The Republican’s Orange County Problem

reagan_1980_campaign

Orange County, California, or the OC as many people in the region call it, is known for it’s vastly wealthy suburbs, sprawling highways, and of course Disney Land. The county represented the California dream of a different era, where many Americans left the snowy industrial northeast and midwest, for the west coast, blue skies and year round warm temperatures. 

But Orange County’s contribution to American culture cannot be measured alone by how many people around the world visit Goofy each year. One could make the argument that the OC was the most important county in the conservative movement, and was considered by many to be the most Republican county in America, for many years.

Orange County ran up large margins for Republican candidates in the nation’s most populous state. The Orange County business community drummed up major financial support for Republican candidates, supported major initiatives such as the anti-tax Proposition 13, and probably was the single most important county in Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon’s influential presidential careers. Reagan once said that Orange County was where ‘all good Republicans go to die.’

On November 5th, 2018, Reagan kind of got his wish, as the Republican Party seemingly died in the OC. Five of Orange County’s seven house seats flipped from the GOP (the other two were already under Democratic control). Even many local elected Republicans in the county found themselves out of a job. Did Mickey Mouse suddenly turn socialist?

So what happened in Orange County to change Republican fortunes so badly? In essence, suburbs all across the nation revolted, not just the OC. Republican’s overwhelming defeats on election night reversed a 50 year Republican mission to make sure America’s suburbs voted for their party.

Why did Republicans do so badly in suburbia on election night? The obvious answer is Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. To be fair, Donald Trump has become a toxic president in the suburban areas Republicans once ran up big margins, like Orange County, and election night proved that.

But Trump alone doesn’t tell the entire story. It is almost impossible to quantify how much America has changed since the America of the Reagan and Nixon presidencies, when the Republican Revolution was in full force. When Richard Nixon was first elected president, America was a rigidly conservative nation, where the vast majority of Americans were desperately trying to adhere to a rigid societal structure, at the risk of social and economic exclusion. This included African-Americans and other ethnic groups, who had to adhere to those rigid social standards and face unending bigotry as well.

In an era when gay marriage is legal, America has growing numbers of women running for office, pro-athletes are not acknowledging the national anthem at sporting events, and the nation has elected a black president, all of those social norms conservative suburban voters adhered to seem to be fading away, leading voters to choose their candidates on other issues besides social conservatism.

The suburbs are also becoming diverse. In one of his songs, legendary funk musician George Clinton once said ‘God bless the chocolate city and the vanilla suburbs.’ In other words, white people were leaving the city, while African-Americans, and other minorities, were faced with crime ridden downtrodden cities. But the chocolate city is no more. In modern times, there are an increasing number of non-white citizens in the suburbs, and white citizens are slowly returning to America’s urban cores.

Whether the modern party wants to admit it or not, Republican politicians played on race baiting fears about crime and culture in order to get elected. As America becomes more diverse and less polarized in how it lives, Republicans will struggle using the race baiting tactics as a formula for success.

America has two political parties, and these two parties have morphed themselves to fit the American electorate for more than 150 years. The Republican Party will be back, in some form. But when the party does make a comeback, it won’t be able to latch onto a dying conservative movement if it wants to be successful in American politics.

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