Institutional Combat and Republican Takeover in the Reagan Era

An in-depth look at Democratic entrenchment, the Republicans offensive, and institutional combat.

The election of 1932 forever changed the course of American politics and American society. 1932 ushered in an era of liberal feelings, expanding government, and an all-together Democratic entrenchment. For the next four decades, the government continued to expand its role and a strong system of benefits (welfare) was created and expanded, primarily through Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson. Since the 1930s, the Democrats have become entrenched in Congress and government agencies, allowing the New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society programs to stay in place and fight the Republican offensive of the 1980s. Though the Republicans were (and so far are) unable to remove the programs and strip away the welfare system, they were successful in creating intense institutional struggles that have become the focus of politics and many discussions throughout the nation. Moreover, continued institutional combat stops the two parties from acting in the best interests of America – rather, the two parties act in fashions deemed best to bring down the other.

Following the onset of the Great Depression, Democrats were entrenched in Congress for six decades. This was possible thanks to the New Deal coalition, which included labor unions, farmers, the elderly, southerners, Jews, Catholics, and, of course, liberals. The New Deal coalition was formed because the general populace was seeking a change from the failed laissez-faire policies of Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Roosevelt offered hope and new ideas to help the country escape the throes of depression. His policies of government intervention in the private markets on behalf of citizens were quite popular throughout the country and allowed for the coalition to remain intact. Such a far-reaching and inclusive coalition kept the Democrats in Congress for close to 60 years, and in the Presidency for 36 years (asides from Eisenhower, whose policies would be considered somewhat liberal today). Though FDR intended for the New Deal programs to temporary, he soon made them “permanent features of the American governmental system” (84). Being the dominant party in Congress and controlling the Presidency for numerous terms allowed the Democrats to create many social welfare programs, thus becoming entrenched in the domestic state.



Democratic entrenchment in Congress and in the Presidency allowed them to gain a firm footing in “federal social service[s], labor and regulatory agencies, and government bureaucracies and nonprofit organizations on the state and local levels that help administer national social programs” (81). At first, it was easy for the Democrats to maintain control because a liberal Congress and Democratic president allowed for safe passage of agency funding. Even when the White House was run by a Republican, Democrats are able to maintain high levels of influence and control on the aforementioned government agencies and subsidiaries. This is due to those who work in the agencies, bureaucratic networks, and administrative capabilities. Individuals who work in the agencies are generally “committed to these organizations’ goals” and are “commit to the public sector”, a trait generally found in Democrats rather than Republicans (82). Bureaucratic networks let Democrats establish links directly with voters, which played a key role in the creation of Democratic voting tendencies amongst “unionized workers and ethnic minorities” as well as “some middle-class homeowners, professionals, and members of the business community” (83). In these ways, agencies are able to resist efforts “by Republican presidents to redirect or limit their activities” (84).

By the 1960s, the Democrats were reeling and became “fully dependent on its base of power in the domestic state” (88). Perhaps the biggest challenge to the New Deal coalition was the Democratic support of civil rights for African-Americans. While Northern Democrats were “sympathetic to the plight of the blacks” (88), southern conservatives (who voted Democratic out of tradition) were not. Civil right legislation passed in the New Frontier and Great Society caused a party dealignment, with Southern Democrats slowly leaving the party to vote Independent or Republican. Blacks soon replaced white Southern Democrats. Federally funded community development corporations, community action centers, and neighborhood service centers “provided an institutional framework through which blacks could be organized to provide local political support for [Great Society] programs” (90). When blacks go out and vote, Democrats almost always win. However, the struggle for liberals is getting African-American citizens to vote, a problem President Obama was able to solve through his nationality and focus on Get Out The Vote initiatives.

During Lydon Johnson’s presidency, the conflict in Vietnam escalated into a war. Due to this, liberals within the administration and throughout the country “launched a full-scale attack on the national security establishment”, seeking to “subject the military-industrial complex to stricter external control” (91). This attack was successful in cutting defense spending throughout the 1970s. However, Democrats were charged with weakening national defenses to a critical level following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Republicans were thus able to gain support in the South and West among those who had a stake in defense spending, hence further challenging the New Deal coalition.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention saw numerous changes designed to show the party’s racial acceptance as well as to pass reforms for primaries and campaign finance. Considered by many to be the biggest change, a new rule required that “delegations to future national conventions be composed of blacks, women, and youths in a ‘reasonable relationship to their presence in the population of the state’” (93). Another platform agenda was encouraging states to use open primaries and caucuses in order to limit the “slate-making efforts of party organizations” (93). The Common Clause group sought campaign finance laws that would include limitations on individual contributors. These proposed reforms by the liberal Democrats steered the party in the direction of middle-class citizens and racial minorities. However, this came with the destruction of the local party organizations, leaving the Democrats even more “dependent upon their bastions within the domestic state” (94).



