To Understand New Extremism, Look to History

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States where politicians defected early, such as Mississippi and Thurmond’s South Carolina, became solidly Republican relatively quickly, she said. By contrast, Arkansas, where the modern Republican Party operation was spearheaded by the liberal Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, the brother of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, did not switch to Republican control until decades later.

So, as the national Republican Party welcomed the former segregationist politicians and the voters they brought with them into the fold, the resulting party was a merger between the old party apparatus and the new contingent of defectors from the segregationist, authoritarian South.

Starting in the 1970s, evangelical groups helped to forge ties between the broader conservative movement and white Southern voters by recasting the federal government’s efforts to desegregate Southern schools, which involved stripping white-only Christian academies of their tax-free status, as an attack on evangelical Christians’ freedom of religion. That helped Republicans win elections, particularly in the South, and but effectively transferred some of the party’s agenda-setting power to the evangelical movement, said Daniel Schlozman, a Johns Hopkins political scientist and the author of “When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History.”

As I wrote in my recent column about Sweden, it’s now common, across many countries, for far-right candidates to win approximately 25 percent of the popular vote. But in most systems that means they are either excluded from power or just one member of a multiparty coalition. In the United States, by contrast, such candidates can win control over a national party, and with it all three branches of government.

It was not always obvious that things would turn out this way. American parties have always been broad coalitions of regional and ideological interests, and for a time, it seemed like Southern voters and politicians would play a similar role in the Republican coalition to the one they previously had in the Democratic one, supporting the mainstream agenda of the national party even if local preferences looked very different.

But that’s not what happened. The development of the party worked as a kind of two-step process, Ziblatt told me. “In the first step, it was this active strategic set of moves made by political leaders to form these coalitions. For conservative Republicans to align themselves with Southern Republicans and create a conservative Southern Republican Party. But then once you create that coalition, then you’re kind of trapped by it. Because at step two, the voters matter.”


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