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Republicans: THE CLASS OF '86

August 17, 1986|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — The 'Born-Again' Electorate is drawn to the GOP for cultural, religious reasons, not because of empathy with upper-bracket leadership elites and economic outlooks.

Realistically, the Rev. Marion G. (Pat) Robertson--the Virginia telepreacher whose charismatic brand of Protestant evangelism sometimes verges on faith-healing--has no shot at commanding the 1988 GOP presidential nomination or dominating the party's 1988 national convention. But his defeat in Michigan's Aug. 5 delegate selection preliminaries by Vice President George Bush--whose gray-flannel Republican forces could not always disguise their distaste and fear of polyester provincialism at worship--may begin a split along one of the most important fault lines in U.S. politics. A religious right political movement is gathering force--and a backlash is building simultaneously.

Let's begin with a basic demographic truth: For almost two decades, white fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, many of them Southern and most of them former Democrats, have provided the single most important swing constituency in presidential elections. A huge electorate, numbering in the tens of millions, has often voted its prayer book--as well as its patriotism and culture--over its pocketbook.

Except in the heyday of Jimmy Carter, Republican presidential candidates have been the ones to profit, sometimes overwhelmingly. In 1984, "born-again" white Christians went for Ronald Reagan over Walter F. Mondale by 4-1, the same huge margin they gave Richard M. Nixon in 1972. But now that these fundamentalists and evangelicals, aware of their importance to GOP success, are demanding a party organizational and policy-making role, they're making an unhappy discovery. Large elements of the Republican Party welcome them only as privates and corporals, not as captains and colonels. A real sociological and coalitional brouhaha may be in the works.

Over the last 20 years, the Democratic share of the presidential vote has generally shrunk: 43% in 1968, 39% in 1972, 51% in 1976, 44% in 1980 and 41% in 1984. As a result, the Democratic presidential coalition has become a shadow of its old Franklin D. Roosevelt-era self. The Republican presidential coalition has assumed the dominant role, uniting as wide a variety of groups--from Dixie fundamentalists to New York Jewish magazine editors and laid-back Nevada casino operators. The problem is that most of what unites them is reaction to past Democratic and liberal failures, not a shared Republican agenda. Now, these agenda disparities look like they're beginning to push to the fore.

It's not just evangelism versus secularism. Class, culture and economic status are involved. If the fight between Bush and Robertson in Michigan involved overtones of animosity between country club and chapel, there is also an emerging gap between the New Right and the New York-based neo-conservative movement captained by Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and company. The increasingly bitter name-calling between Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams --married to Podhoretz's stepdaughter--is an example. But the divisions go deeper. Yesteryear's shared distaste for the policies of George McGovern and then Carter can no longer bridge a great cultural divide. And in a regional sense, one can make a case that the GOP coalition's new economic "forgotten Americans" are the mining, agricultural, energy and textile communities of the South, the farm belt and the Rocky Mountains. Back in 1972 and 1980, they may have shared the GOP upper-bracket core constituencies' abhorrence of inflation--but not in 1986. The farm, energy and mining states--while not quite back to William Jennings Bryan-style economic populism--have clearly been on the easy money and reflation bandwagon for several years now.

To the eyes of these outsiders, White House Republicanism has served its core elites--people conservative in economics and moderate-to-sedate in culture--far better than it has served the peripheral populist-tilting and "social issue" constituencies who've voted Republican in most recent presidential elections. And this sense of being stepchildren and outsiders has driven religious-right leaders to start fighting "country club Republicans"--a favorite pejorative label--for control of GOP party organizations, platform commitments, local and even national nominations. Robertson's adventures and misadventures in Michigan are only part of this larger phenomenon.

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