Welcome to the Party, Pal

The electoral system in the United States almost assures that politics will be divided into two major coalitions. Most of us accept that America’s primary schism is between progressives and conservatives, and settle into a camp that satisfies us. It may have been inevitable Americans would be limited to two viable political choices, but the ideological specifics of our two options were not preordained, even if they seem natural to us now. The Republicans and Democrats could have developed differently.

We can imagine many reasons a party would change its priorities and ideological emphasis. A powerful president could align his party with his interests. Debates between intellectuals and pundits could shift how people think. The public’s preferences could change, and parties would need to change to remain competitive. High-dollar donors may insist on the promotion of certain issues. We must consider all of these possibilities using multiple methods if we want to understand ideological change in the United States.

Public opinion, elections, money, and highbrow philosophical debates are not the entire story, however. In his new book, First to the Party: The Group Origins of Political Transformation, Christopher Baylor argues that none of these things are the most important factor in explaining political change. According to Baylor, organized groups, which have specific interests not necessarily tied to an ideology, are the main catalysts for changes to a political party’s platform. To make his case, Baylor described how two groups transformed political parties and became crucial participants in American political life: African Americans and theologically-conservative Christians. Baylor’s work is not just an interesting new look at political history. It provides important insights into current political developments.

According to Baylor, organized groups are the key movers in American politics. More important than even politicians, and far more influential than pundits and intellectuals. Alliances between groups form out of convenience, not necessarily because of shared principles. Once a group has reached a threshold of influence, it is able to be a major player in its political party’s nomination process, and can force politicians to advance its agenda. Some of the most important changes occur when a previously weak group gains influence within one of the parties. According to Baylor, however, this can only occur when an outside group cultivates alliances with groups already powerful within a party.

Civil Rights Reform

Although they followed very different paths, Baylor’s discussion of African Americans and the Democratic Party and the religious right and the Republicans illustrates his point well. Blacks faced dismal prospects for civil rights reform in the 1920s and 30s. Their previous advocates, the Republicans, had lost interest in the subject. In fact, the “Lily-white movement” within the GOP sought to push blacks out of positions of influence within the party. Although the Democratic Party contained some liberals who were sympathetic to blacks, keeping Southern whites in the fold was deemed a more pressing concern during the Roosevelt Administration and beyond.

To find a party that would put civil rights back on the table, African Americans needed an ally to help them get their foot in a party’s door. According to Baylor’s narrative, they eventually found one in the labor movement. At the time, this did not seem like a natural association. Organized labor and civil rights organizations previously had an antagonistic relationship. Major unions were overtly discriminatory, and blacks were often employed during strikes. It took many years and many compromises on all sides, but eventually major groups like the CIO and the NAACP concluded that their interests were aligned, and they needed to back each other’s agendas.

By the mid-1940s, both groups were enjoying dividends from their alliance, and their combined power made them a powerful force within the Democratic Party. According to Baylor, it was practical considerations, not ideology, that brought these groups together. Over time, advocates for civil rights gained enough allies and influence to overrule the white Southern Democrats who previously held so much power in the party.

Rise of Evangelicals

Like African Americans in the early 20th century, culturally conservative Protestants were politically weak in the 1960s and 1970s. They represented a large share of the U.S. population, but neither party wanted much to do with them, nor did they have a unified political identity – on most policy issues, fundamentalist Christians were no more conservative than other groups in the electorate.

Although the conservative movement had a “traditionalist” element from the beginning, it was culturally and politically distinct from the evangelical movement that later became such a crucial part of the Republican coalition. In the 1960s, most Christian conservative intellectuals were Catholic, and not especially interested in the “culture war” issues that later dominated American politics. Baylor correctly noted that the traditionalism Frank Meyer and other early conservative theorists envisioned was different from that of Pat Robertson.

For their part, white evangelicals were slow to make their religion a key element of their political identity. Although Billy Graham was an ardent anti-communist, he preferred to maintain some distance from partisan politics. It was not until the late 1970s that politicized evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell emerged as important figures. As political neophytes, they needed a gateway into existing GOP networks. According to Baylor, they found it with the so-called New Right, that group of belligerent political operatives such as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, who were looking for a new demographic base that would help them push the country further to the right – their earlier efforts to organize former Wallace supporters were unsuccessful. Their political expertise helped the nascent religious right form powerful organizations.

It took many years for theological conservatives to become dominant players in GOP politics. The religious right was often more focused on internecine disputes than fighting a broader culture war. Southern Baptists were never comfortable with Pentecostals, and neither were enthusiastic about Catholics. By the mid-1990s, however, the religious right had learned to be ecumenical, and more importantly learned that real power in the GOP could be obtained by dominating states that are important in the presidential primary process, especially Iowa and South Carolina. Although we can question whether the religious right ultimately won many lasting policy successes, their rise in GOP politics was remarkable and deserves additional analysis.

