The Grand Old Party is not disappearing any time soon. Despite the dire predictions of many analysts, the Republican Party is doing just fine. And while the Democrats are increasingly becoming the party of the well-educated and the well-to-do, the Republicans are holding on to their working class voters, thanks to a façade of “principled conservatism”. Behind this shield – which hides all of the Trump era deviants, from white suprematists to QAnon crazies – the GOP continues to promote an economic agenda that favors the rich.
Most political commentary these days – at least, by non-Republicans – is filled with Schadenfreude over the impending demise of the Republican Party. For at least a quarter-century now, experts have been projecting that the ascendance of a younger, more racially-diverse generation would sound the death knell of the Grand Old Party.
But Republicans have doubled-down on a white-identity strategy that has turned previous Republican “dog whistles” (racially-encoded messages) into white supremacist foghorns, resulting in a growing paranoia that Republicans continue to nurse into an ever-downward spiral. They have gone from the militia movements of the 1990s, to the Tea Party of the Obama era, to the outright embrace of virtually every conspiracy theory that emerged under Trump, including the truly crazy QAnon movement (which presents Donald Trump as a Christ-like figure waging a secret war against an international cabal of blood-drinking Jewish pedophiles, who wield space lasers to rule the highest levels of government, not to mention that real seat of power, Hollywood). Which is pretty much what one would expect of an apocalyptic movement that just suffered an apocalypse.
So, obviously, the Republican Party is in an irreversible death spiral and will soon go the way of the Whig Party – the main alternative to Democrats in the mid-nineteenth century until it suddenly collapsed. Right? Well, no. As Mark Twain said of reports of his own death, Republican leaders clearly consider such obituaries premature – and they’re absolutely correct.
This should be cause for concern for everyone else.
A PARTY IN GOOD HEALTH. First of all, the Republican Party isn’t in such bad electoral shape right now after what, in most respects, was a very good 2020. It’s true that Trump lost the presidency, but a flip of only about 81,000 votes across four states, out of over 150 million nationwide (i.e., roughly 0.05%), would have handed Trump victory in the Electoral College once again. Even with a candidate with the highest disapproval rating of any in presidential history, in the midst of over half a million American deaths and an economic collapse of historic levels, the Republicans came within a whisker of holding the White House. Not exactly a sweeping rejection.
Furthermore, at every other level, the geographic biases of America’s electoral system – the concentration of Democratic voters in a limited number of states and voting districts, the extra weight given territorially-extensive but thinly-populated states – means that Republicans can govern with a distinct minority. In coming years, 30% of the population – overwhelmingly Republican – will elect 70% of the US Senate, and possess a not-quite-as-overwhelming tilt in the Electoral College that determines the presidency. The vast majority of states are, and will remain, solidly under Republican control, while the same density and gerrymandering effects will continue to enable Republicans to dominate the legislatures of even many blue-leaning states.
In fact, the six swing states that gave Biden this election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada – all have Republican legislatures and most have Republican governors. It is these legislatures that enact the laws most directly affecting most Americans – blocking measures to combat Covid-19, disenfranchising minority and youth voters, renewing assaults on sexual and reproductive autonomy, and generally restoring traditional white male hegemony. In the rare instances in which a Democratic congress or state legislature might have other ideas, the overwhelming Republican majority on the Supreme Court is poised to strike them down.
FRUSTRATED HOPES ON THE LEFT. Democrats had great hopes in 2020 of gaining ground at the state level, where their power has been reduced in the Obama and Trump eras to its lowest levels since the advent of the modern party system in the Great Depression. Instead, Republicans lost no legislative chambers nationwide and actually gained seats overall. In my home state of Pennsylvania – called the “Keystone State” because of its historical importance to Democratic hopes – even as voters were handing the state’s electoral votes to Joe Biden they were increasing the GOP’s hold on the legislature and flipping two of the three statewide offices on the ballot to Republicans. (That Republicans did so well in congressional and state elections – which they hardly found to be fraudulent – is one of the major proof-points against Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud.)
Republican dominance will only compound in the short-term: these Republican-controlled bodies will oversee the decennial redistricting of both state and federal legislatures, tilting marginal seats “red” in 2022, when the GOP is already likely to benefit from the traditional off-year gains by the party that doesn’t hold the White House. In 2020, Republicans defied the odds and gained seats in the House, narrowing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s margin to a mere 5 seats out of 435; meanwhile, on a Senate map heavily tilted against them, Republicans essentially fought the Democrats to a draw, winning ten of the fourteen most contested races. The 2022 terrain will be far less favorable to Democrats, making it likely the GOP will control the next Congress.
Democrats have been confident for years that the electorate was trending their way because the country is growing both younger and more racially diverse. In recent years, they increasingly have been counting on suburbanites to join their upscale, liberal, urban base in a so-called “Coalition of the Ascendant.” I’ve consistently warned in these pages that this is both antithetical to the party’s historic concern for those left behind in a changing economy, and a bad bet politically, as suburbanites who disliked Trump solely because they found him personally revolting were nonetheless unlikely, in the long term, to embrace Democrats over policy. And, sure enough, the 2020 elections showed that Democrats can rely on neither hard-pressed Americans of color nor well-heeled suburban voters going forward.
