The Republicans are a pompous group of blowhards who revel in their power by smoking cigars and exhaling mirth in the direction of their vanquished foes, the Democrats. They are the perfect, unrestrained example of the sore winner. Their gloating, their absolute belief that providence has led them out of the shadows of American politics to lead this nation towards the bright future of conservatism, is an amazing contradiction for a party that professes faith above reason. The Republicans are guilty of the sin of pride.
But, like all Republican tactics, there is quite a lot going on below the surface. The Republicans, and their pundits, have become excellent at brushing off the Democrats as irrelevant. It is a constant refrain from the right whenever the Democrats stand in committee, before the press, or before Congress and voice their unwillingness to cooperate with policies and nominations that are morally reprehensible, that they are petty obstructionists. The Democrats are opposing the will of the American people. The public has anointed the GOP as their shining representatives of true American values, as their warriors in the battle with the cultural elite of the coasts. Liberalism has brought America to the brink of complete and total moral decay, and has squandered almost all of the political capital we deservedly won upon the defeat of the Soviet Union. At times, it appears the Republicans are stomping on a man who has already been beaten to the ground. But the fact is, the Democrats are in no way a vanquished foe, and the Republicans know this. The truth is in the numbers.
The Republicans have the majority in both the House and the Senate. If history is any guide, they would do well not to become too comfortable with this situation. Since the start of the 63rd Congress in January of 1913 (the first where the House had 435 members), all the way to the 109th Congress, which began this past January, Republicans have held a majority in the House of representatives a total of 16 times out of 47. Their record in the Senate is hardly better, 17 out of 47.
In the House, since 1913, the Democrats have held 11,342 seats to the Republicans 9,002, a difference of 2,341 seats in favor of the Democrats. When Republicans have held the House, their margin over the Democrats averages 40.25 seats, or about a 54% to 46% margin, while the Democrats’ margins over the Republicans have averaged 96.29 seats, or about a 60% to 40% margin, with a whopping 246 seat margin (77% to 23%) in the 75th Congress of 1937-1939. The Republicans currently hold a 30 seat margin. Their biggest majority came in the 67th Congress of 1921-1923, when they held a 171 seat margin (70% to 30%) over the Democrats.
Control of the House tends to come in streaks. The Republicans are currently on their second longest streak since the start of the 63rd Congress, with 6 consecutive majorities in the House. Their longest was 8, which began with the 65th Congress and extended through the 72nd. The Great Depression and Roosevelt wiped out that streak. The Democrats’ longest streak in this period ran from the 84th to the 103rd Congresses — 20 Congresses and 40 years. It easily could have been 31 Congresses were it not for brief Republican majorities in the 80th and 83rd Congresses.
In the Senate, it’s pretty much the same story. The margins in absolute numbers are different, but in percentages they are practically identical. (Now would be a good time to mention that when considering numbers, in order to keep them simple, I have dealt with membership distribution at the beginning of a Congress, and have not included changes that occurred during a Congress. For example, the 83rd Congress began with 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and one Independent in the Senate. However, nine senators died over the next two years, and control shifted between the Democrats and Republicans with each death. In analyzing party distribution, I gave the 83rd to the Republicans. The Senate website has an entire page devoted just to changes in the 83rd Congress.) The Republicans have averaged a 7.4 seat margin when they control the Senate, right about the 56% to 46% margin present in the House, while Democrats have maintained an average of just over 20 seats, for the same 60% to 40% margin (this grows only slightly when considering the Senate had only 96 seats until 1959). The greatest Republican majority came in the 67th Congress, when they held a 22-seat margin over the Democrats (61% to 39%). However, the Republicans truly did flirt with irrelevancy in the 75th Congress. On top of the Democrats’ large majority in the House, they also had their biggest windfall in the Senate, holding a 60-seat margin over the Republicans (79% to 17%, the remaining 4% belonging to other parties).
The streaks mentioned above apply less to the Senate. It is the legislative body that tends to shift around the most. This is not surprising considering senators must answer to a larger body of constituents, with a more varied world and national outlook. Nevertheless, the Republicans and Democrats have both pulled significant streaks in the Senate, 7 to 13, respectively.
So what does all this mean? In the arena of politics, citing history like this can seem to be meaningless. The old adage, “What have you done for me lately?” is a powerful force in Washington. The Republican majorities may be historically slim, but a slim majority for the GOP is every bit as powerful as a huge Democratic majority when the vote goes straight down party lines.
