There is now much discussion about a presumed civil war
in the Republican Party. The issues provoking this are not
at all new, however, and it is not clear that a true civil war
is taking place.
There seems to be little doubt that the two major U.S.
political parties are now quite polarized. After World War II,
each party actually had a relatively “large tent” for its
supporters. On the Democratic side, there was a left
“(Henry) Wallace wing and a more traditionally liberal
Truman wing. On the Republican side, there was the more
conservative (Robert) Taft wing and a more moderate
northeastern Dewey wing. Within each party, there was,
compared to today, a very wide range of opinions held by
party leaders and grass roots voters.
Soon after World War II ended, the U.S. supreme court
decided to end segregation and later, end the prohibition of
abortion. The end of the war was followed by a new
international confrontation that was labelled the Cold
War between democratic capitalism and Soviet
communism.The subsequent rise of civil rights promotion
was supported by most leaders of both parties, as was a
foreign policy of opposing Soviet expansionism. In the
issue of abortion, each party was divided.
As the initial post-war period was followed by the Korean
War and the Viet Nam War, and an extraordinary economic
boom lifted the United States to the role of economic, as
well as military, superpower, the latitude of each political
party began to narrow dramatically. The “solid South,”
which had voted Democratic since the Civil War, now
elected Republicans. Social progressives asserted themselves
in the Democratic Party on the abortion issue while social
conservatives asserted themselves on the issue in the
Republican Party. On the Democratic side, civil rights issues
were expanded from fighting segregation to women’s rights.
On the Republican side, conservative economic issues rose
to new prominence, resisting the liberal desire to continue
and expand the “New Deal” into a full social welfare state.
In foreign policy, the recent Democratic tradition of
internationalism was replaced with a new isolationism,
and it became part of the Democratic catechism to reduce
military spending. The traditional Republican isolationism
of most of the 20th century was, cultivated by its consistent
anti-communism, transformed into a new aggressive
More recent issues concerning illegal immigration, gay
rights and gay marriage, alleged global warming and
environmental concerns in general have further polarized
the bases of each political party.
A division within the Democratic Party, primarily over
economic issues, still exists, but the election of Barack
Obama as president in 2008, and his re-election in 2012,
has, in effect, suppressed this division, especially as the
support for the Democratic Party became localized in the
North East, Far West, and in most large cities. Liberal
leaders who hold moderate or centrist economic views
are generally silent, especially in the Congress.
Republicans who hold more moderate or centrist views
have also been mostly silenced or excluded from their
party leadership. The inheritors of Eisenhower
Republicanism no longer have much say in the conservative
party, and many have left the party to become "independents."
The alleged “civil war” in the GOP is not between
moderates and conservatives. While social and economic
conservatives dominate this party, they are being
challenged not from the left, but from the right. Part of
this challenge has been from voters, generally categorized
as the conservative sub-group, the Tea Party. Most of these
“Tea Party” Republicans have energized the GOP, giving
rise to sensational mid-term elections in 2010 that restored
the party to control of the U.S. house of representatives.
Another part of this challenge comes from a group generally
labelled as “libertarians.” Libertarians have traditionally
advocated conservative economic views of lower taxes,
lower government spending and smaller government. These
views have coincided with the general conservative views
of most contemporary Republicans. Under the leadership
of former Congressman Ron Paul, however, many in this
group took up a new isolationism in foreign policy that
included views indirect conflict with those held by a large
majority of contemporary conservatives. This became quite
clear in the contest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination
when Ron Paul rarely exceeded 10% of the GOP primary vote.
Ron Paul’s son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, has taken up the
leadership of the libertarian wing of the conservative party,
but apparently understanding the lack of support of
outspoken isolationism, has moderated his foreign policy
and other views. He remains controversial, but seems to have
more support nationally than his father ever had.
While the Republican Party remains unambiguously a
pro-life party (as the Democrats are unambiguously
pro-abortion), other social issues have arisen to divide the
At this moment, the primary conflict is over the attempts
to fashion immigration reform, specifically resolving the
issue of more than 10 million “illegal immigrants,”most of
whom have come from Mexico in recent decades.
In the past, this has been a bipartisan issue. Democrats,
who receive the lion share of Hispanic votes, have
understandably promoted a resolution of this issue
which includes enabling “illegals” to become citizens.
But many Republicans, especially in the large states of
Florida and Texas, also do well with Hispanic voters,
and moreover, understand that sending 10-plus million
“illegals” back to Mexico is not a viable solution.
Former President George W. Bush and former Speaker
Newt Gingrich have consistently supported immigration
reform, as do many current and former GOP governors
and members of Congress.
To complicate matters, under Majority Leader Harry
Reid’s excessively partisan leadership, the U.S. senate
passed a very flawed bill that is unacceptable to the GOP
majority in the U.S. house. This has put GOP Speaker John
Boehner on the spot as he attempts to fashion an
alternative bill that is much more acceptable to his caucus.
Some anti-immigration reform GOP partisans have
threatened Republican incumbents with primary challenges
if they go along with any U.S. house bill, and this conflict is
one of the underpinnings of the so-called GOP civil war.
Ironically, the Republican Party is becoming more and more
well-positioned for the 2014 mid-term elections. It is
generally conceded that, as of now, there is little likelihood
of Democrats retaking control of the U.S. house. On the
other hand, there seems to be, as of now, a growing
likelihood that the GOP could win back control of the U.S.
senate. Not only did the conservative party gain much
advantage in the 2010 congressional redistricting, they gain
further advantage from their support from rural, exurban
and suburban voters. Furthermore, the continued chronic
unemployment and lack of economic growth has quickly
led to a “lame duck” atmosphere around presidential
So the apparent political “quiet” of the summer of 2013
might well belie a critical moment in the prospects of the
Republican Party as it heads to 2014 and, not much later,
the presidential election of 2016.
It would seem that the threat of a so-called Republican
“civil war” is better met squarely by Republican leaders at
all levels sooner rather later.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.