plebiscite that matters; to switch wildly between “plurality,” “minority,” and “majority” — words that do not all mean the same thing; to point to a historical example that contradicts his thesis; and to rely upon an analysis of an electoral system that does not actually exist in America, and by which precisely no elections have been fought in all of its history. If Last hopes to reckon honestly with the future of the Republican Party, he should first reckon honestly with its past.