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How the 1976 presidential election shaped politics today

While the 2024 presidential election could have seismic repercussions on the nation's direction, a new podcast, "Landslide," explores how that was also true back in 1976 — and how that election shaped the conditions we're living in today’s political environment.

 "It's a wild story, definitely stranger than fiction. You hear so much that could have been pulled from today's political scene," said the podcast's host, Ben Bradford.

Below are some takeaways from Bradford’s discussion with WFAE Morning Edition host Marshall Terry, about "Landslide," a dramatic and underappreciated chapter in U.S. history, and how the fractures that opened almost five decades ago in our political landscape widened into rifts that still divide us.

The direct line that connects the 1976 election to today

The way the political parties operate, the issues that divide voters, and even basic ways American politics and government function changed significantly after 1976.

The modern Republican Party, in particular, took shape during that year’s primary race. While many of the party’s present-day positions and candidates seem like a break from the past or could even be viewed as a historical aberration, they are instead outgrowths of the tactics and coalition-building that took root nearly a half-century earlier.

For example, recent Republican candidates and activists, including former President Donald Trump, have abandoned positions on foreign policy and trade, which long defined the GOP. Is that a break from the past or do they stem from continued refinement of a focus on social issues and cultural backlash, which the party began targeting long ago?

The tumult of 1976 that led to change

After Watergate and the Vietnam War, the country was in turmoil. The economy foundered. A new, bewildering phenomenon called “stagflation” emerged. The crises abroad and at home led to a collapse in Americans’ faith in government. That vacuum of trust, a belief that American institutions were not just in decay but actually were responsible for the problems America faced, would lead to profound changes.

Gerald Ford, the new and unelected president, found himself unexpectedly in charge, after President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Ford had been planning retirement, not holding a divided, dispirited country together.

And then a faction within his party mutinied.

Different parties under familiar names

The two major political parties may have had the same names as they do today, but they operated in a fundamentally different way: They were not divided primarily by ideology. As difficult as it is to conceive of today, the Democrats were not the more liberal party; the Republicans were not the conservative party. Leadership within both parties historically tried to avoid divisive fights over social and cultural issues.

“I don’t want to see one party of the right and one of the left,” said then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller — a liberal Republican.

A growing faction of conservatives within the Republican Party challenged that orthodoxy. And, as Gerald Ford struggled, the right wing of the GOP aligned behind its own candidate to challenge the incumbent president in the primaries.

The candidate they chose was widely viewed as too radical, too fringe, and too gaffe-prone to have a chance at the nomination. He was an actor. A showman.

The candidate was Ronald Reagan.

At first, he was given no chance to win. But his entry kicked off the closest presidential primary race in U.S. history, one that fundamentally changed the shape of the Republican Party and American politics.

"Landslide" is produced by NuanceTales in partnership with WFAE, and is part of the NPR Network. Listen to the first episode now, wherever you get your podcasts.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.