Zell Miller’s Speech Marks Political Parties’ Evolution

By Gus Tyler

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.

Zell Miller, The Senator From Georgia, might have made history at the Republican Convention on several scores with his volley of vicious vituperation directed against his former party and its candidate for president.

First, the simple nastiness of tone and content must earn him a place in the annals of those in prominent political life whose medium of expression is a mouth regurgitating mud mixed with madness.

But that is a matter of only passing consequence. What is far more important in the ongoing evolution of American politics is his stance as a symbol of a profound, though rarely noted, change in the character of American political parties.

For many years, America’s two-party system was really a four-party system. Before the election, there were Republicans and Democrats. After the election, in the Congress of the United States, there were two different parties — liberals and conservatives. These idealogical “parties” comprised both Democrats and Republicans.

Although nowadays we think of the Republicans as conservatives, for long periods the party was led by liberals — such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Robert La Follette, Fiorello La Guardia and others. And the Democrats, seen as a more liberal party, had a huge contingent of “Southern Democrats” who were consistently conservative not only in economic matters, but also in respect to civil and human rights.

A turning point in this process was the breakaway from the Democratic Party by Strom Thurmond, who had been elected as governor of South Carolina on the Democratic ticket in 1946. In 1948, in protest against Truman’s pro-civil-rights stand, Thurmond ran for president on the States Rights Party ticket. The party was dubbed “the Dixiecrats,” Democrats from Dixie. In 1964, he switched to Republican.

One might ask: “Doesn’t a man like this have any principles?” The answer is: “Yes, he does have principles. He is a conservative, and he practices what he preaches.”

He also set a pattern for other conservative Democrats — primarily from the South. The Democrats were losing their right wing.

The same thing was happening in the Republican Party, but in reverse. A turning point was the party’s choice of Barry Goldwater in 1964 in the race against Lyndon Johnson. Liberal GOPers began to look with favor on Democratic affiliation.

Put plainly, within our lifetime, the old-fashioned major two-party system has been changing. Increasingly, the GOP is more consistently conservative and the Democrats more consistently liberal.

The performance of Zell Miller as a featured speaker at the Republican Convention dramatized this historic process. His speech was his way of venting his prolonged frustration when he was a “Democrat” who held the Democratic Party in contempt while wearing the party’s label. In a way, his performance might be called a landmark in the passing of the past.



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