Baylor’s study is a monumental effort. He sifted through archives across the nation, and interviewed public figures who provided fresh insights into the groups that reshaped American political life.

Is Right-Wing Populism Next?

Baylor’s argument is persuasive, but I wonder if he overstates his case. Although his case studies are congruent with his theories, we can think of groups that achieved influence by other means. For example, the neoconservatives became a powerful force in GOP politics without first mobilizing any kind of mass movement. Their history indicates that there may be other paths to influence. Baylor was also unclear as to what qualifies as an organized group, which makes it harder to know if a counter-example challenges his thesis. Despite those quibbles, Baylor’s argument is compelling and has important implications.

If Baylor’s theory of political change in correct, the right-wing populist movement that put Trump into office will probably not outlive the Administration. There is clearly a market for what has come to be called “Trumpism,” but there are no stable institutions pushing for it. Nor are the existing elements of the Republican coalition – big business, the religious right, the conservative intelligentsia – interested in welcoming new partners who reject several key elements of traditional conservatism.

The religious right did not become a major player in Republican politics because of a Machiavellian political strategy. It resulted from an enormous amount of work, much of it done by volunteers. Conservative evangelicals formed institutions, donated money, filled local unelected positions in state parties, and ran for office themselves.

Since President Trump’s election, the Trumpist element of the GOP has done little organizing. Steve Bannon’s attempt to promote primary challengers to mainstream Republicans ended after the Roy Moore fiasco, and no one has since picked up that banner. There are no significant organized interests insisting Trump and congressional Republicans follow through on an “America First” agenda.

This has been a perennial problem for right-wing populist movements in the United States. These voters occasionally rally behind a charismatic candidate – Wallace, Perot, Buchanan, Trump – but they can never be counted on to do much beyond that. Part of their problem is that their agenda is not aligned with significant moneyed interests. This was also true of the religious right in its early days, but that community of voters was already organized into religious institutions, giving them an advantage when it came to political organizing. The Trumpist bloc remains atomized, and thus largely irrelevant. It is unlikely that Trumpism will lead to organizations analogous to the Christian Coalition or the NAACP.

President Trump has been less disruptive to the political status quo than many people feared or hoped. To better understand why, I recommend First to the Party. The 2016 GOP primaries and presidential election may have provided a mandate to change the Republican Party’s priorities. However, the absence of an organized group committed to the agenda Trump articulated in the campaign allowed the Republicans to maintain the status quo.

Reader Discussion

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on July 12, 2018 at 09:58:34 am


It is important to note that, given the signs of the time we are living in, and, considering the alternative, not all who voted against the alternative can be labeled “Alt Right”.

There was a time when The Democratic Party respected the Sanctity of huma life, from the moment of conception, and the Sanctity of the marital act, which is Life-affirming and Life-sustaining, and can only be consummated between a man and woman, united in Marriage as husband and wife, but that was long before they voted to remove God from their platform , and substituted The Blessed Trinity with the infamous “Mystery Clause”.

In fact, the alt Right’s ideology is certainly consistent with someone who desires to substitute the “Mystery Clause”, for The Lord And Giver Of All Life:

“Liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

One can know through both Faith and reason that a “liberty”, based upon the denial of a hierarchy of absolute self-evident Truth, will always lead to anarchy.

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Image of Nancy
on July 12, 2018 at 10:07:30 am

A true originalist, first and foremost, cannot be an anarchist, because a true originalist affirms that it Is God Who Has Endowed us with our unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness; anarchy is not of The Holy Ghost.

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Image of Nancy
on July 12, 2018 at 12:48:25 pm

Sadly, many women think that being forced to risk their lives in childbirth could result in their death--I know, so selfish of them to want to live! (look up maternal mortality rates in Texas, they're chilling). You would think that being forced to bear an unwanted child was forcible servitude, or something like that. Also, many pro-life people are anti-birth control, too.

So here you have the Republican trifecta--lack of birth control, higher maternal mortality rates, and cutting the safety net for those women who do keep their children.

Amazing how so many think that's a good idea and are shocked, shocked that women decide not to vote for that. Note that when the Personhood Amendment (which also banned some birth control methods) was voted on in that hotbed of liberal thought, Mississippi, it went down.

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Image of excessivelyperky
on July 12, 2018 at 17:40:01 pm

Abortion news at 9 pm; abortion news at 6 am; abortion news ALL the time.