I discussed both these phenomena in more detail elsewhere, but the bottom line is that these two very different constituencies underperformed for Democrats last year for largely the same reason, and it does not bode well for the future. The only sub-demographic with which Trump improved over 2016 was people of color.
Admittedly, that’s starting from a low standard; but Democrats’ share of the black vote has been declining regularly over the last three presidential elections while Republicans’ hemorrhaging of support amongst Hispanics in such key states as Texas and Florida has been stanched. Indeed, Florida – recently seen as a swing state trending Democratic – is probably essentially out of the Democrats’ reach at every level by now. As Democrats have become the party of educated, upscale, New Economy voters, they increasingly are losing working class Americans – non-white as well as white – over their perceived elitism and economic insensitivity. Suburban swing voters and Hispanics alike appear concerned with what Republicans successfully have portrayed as Democrats’ “socialist” leanings.
OPPORTUNISM ON THE RIGHT. As is largely settled amongst political scientists, the US electoral system lends itself to a permanent two-party system. The difference between the Whigs in 1854 and the Republicans today is that, back then, there were alternatives (including the nascent Republican Party) waiting in the wings to take the Whigs’ place as the second major party. There is no such alternative today.
And there’s a reason for that: the Republicans still speak to and for a significant segment of America – perhaps as much as one-third, who thrill to Trump’s message of social and economic revanchism. Almost all of these voters believe that Trump won in a landslide, that Biden stole the election, that the storming of the Capitol either was justified or – as with almost every development that doesn’t fit their reality – was actually was carried out by leftists as a “false flag” operation to make Trump look bad. A growing minority even view QAnon positively.
When non-Republican pundits chortle that Republicans have the wolf by the ears when it comes to choosing between Trump’s base or disavowing the sheer nuttiness into which it has descended, they miss the point: that base gets Republicans a majority in most of America. It also gets them most of the way toward the plurality they need to maintain power in the rest of America.
While polls consistently show majorities in the range of 60% or more agreeing with Democrats on almost all issues, voters still generally rank Republicans – and even Trump – better on handling the economy, despite all evidence to the contrary. Democrats have a branding problem, which they do their best to perpetuate. And that keeps Republicans in the game.
Republican leaders have looked at this playing field and concluded they like their chances. They’re not sticking with Trump, QAnon, and the secret militias and ragtag insurrections who attacked the Capitol because they don’t get how crazy they are; they do so because they’ve done the math and see that “crazy” is exactly what will win them power. Power in place of democracy.
THE PRINCIPLED CONSERVATIVE FANTASY. Republican leaders have been making this same calculation for over a half-century. The Republican Party was, from its founding, the party of big business, and it treated the government as a wholly-owned subsidiary. At some point in the twentieth century, however, the rest of the electorate staged a takeover and government became a means of regulating and redistributing wealth; at that point, after decades of overtly using government to promote their own economic interests, Republicans found their Inner Libertarian and called this “principled conservatism”.
Unfortunately, in a world of expanding franchises, mass-mobilization armies, and rising middle-class expectations, an agenda consisting almost entirely of letting large corporations and wealthy families do as they like, while making everyone else pay (their only major legislative initiatives under Trump were a massive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and an unsuccessful attempt to repeal health coverage for others) carries little chance of winning a majority.
So Republicans made the same calculation that conservatives everywhere make: they saw that feints in the direction of traditional religious morality and racial or ethnic animosity would get them the additional votes they needed. There are, of course, actual principled conservatives in think tanks, undergrad debating societies, and Capitol Hill bars. Such people believe in some Madisonian conception of limited government. But they are not most Republican political leaders or their donors.
Most of the latter simply believe they shouldn’t have to pay taxes. They also believe, however, that other people should continue to do so, in order to maintain the necessary incidents of a modern economy on which they rely – such as roads and air traffic control systems. As for public safety, if you’re rich enough, you can purchase your own security forces and not waste money on something as frivolous as the public welfare.
The rest of modern conservatism – from Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump – has consisted largely of a willingness to parrot whatever racist and moralizing rhetoric was necessary to convince a majority of voters that government regulation and redistribution was a plot against them. Satan-worshipping international pedophilia rings run by Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks? Only the latest incarnation of the phantasms Republican leaders pretend to believe in order to keep hold of the wolf’s ears. Funny, they still think they’re the ones riding the wolf – cutting taxes for contributors, ramming through judges to repeal the regulatory state, winning elections while winnowing democracy – even as the wolf roams the Capitol hallways with assault weapons, handcuffs, and makeshift gallows, baying at them all as “traitors.”
It’s a powerful force, this Republican base, one that makes clear that it’s not the Republican Party that’s dead or dying. It is, rather, the pretension that there is, or ever was, a truly principled conservative movement.