After a few years and elections of political turmoil, following Nixon’s demise at Watergate and the failure of the Carter administration, Republicans were successful in winning back the presidency in 1980 and began to implement an agenda with an idea of undermining Democratic strongholds and dismantling the social welfare programs. In order to curtail the Democratic entrenchment, Republicans used a mixture of tax reductions, domestic spending cuts, and deregulation. Doing so “diminished the Democrats’ ability to achieve their policy objectives…and provide benefits to groups allied within the party” (103). Significant tax decreases resulting less money for the government and a ballooning annual deficit. To remedy this, a number of domestic spending cuts ensued, putting domestic programs under pressure by cutting of funding (the Anaconda plan). New programs could not be created and funding levels for existing programs were always at risk of being cut. Republicans also sought to deregulate key industries, including transportation, energy, and finance, which limited regulatory agencies as they were not “able to intervene against business on behalf of groups disadvantaged by market process” (106). Deregulation also helped business break with labor, weakening the unions and thus the Democrats. Through these means, the “Republican Offensive” was successful in damaging the Democratic entrenchment; however the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 prevent the destruction of Democratic control.

As the Republicans undermined the “capacities of institutions” (107) controlled by Democrats, they also began to weaken the Democratic social base and New Deal coalition, focusing on business, the middle-class, blue-collar workers, and white southerners. Republicans were able to take business from the Democrats with Reagan’s promises of cutting “costly social programs”, weakening the “influence of labor”, and deregulation. These promises lured businesses to the right, where many of them remain today. In order to win over the middle-class, conservatives “attempted to convince” them that they weren’t “beneficiaries of federal expenditure programs”, but rather “taxpayers” (110). They were successful in creating an issue out of taxes; there was a 21% increase in voters who identified taxation as a problem between 1976 and 1984 (111). By focusing on the aspect of taxation rather than benefits, Republicans were able to lure away middle-class voters with promises of lower tax rates, stealing another block of the Democrat’s New Deal coalition. Republicans won blue-collar workers by stressing “moral and religions convictions” as well as patriotic appeals (114). In addition, Republicans subtly used the issue of race to win over blue-collar workers (115). The race issue, as well as moral convictions and beliefs – such as abortion – , helped Republicans win the votes of white Southerners, who were mostly Evangelicals. By taking these voting groups, Republicans were successful in dismantling the New Deal coalition.



Republicans also made popular bounds with their national security platform and monetary and fiscal policies. The first Reagan term saw the “largest peacetime military buildup” (117). Doing so let Reagan claim the Republican Party was the one of power, both domestically and abroad. It has been acknowledged that the Department of Defense is a Republican entrenchment. While the Reagan administration’s policies led to a soaring national debt, the decline of the dollar, and a growing trade deficit, his policies made it impossible for Democrats to campaign on their core issue: entitlement programs. Since there was a large deficit, it was impossible to run with idea of creating new domestic spending programs, hence hurting Democratic candidates. All in all, national security and monetary and fiscal policies by Republicans strengthened their institutional standing and their capacities of governance all while weakening the Democrats.

Unfortunately, rather than serving the people, the two major political parties have come to use the institutions of government as a means of battling the other. For example, budget deficits via tax cuts were used as a Republican weapon to prevent new spending programs that would have benefited many people throughout the country. Luckily, the debt was financed by foreign governments who sought to capitalize on the high interest rates used by the Federal Reserve to tame inflation. Democrats responded by passing the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act to try and pressure Reagan into tax increases. They also pursued protectionism as a means of cutting off the foreign investment that financed the burgeoning debt. This political fighting hurt the country as markets were sent into a flurry of panics, culminating in Black Monday. In national security, the Reagan administration spent huge sums of money to appear powerful and make Americans think that Republicans were the party of power. Coupled tax decreases, Reagan managed to run extraordinarily high deficits, resulting in the aforementioned disempowerment of Democrats. Federal courts of expanded their powers by “rescind[ing] the abstention doctrine” and by “creat[ing] new rights” (147). Socially, institutional combat deprived America of health care reform when a Republican Congress blocked the Clintons’ health care plan. Impeachment charges, ironically led by Newt Gingrich, were brought on Clinton despite his lack of breaking any formal law. Clearly, rather than focusing on how to best help Americans, the two major parties instead focused on how to damage the other.

Overall, institutional combat and struggles between the two major parties deprives the country of a governing body devoted to advancing policies best suited for the progression of societal well-being. Ever since the Democratic entrenchment of Congress, the presidency, and other agencies in the 1930s, Republicans have sought a way to demean the Democrats and shift the country right. This manifested itself in 1980 after New Deal coalition slowly disintegrated and the Democrats found themselves in a crisis, per se, with a crumbling base and a number of issues that seemed bound to destroy the party – among them national security and the military, as well as growing inflation caused by ample government spending. The reestablishment of the Republican Party has only served to worsen institutional combat as now the two sides are on equal grounds from which to wage political war. As long as institutional combat continues, little will be accomplished by the government and the general populace will suffer as a result.

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