In America, parties enter periods of hegemony when they are seen as having resolved the crisis of the age.
Lincoln, the first Republican president, reunited in blood a Union that had sundered over his election and a Southern rebellion against the ascendancy of an industrializing North.
With the crushing of the Confederacy by the armies of Sherman and Grant, the assassination of Lincoln on Good Friday, 1865, and the abolition of slavery, the Republican Party appeared to have solved the crisis of the age. The GOP owned the patriotism issue, "waving the bloody shirt," and the morality issue, emancipation, and thus became America’s Party.
From 1860 to 1932, the GOP produced 13 presidents, three of whom were assassinated. Democrats gave us only two, Cleveland and Wilson, both of whom owed their election to divisions within the Republican Party.
By 1930, however, the nation was mired in the Depression. The architects were not Smoot and Hawley, but, as Milton Friedman proved, the faceless men of the Federal Reserve.
Easy money had overheated the economy and sent stock prices into the stratosphere. In 1929 came the Crash. Margin calls went out. Savings were withdrawn to meet them. Banks collapsed. With no deposit insurance, savings were wiped out and a third of our money supply vanished. The Fed failed to replenish it.
To the rescue in 1932 came "Dr. New Deal." Though the great medicine man failed to heal the economy — unemployment was 17 percent in 1937 — FDR was seen as a leader of energy and ideas doing his best to rescue a nation plunged into Depression by corporate greed.
His act had about run out its course when war came, and though he campaigned in 1940 as Wilson had in 1916, on a pledge to keep us out of war, FDR steered us directly into the world storm. Then, like Lincoln, he died within days of victory, as the United States emerged as liberator and savior of Western Europe and first power on earth.
The Democratic ascendancy from 1932 to 1968 gave us four Democratic presidents — FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson — while the GOP elected only the war hero Eisenhower. Democratic dominance of the Congress was even more pronounced. From 1930 to 1980, a half-century, Democrats held the Senate and House for 46 years.
What destroyed the New Deal coalition was liberalism’s failure to cope with the crises of the 1960s: crime, Vietnam, and a moral and cultural revolution in which Democrats had a foot in both camps.
Nixon was the architect of Republican resurrection. After his 43 percent victory in 1968, comparable to Lincoln’s vote in 1860, he sheared off of the New Deal coalition, on the issues of patriotism and morality, 10 million to 20 million Northern ethnic Catholics and Southern Protestant conservatives, whose families had voted Democratic for generations.
Though decried as a Southern Strategy, Nixon’s was a national strategy. In 1972, he swept 49 states and 60 percent of the nation — a feat duplicated by Ronald Reagan in 1984.
From 1968 to 1992, a quarter-century, Republicans carried the White House in five of six national elections. By the midpoint and latter stages of this second Republican ascendancy, the party had achieved parity and was nearing hegemony at the congressional level.
All this is in peril today, as the Republican Party heads into a perfect storm in November that could sweep it away because it has failed not only to address the crisis of the age, but to comprehend it.
What is that crisis? America is today a nation bankrupt in the sense that it cannot meet all the IOUs the country has handed out.
We have an empire we cannot afford. We are committed to fight wars on every continent, but we lack the soldiers to fight them, as Latin America, the Middle East, Russia and China become anti-American.
We have Social Security and Medicare commitments to the baby boomers we cannot meet without a ruinous increase in taxes. We are running an unsustainable trade deficit of near $800 billion, financed by $2-billion-a-day borrowing from abroad that has begun to sink the dollar.
We have a shrinking industrial base and a growing dependence on China, Japan and other Asian nations for the necessities of our national life.
We have borders we cannot protect, as the Third World mounts an invasion of America. And we have a ruling party that is breaking up over these issues, as the Democratic Party of 1968 broke apart over Vietnam, riots and the cultural revolution. With this difference: America in ’68 had a Republican Party and conservative movement ready to rule.
Few today have confidence in the party of Kennedy and Clinton, Kerry and Biden, Pelosi and Reid, Sharpton and Schumer.
In 1932, it took a Depression to bring to power new men and ideas. In 1968, it took a divisive war, urban riots, assassinations and a cultural revolution to convince America to turn away from the party of their fathers. What is the calamity that is coming this time?