Now it becomes important to look not just at the numbers, but at their context in American history. We go back to the two greatest Republican streaks. In fact, the only two streaks the Republicans have had in the House in the period I researched.
The first streak ended with the election of Franklin Roosevelt for president and a commanding victory by Democrats in the House. This reversal of fortune for the Republicans was the result of government inefficiency and indifference to the plight of a vast number of Americans who were devastated by the Great Depression. This was the end of the era of the Robber Barons, when the gap between rich and poor resembled the gap that is continually growing today. The Republican administration of Herbert Hoover was deaf to the cries of the citizenry, to the point of being callous. Congress was no different. The public had been just waiting to get Hoover out of office after the Depression set in. But since they couldn’t, they held equally inept Republican legislators responsible. In the midterm elections of 1930, the Republicans found their 106-seat margin over the Democrats in the House reduced to just 2, finally losing their majority in 1932. In the Senate, a similar shift took place. So ended the last great period of Republican control of the United States government. They were ousted because they failed to respond to the needs of the citizenry of the country, instead focusing on the upper echelons of American society. Like then, today’s Republicans at times are nothing more than toadies to that moneyed elite. The difference today is that the Republicans have managed to convince the majority of the American people that it is them they represent. They portray themselves as the defenders of all Americans, when in fact they serve to protect the interests of a small amount. History has shown that when it comes down to protecting and furthering the interests of the majority of Americans, Democrats are the responsible party.
It is hard to fathom that at one time Liberalism and Conservatism existed side by side in both the Republican and the Democratic Parties, but they did. It wasn’t until the last thirty years when Republicans found their best success was in fostering complete and total differences between the two parties. Democrats have always leaned to the left, however, Social Security and Medicare being their greatest triumphs. Low taxation and lax regulation of big business are the two greatest legacies the Republicans can point to, despite the propaganda machine giving President Reagan sole credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Republicans are quick to point out that true conservative ideology points to less taxation as a form of liberty. That is nice. But there is a big difference between giving a one-off record store in Peoria a tax break amounting to a few thousand dollars, and giving multinationals the $143 billion gift President Bush signed into law last October. In addition, it’s hard to imagine a small string of laundromats in Queens poisoning thousands in the surrounding populace, and significantly reducing lifespans, because of a lack of either strict environmental regulations or the lack of enforcement of regulations already on the books.
Profit above all else is the mantra of the Republicans. While they continue to plot nefarious ways to do away with compassionate legislation, they also battle growing dissatisfaction with the way they run the country by using time-honed skills of framing, misinformation, and character assassination to paint the Democrats as effete and out of touch. But essentially, that is all they have. Republicans hang onto power by their fingernails. They command no mandate, yet they claim they do. They shout long and hard enough to make their claims all but true, and they do this because they know how tenuous their hold on power is. They also realize that it does not take a Great Depression to knock the Republicans off their throne and give the country to the Democrats for the next sixty years. All they have to do is keep on keeping on, as it were. Their policies would have been enough to do in their party by now, were it not for the skill of the Republican machine in shaping the debate. But Democrats aren’t stupid. They were just butting their heads against a brick wall for about a decade before they figured out that reason and truth are not the sole motivators for action in American society. Perception is the key.
Over the next few years, and becoming more pronounced in the decade that follows, the Republicans will begin to find that they no longer own the raw, emotional perspectives of American citizens, and their grip on power will begin to crumble. The Republicans’ power is a house of cards, resting on a foundation of lies. Once the Democrats are able to attack them there, it won’t be long before irrelevance becomes a word associated with the GOP.
Unfortunately, this shift in perception will be brought about by a harsh encounter with snub-nosed reality. As it gets harder and harder for the American government to find money to operate over the next few years, due to the GOP’s idiotic fiscal policies, debt will continue to grow, many nations will diversify their currency holdings, and there is a good chance a true economic crisis will arise to help oust the Republicans, much as it did in 1929. I first noticed the similarity of party divisions while reading about the last period in which Republicans lost power, and it is frightening to see the economic troubles that lie ahead, and how Republicans persist in ignoring them. I would much rather see the Republicans beaten on their own turf, that of public framing and definitions of morality, but the past indicates that when Republicans vacate the halls of power, they leave behind economies teetering on the brink, and massive amounts of human suffering.