display | more...

The "Republican Revolution" is a general reference to the November 1994 elections in the United States, in which for the first time in 42 years, the Republican Party captured the majority in the House of Representatives with a 42-seat gain, awarding them a 230-204 seat majority. In the same election, the Republicans also gained control of the Senate, taking eight seats and adding a ninth due to the party switch of Richard Shelby (AL).

Seeds of Change (1981-1993)

The first seeds of the Republican Revolution were planted in November 1980 when the American people elected Ronald Reagan to be their 40th president by a fairly wide margin. At the time, Jimmy Carter presided over a nation with a stagnant economy and crippling inflation along with a lack of oil availabilty. Add to that a burgeoning crisis with Iran hostages, and the American people were ready to elect someone like Reagan, who had charisma, a strong speaking ability, and seemingly boundless optimism about the potential for America.

Reagan's charm won him many followers, and he won re-election in a landslide in 1984 over Democratic Party candidate Walter Mondale; it was seen that the Reagan mandate also won in 1988, in which Reagan's vice president George Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis.

What made Reagan so popular in America? People will debate about this for centuries to come, but I think it was due to the fact that he was the first truly charismatic president since John F. Kennedy (think of the presidents between Kennedy and Reagan) and that he seemed to always carry a boundless optimism about the state of and the future of the nation.

Reagan's conservative policies turned around a stagnant economy in some ways. Through a series of policy changes collectively known as Reaganomics, by the end of the 1980s both unemployment and inflation were down, per-capita income was up, and interest rates were lower, and the creation of new wealth led to an explosion in venture capitalism, which indirectly led to the boom ecomony of the 1990s. On the other hand, the gap between low and high income was higher than ever before, meaning the new wealth created went largely into the hands of those who already had capital. For a much better discussion of Reaganomics and their long term repercussions, see that node, particularly N3Bruce's stellar writeup.

Bill Clinton's election to the presidency in 1992, however, created a situation in which both houses of Congress and the White House were controlled by Democrats. The Democratic philosophy of the time was that of providing as many services as possible to the nation, exemplified by Clinton's proposal of a national health care plan, and now was their time to act on it.

They failed.

The Revolution (1994)

Seeing that the Democrats were making little progress in their social agenda, and also observing that the economy was remaining relatively stagnant and living standards weren't improving, the Republicans banked hard on the 1994 legislative election. Rather than addressing specific local elections as had been done in the past, the Republicans campaigned on a united national scale, and used Newt Gingrich, a Republican representative from Georgia, as their point man.

Gingrich presented a vision of a set of conservative policies, which he set forth as clearly as possible to the American people in a document he called the "Contract with America." In it, the Republican party pledged that, within 100 days of taking majority control of Congress, they would enact a series of referendums that were clearly stated in the contract.

America agreed, and it was a landslide. The Republican Party captured the majority in the House of Representatives with a 42-seat gain, and also gained control of the Senate with a nine seat gain.

The Aftermath (1995-1998)

The Republicans lived up to their end of the contract, introducing every single bill discussed in the contract within the first 100 days of the legislative session. Newt Gingrich was elected the Speaker of the House, and the Republicans believed that they would easily unseat Bill Clinton in 1996.

Unfortunately, when 1996 rolled around, several things began to shift in America that allowed Bill Clinton to easily win re-election. The first was the selection of the seemingly uncharismatic Bob Dole as the Republican Party's candidate for President. The second was the shift in the economy; the large amount of venture capitalism made possible by Reaganomics was starting to pay off, and the economy was in the early growth stages of what would be a superheated economy throughout the late 1990s. These factors (among others), led to not only Clinton's re-election, but the picking up of ten additional Democratic seats in the House of Representatives.

Why did this happen? The root of the problem comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the Republicans of why the "Revolution" happened in 1994. The American people saw that government wasn't working and that their standard of living wasn't getting any better, and thus they "fired" the Democrats in control; it was not a vote in support of the Republican mandate. The Republicans erred in believing that it was indeed a widespread support among the people for their mandate, and thus when the Republicans passed a large number of bills that would support a Reagan-like economic and social agenda, the Americans rejected that, too.

What Americans wanted wasn't a Republican or Democratic agenda; they wanted a better standard of living, and they would vote against the party in power if their living standards didn't improve.

In 1998, again, the Democrats made up some ground, picking up five additional seats. After the failure of the 1998 election, Newt Gingrich stepped down as House speaker.

The Long-Term Impact (1999-2004)

The seeds had been planted, however, to create the neoconservativism that overtook the country in 2000. Most people are familiar with what happened then: George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in one of the tightest presidential elections in history, then proceeded to create a very conservative cabinet.

The elected political landscape of 2004 is Republican dominated; both houses of Congress and the White House are both Republican-dominated, and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 allowed the widespread legal adoption of a large number of conservative policies.

The Republican Revolution really was a revolution, after all.

Sources:

Klinker, Philip. Midterm: The Elections of 1994 in Context. Boulder, CO: HarperCollins, 1996.

Rae, Nicol. Conservative Reformers. New York: M.E. Sharpe Armonk, 1998.

