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Book Excerpt: The Republican Evolution: From Governing Party to Antigovernment Party

Dear Readers: What follows is an excerpt from veteran political scientist Kenneth Janda’s excellent new book, The Republican Evolution: From Governing Party to Antigovernment Party, 1860-2020, which was released this week by Columbia University Press. In his book, an overview of which is presented below, Janda traces the history of the Republican Party from the Civil War to today and examines the party’s evolving national convention platforms to explain the party’s dramatic changes over its history.

The Editors

I admit to Democratic partisanship, but I am more loyal to democratic government. More than fifty years of research and writing on democracy and party politics have convinced me that no nation can practice democratic government in the absence of a responsible, competitive party system. Given its constitutional structure, the United States cannot endure as a democracy without two major parties — two that compete for popular votes, accept election outcomes, and govern responsibly. Until 2020, both major parties, at different times to varying degrees, admirably fulfilled those requirements. Now one doubts whether the Republican Party — the Grand Old Party of the republic — will continue to behave like a democratic party.

I wrote this book for contemporary Republican activists who are uneasy with the trajectory of their party, hoping some among them will act to restore the GOP’s old grandeur. Of course my assessment reflects my personal views, but those views are informed by extensive research into the party’s own principles, as reflected in 2,722 planks culled from all Republican Party platforms since 1856. Reviewing the planks from their party’s past for themselves, Republican activists can discover how far the GOP has strayed from its proud history. I show when and why their party scrapped key principles. In some cases, the party changed course because the principles became historically and socially outdated. Other times, it temporarily slighted its principles to win votes. In 1964, however, Republicans deliberately deserted their honorable party’s heritage and began catering to racial prejudices.

Before abandoning the party’s founding principles in 1964, Republicans, unlike Democrats, could be justifiably proud of their party’s past. Historically, the Democratic Party was saddled with a southern wing stained with racism since the Civil War. Nevertheless, the 1948 Democratic National Convention squarely faced its dark past and adopted its first platform plank calling for civil rights, causing some southern delegations to walk out of the hall. By endorsing civil rights for minorities in 1948, Democrats began dismantling their sordid racial legacy. Perhaps knowing what Democrats did nearly seventy-five years ago will encourage Republican activists today to act to restore their party, to make it responsibly competitive.

My reading and assessment of the Republican Party is not new. Other political analysts have shared their concerns about changes in the Republican Party since the Eisenhower era. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published several books about the party’s dysfunctional role in government. The Broken Branch (2006) criticized both parties for failing to cooperate in Congress but came down harder on Republicans. Mann and Ornstein in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (2012) described the Republican Party as an “insurgent outlier,” and they (along with E.J. Dionne) showed in One Nation After Trump (2017) that the party’s radicalization had been going on for decades before Trump. According to Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book Rule and Ruin (2012), the Republican Party underwent its fundamental change in the 1960s. Most recently, in At War with Government, Amy Fried and Douglas Harris claim that Trump was continuing a war with government that began with Barry Goldwater in 1960. My complementary study of the party’s change is based on different information and new data. It also takes note of Donald Trump’s cultlike effect on the Republican Party.

The party’s politics crystallized at the 1960 GOP convention that nominated Richard Nixon over Barry Goldwater. Facing Nixon’s inevitable win, Goldwater supported Nixon’s nomination but also challenged conservatives to “grow up” and “take back” the party. After Nixon’s 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy, frustrated Republicans nominated Goldwater in 1964. Today, conservatives need to “own up” to what happened to their party in 1964 and has happened since. They should “take it back,” not with the hollow MAGA boast, making their party “great again,” but with a vision of reclaiming its former morality — of restoring grandeur to the GOP.

When a major political party changes its political philosophy, it affects the public. Founded in 1854 to prevent the expansion of slavery outside southern states, the Republican Party won the 1860 elections for president and won both houses of Congress. In complete control of the national government, the Republican president fought the South’s attempt to secede from the Union. The Republican Party later guaranteed political equality to newly freed slaves. The Republican Party began as a governing party, one willing to use its power to shape the nation.

Today, the GOP has evolved into an antigovernment party. In his book The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, laid out his libertarian views for limited government: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” He continued: “The government must begin to withdraw from a whole series of programs that are outside its constitutional mandate, from social welfare programs, education, public power, agriculture, public housing, urban renewal and all the other activities that can be better performed by lower levels of government or by private foundations or by individuals.”

In his inaugural address on January 20, 1981, Republican president Ronald Reagan voiced his party’s understanding of the nation’s economic condition: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The party that had fought a Civil War against states’ rights on slavery and battled against states’ rights arguments in enacting civil rights had become an advocate of states’ rights and an opponent of government programs that serve the public and promote social equality.

The party did not change to its present state abruptly; it evolved over time. This book documents how the party’s principles evolved in nearly three thousand planks that I identified in all forty-one Republican Party platforms since 1856. Other researchers may have come up with more or fewer planks, but they will not be very different from mine. I analyzed those planks for underlying principles in terms of four organizational forms — party, team, tribe, and cult — that Republicanism has exhibited since 1856. The story divides this book into five parts.