Oh, the Blessed Sacrament of abortion must be preserved and that is all some can talk about. Indeed, vociferous vocalization of such support would appear to warrant the issuance of Merit badges to some.

another lefty troll forcing the possibility of a decent conversation off the tracks again.

I think I will go boil some Smurfs in my cauldron. Perhaps, I shall expand my recipes to include *parrots*

This is really tiresome.

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Image of gargamel rules smurfs
gargamel rules smurfs
on July 12, 2018 at 17:44:54 pm

BTW: The essayist is quite incorrect when he asserts that unions and Blacks had reached a comprehensive and mutually beneficial arrangement by the 1940's.

Having gone through a period in the 1960's in the Building Trades in New York city when all of the major construction unions were involved in litigation to prevent black americans from working in those trades, I can attest that there was considerable work to be done AND considerable animosity directed at black construction workers (or applicants, to be more precise)

And here is the funny thing, Almost all of these tradesmen were die-hard Democrats. Interestingly this continues to this day in those trades.

Let's take at least a little bit of the l;ipstick off this union pig!

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Image of gabe
on July 12, 2018 at 21:05:07 pm

Yoy know what is most disconcerting about your commentary, especially reagrding abortion.

It is simply this:

It is, in fact, too *perky*, too "congratulatory" too self satisfying. It would appear that you, like many others in the *choice* movement, appear to need to exalt your credentials, your bona fides on this issue. and you do it with an attempt to convince others of the "wholesomeness", the rightness and the moral rectitude of your *choice*.

Frankly, it is unseemly, child!
Abortion is a rather serious business involving as it does the termination of a potential human life. One ought not to express bloody "glee" at the option or, as did that fat idiot, Lena Dunham. lament the fact that she DID NOT have one. Her words as I recall were, "I have not had an abortion BUT I wish I DID." What manner of luncay, or moral deprivation, frankly of un-introspective lunacy / inability to experience embarrassment is this.

If one is unfortunate enough, for whatever circumstances, to have to undergo this fateful procedure, at least have the good sense and common decency to NOT F'ING GLOAT about it - or, as did the Dimwit Dunham lament YOUR failure to have done so.
At long last, Madam, have you sense of shame? This is not something for the *tribunes* of the currant age to trumpet to all within earshot - unless, of course, one is more concerned with demonstrating one's solidarity with the cause.

And just as an aside. I have found that it is more difficult to euthanize a fat, 10 year old Labrador then it is for a 16 year old to obtain an abortion. Briefly:
1) I have had dogs since Dwight David Eisenhower was president.
2) Friends and relatives (half)jokingly refer to me as a dog (and child) whisperer.
3) Current dog is 10 years old - a rescue dog.
4) recently snapped at my grandaughters face and had my grandaughter been in the act of fallin backward, the dog probably would have taken a bite out of her face.
5) Decided to put her down.
6) Went to my vet of some 14 years. She has cared for my previous two Labradors (15 & 12 yrs respectiveky).
7) Was told that I NEEDED to have A bloody consultation WITH THE VET ABOUT MY OPTIONS.
8) She will not put a dog done unless there are medical issues.
9) Are you bleeping kidding me? Does my grandaughter not count as a medical issue?
10) Noticed the vetinarians bumper sticker which read: "Support Planned Parenthood / Support a Womans right to Choose.
11) Can someone help me here? Isn't it funny that she who ostensively supports choice, a choice which results in the death of a human baby, will not afford me, a male, a RIGHT to choose to euthanzie a now aggressive dog.

Oh, I get it. It must be because I am a Man and not a Woman. Aftyer all, her bumper sticker says "A WOMANS right to choose" - not a mans. shoot, I should have had my wife (who supports this decision) make the call.

12) contrast that with a the prohibitions on even have a parent have a *consultation* with their 16 year old daughter about an abortion and you may question the sanity of all these boisterous supporters behind the barricades of a "woman's right to choose."

BTW: An absolutely true story.

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Image of gabe
on July 15, 2018 at 23:20:13 pm

If, during a pregnancy, the life of the mother of the son or daughter residing in her womb is at risk, and if in attempting to save the mother, the child ends up dying, that is not an act that intentionally destroys the life of that son or daughter.

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Image of Nancy
on July 19, 2018 at 17:17:54 pm

[…] a short review of Christopher Baylor’s new book First to the Party, which I am eager to read, George Hawley […]

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Political Parties & Organized Groups Forcing Change – Full Magazine
on November 19, 2018 at 12:07:50 pm

[…] Read more: lawliberty.org […]

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Image of Welcome to the Party, Pal - Trump Gawker
Welcome to the Party, Pal - Trump Gawker

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.