Prof. Gingrich’s Faulty History Lesson

One of the strangest, and yet most predictable, comments about the passage of health care came from former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich told The Washington Post that Obama, by pushing for health care, "will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" by pushing through Great Society programs.

There’s no question that Johnson’s legislative agenda, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964, led white Southerners who couldn’t abide granting equal rights to African-Americans to abandon the Democratic Party en masse. Johnson reportedly told an aide upon signing the Civil Rights Act that “we have lost the South for a generation.”

But like much of what Gingrich has to say about politics and history, the notion that backing civil-rights and social-welfare policies like Medicare in the 1960s “shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” is simply wrong. Since Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there have been 12 presidential elections. The Democrats have won five of them and the Republicans have won seven. In six of the 12 elections, the Democratic candidate won more votes than the Republican candidate. Shattered? Now look at control of Congress. In the 46 years since Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Democrats have had a majority in the House of Representatives for 34 years and the Republicans for 12. In other words, Democrats have maintained a majority for nearly three quarters of the time since Johnson shattered the party. In the Senate, it’s a bit of a different story. Since the 1964 election, Republicans have controlled a majority in the Senate for 28 years and Democrats have had a majority for 18 years.

By signing civil-rights and social-welfare legislation, Johnson didn’t so much shatter the Democratic party as change it. White Southerners left the Democratic Party in droves in the following decades, and the Republican Party embraced them wholeheartedly. But the Democrats gained African-American voters all over the country, as well as growing numbers of Hispanics and other minorities, and former Republican moderates in the northeast and California.