The "Republican Revolution" was a name given to the success of the Republican Party during the 1994 Midterm Elections. The success was most noticeable in the House of Representatives, but also included success in the Senate, gubernatorial races, and amongst state legislatures.

I was fifteen at the time, and while I had many things on my mind (as will be discussed below), I did take some notice of the "Republican Revolution", and at the time it seemed counter-intuitive to me. In 1992, Oregon politics had its first bruising introduction into the so-called culture wars, with a ballot measure about homosexuality being defeated in a contest that brought many urban and suburban voters into a state of annoyance or disgust with the rural, fundamentalist wing of the Republican party. It might seem odd for me to be talking about this local issue in a discussion of national politics, but all will be explained. The basic story is, that as I was entering my adolescence in earnest, the overall trend around me seemed to be towards a more "liberal" attitude. And yet, here was a gigantic news story about a great resurgence of conservatism in American culture. What was really going on? During my research for the 1996 Election, which ended up as an electoral landslide for the Democratic Party, I ended up researching how 2 years after a "Republican Revolution", Bill Clinton did so well.

The party in power often loses ground during a midterm election. Turnout in a midterm election is generally lower, so if one party makes a strong Get Out the Vote effort with their supporters, they can make a much more impressive showing than they would otherwise. And a party that pays attention to demographic shifts, and uses their resources wisely, can pick up seats by getting a bare minimum in some districts while not even contesting others. All of which was the case in the 1994 midterms. The election was run with great tactical skill by the Republican Party. They realized that Democratic representatives in the rust belt, the suburbs and the South were straddling a line between the leaders of their party and their more rural constituents. Some of this was an inevitable demographic shift: the few Democratic representatives from areas like North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kansas were probably going to be carried away by demographic shifts sooner or later. Some of the other districts were carried by skilled campaigning, such as the historic upset defeat of Speaker of the House Tom Foley from his Spokane centered district, which probably owed a lot to the Republicans being able to understand and exploit the growing urban/rural divide in American politics.

All of this is already established. Sometime in 1993, a group of Republican strategists sat around a table, and realized that while they couldn't challenge Democratic strongholds in urban areas, they could run a tactical campaign that would give them a majority of seats by getting slim margins of disaffected rural and suburban voters. This would be especially easy in an off-year election, with discontent against the ruling party, and a strong get-out-the-vote effort. All of this is good tactical politics. After the election, the attempt to paint the narrative as a spontaneous uprising of good, traditional Americans against an entrenched power elite was also good politics.

But then the Republicans did something very stupid: they ate their own dogfood. The combined popular vote for House Republicans was 47.8%, against the Democrats 44%. A 3.8% margin, and a plurality does not a "revolution" make. The same Republican leadership that must have very carefully planned out how to work around their demographic weaknesses to eke out a tactical victory, actually believed that they had just followed the natural will of the American people. While unseating the Speaker of the House was a historic achievement, it was not the result of a vast anger against him by the common people: it was the result of a well-executed campaign where he got defeated by 4000 votes in an off-year election.

The Republican Party was deceived by looking at maps, as I think they have been many times. Controlling vast tracks of land across the country makes an impressive looking map, but the urban districts of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and even Houston, too small to see on most maps of electoral districts, are densely packed enough to easily counteract the vast yet sparsely populated prairies and mountains. The 1994 election, while it did tap into much popular discontent, didn't overcome the Republican party's strategic problems. It in fact, it probably made them worse. In the 1996 election, the Republican Party's narrative of being the party of traditional, conservative people would be turned against it by turning it into the party of old grumpy white men.

This turns me back to where I was in the summer and fall of 1994, a personal reminiscence that is not unrelated to such weighty matters. It may have just been that I was finally becoming a teenager, but the world and the culture around me seemed to be much more diverse, challenging and edgy than in the previous years. In the fall of 1994, I remember listening to Soundgarden, Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Popular films were Interview with the Vampire and Pulp Fiction. The teenagers I grew up with, the children of educated, middle class parents, seemed to be awash in new ideas, combined with a skepticism (bordering on hatred) towards many traditional institutions. Of course, the news that teenagers were rebellious is hardly something shocking. But beyond just the normal adolescent rebellion, I feel that the cohort that I grew up with did have a very different take on the world, and fairly or unfairly, associated the Republican Party with the old days. The real revolution that was going on was the new and different ways that the youth were looking at the world, something that would be greatly accelerated by the arrival of the internet. In my view, the tactical victory scored by the Republican Party in the 1994 election was a minor ripple against this current.

In general, although politicians like to make---and sometimes believe--- narratives about how their political positions are the true orientation of the silent majority, the real American electorate is a shifting body of differing beliefs and allegiances. Of course, if the American electorate did have a "fundamental bent", we would have dispensed with elections a while ago. Since 1984, neither party has ever managed to get a true landslide in the political vote, either in a Presidential or a Congressional election. Parties or factions that believe that they have captured the "heart of America" are probably doomed to failure sooner or later. To contradict the writeup above mine, the "Republican Revolution" was not a revolution: it was a well thought out electoral upset, channeling people's discontent, but not expressing a gigantic shift in the views of the American electorate.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.