Part 1 consists of three short chapters. Chapter 1 describes Republicans’ four organizational forms. At core is the party — the organization that attracts activists to its political principles. A related entity but sometimes a conflicting one is the team, which aims at winning votes in elections. The tribe comprises the hardcore party identifiers who often align more closely with team than party. Very recently, a fourth form, cult, formed around the person of President Donald Trump. After President Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, the party entered an uneasy relationship with his cult.

Chapter 2 identifies four principal benefits of government: Social order, the maintenance of which is government’s original and fundamental benefit. Providing adequate freedom to citizens while maintaining order is not per se a benefit of government but a happy outcome of successful government. Using government to promote equality among citizens is a controversial benefit that did not emerge until the nineteenth century. (In the 1780s, our Founding Fathers balked at ending the slave trade and so even failed to recognize equality among human beings. After assuming control of government in 1860, however, the Republican Party promoted political equality among U.S. citizens.) The fourth and final benefit of government is providing public goods (for example, building roads and operating schools).

Chapter 3 inquires into how American political parties formulate their principles and announce them in party platforms — called “election manifestos” in foreign lands. Because American party platforms originate in a highly decentralized process involving party activists across the country, they provide the most authoritative statement of party principles and can be considered as more legitimate than speeches by presidential nominees.


Part 2 has two short chapters. Chapter 4 considers and rejects a historical analysis of party platforms on a liberal-conservative continuum. It examines at length John Gerring’s alternative classification of ideological epochs in the Democratic and Whig/Republican parties from 1828 to 1998.

Chapter 5 reports on cataloging 2,722 planks in forty-one Republican platforms from 1856 to 2016. The planks were coded into 114 categories under four primary headings — Order, Freedom, Equality, and Public Goods. It also classified them under four secondary headings — Government, Military, Foreign Policy, and Symbolic.


Part 3 has eight chapters. Chapter 6, “Original Principles,” traces how the Republican Party, founded to prevent slavery’s spread outside the South, used national authority to establish political equality within the United States before becoming a states’ rights party opposed to enforcing social equality.

Chapter 7, “Financing Government,” details two switches in party principles: first, from embracing the protective tariff as its signature policy to becoming a free-trade party and, second, from proposing an income tax to provide additional revenue to opposing tax increases for erasing budget deficits.

Chapter 8, “Economic Affairs,” discloses that Republicans, backed by manufacturing industries, once closely regulated those industries before their party, as a defender of free enterprise, switched to opposing government regulations.

Chapter 9, “Law and Order,” examines the party’s complicated positions on death and life. On the surface, Republicans seem to favor using government power both to kill (favoring the death penalty) and to prevent killing (opposing abortion of a fetus). Incongruously, the party still opposes government action against buying firearms while having favored government action against same-sex marriage.

Chapter 10, “Culture and Order,” considers shifts in Republican immigration policy. In the nineteenth century, the party welcomed immigrants, despite worries about admitting more Catholics. In the twenty-first century, the party shied from admitting nonwhites and non-Christians. Except for its successful opposition to polygamy, the party generally lost its battles against the practice of alternative lifestyles in marriage and gender.

Chapter 11, “Conservation and Conservatives,” recounts the party’s retreat from championing conservation of the natural environment to advocating its development for economic gain.

Chapter 12, “Elections,” reviews the party’s changing positions on government’s responsibility to ensure voting rights and the role of the Electoral College in choosing the president.

Chapter 13, “Evolving to Ethnocentrism,” reviews the findings of the six previous chapters and charts the Republican Party’s evolution from Gerring’s nationalism epoch to its neoliberalism epoch. I contend that in 1964 the Republican Party left neoliberalism and entered an era of ethnocentrism.


Part 4 has chapters on each of three organizational alternatives to the formal party organization. Chapter 14, the longest, analyzes the Republican Party as an electoral team. It identifies major occasions when the Republican Party chose between holding true to its principles and departing from them to win votes in presidential elections.

Chapter 15 relies on survey data to argue that many Republicans, originally attracted as fans to the Republican team, began to act as if belonging to a tribe. As tribal members, they intensified the difference between “we Republicans” and “those Democrats” in lifestyle as well as politics.

Chapter 16 sees some of the Republican tribe transforming into a cult around the person of Donald Trump. Party principles became less important than personal pronouncements. Evidence took a backseat to assertions. Democracy lost.


Part 5 ends the book with two chapters and an epilogue. Chapter 17, “A Party in Peril,” assesses the state of the Republican Party in 2022, torn between fealty to former president Donald Trump and to others seeking to reestablish the party as guided by principles, not by personality.

Chapter 18, “A Republican Epiphany,” urges Republicans to acknowledge where their party stands morally and electorally. It contends that the GOP could improve its moral and electoral standings by abandoning its ethnocentric politics — if anyone could appear to lead the epiphany.

“Epilogue: The New Era” offers suggestions for remaking the Republican Party.

Kenneth Janda is Payson S. Wild Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the textbook The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in Global Politics (15th edition, 2021), and he was coeditor of the journal Party Politics for two decades. Janda received the Samuel J. Eldersveld Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on political parties and the Frank J. Goodnow Award for service to the discipline, both from the American Political Science Association.