More than 150 years ago, in 1858, as the national crisis over slavery heightened, Abraham Lincoln famously remarked that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and that the “crisis” would be “reached and passed” only when the house divided would “become all one thing or all the other.” Now, the long conflict over social equality, political democracy and American government that began during the Progressive era, followed by the New Deal and the Great Society, is reaching its inescapable conclusion. If the Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they will also almost inevitably control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving them virtually unfettered command over the entire federal government to go along with their domination of the great majority of the state governments. The Republican president could easily be in a position to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court for an unstoppable right-wing majority that would last for a generation to come. Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and Shelby County v. Holder (the 2013 ruling that greatly weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act) would be merely the prelude to tilting political and social power. If, however, the Democrats win the presidency in 2016, they will almost certainly take back the Senate and make gains in the House – and the Democratic president will likely be able to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court that will eventually comprise a liberal majority. Between these two stark alternatives, there is no middle ground. In 2016, the country will become either one thing or the other.
How did we arrive at this decisive moment? Two powerful historic developments have driven American politics over the past half century. The Republican Party has been transformed by a conservative movement that has pushed it ever further to the right. The Democratic Party, stunned by the conservative counterrevolution, has struggled to reinvent itself and its politics, while facing the increasingly formidable resources of the right. These shifts are responsible for the polarization and dysfunction that have gripped American government since the 1990s. But they began in 1968.
Amid that year’s turmoil, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy crushed liberal hopes and paved the way for the election of Richard M. Nixon. Although at the time Nixon seemed to represent a moderating force inside the Republican Party, his triumph, in retrospect, set in motion what has proved to be the Republicans’ unending radicalization.
It is easy to forget how much Nixon changed American politics. Only four years before 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson won a landslide victory over the hard-right Republican Barry Goldwater and swept a liberal majority into Congress. Goldwater attracted to his cause extremist elements that arose out of pro-business reaction to the New Deal and out of the right-wing anti-communism of the Cold War. After World War II, those elements began uniting traditional conservatives and libertarians, embodied in fringe groups like the John Birch Society. Goldwater also courted and won the white segregationist vote in the South, another major element in the emerging conservative coalition, inflamed by the rise of the civil rights movement and the fallout from the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.