The Republican Party is tangled up into a nasty knot, there’s no argument about that. However, there are plenty of arguments about how, why and what’s next. Three theories of Republican politics offer answers: ideological, institutional and demographic.
The ideological theory is that the party has been hijacked by a truly radical fringe less interested in the traditional, pragmatic goals of American political parties than in revolution and doctrinal purity.
“Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism,” columnist David Brooks writes. “Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.”
Brooks is often dubbed the conservative liberals love most. But on this, he is saying what plenty of Republicans (and independents and Democrats) think:
“[T]his new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”
The more clout this faction is allowed, the more chaotic the GOP Congress and the presidential primaries will become. “These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed,” Brooks writes.
In contrast, the institutional argument says the Republican Party is the victim of its own success. The GOP does, after all, control both chambers of Congress and 31 governors’ mansions. Republicans have trifectas (control of both legislative chambers and the governorship) in 23 states; the Democrats have just seven. Winners can afford to squabble — and they do.
“Having won its largest majorities since Harry Truman occupied the White House in the 2014 midterm elections, the Republican Party is struggling to reconcile its successes at the ballot box,” writes Noah Rothman in Commentary. “A broad majority coalition is an ideologically diverse coalition, and one that inevitably grows unwieldy.”
Rothman says the Democrats appear to be a well-ordered party today only because “the party’s ideological diversity has been wiped out by two successive wave midterm elections that severely truncated the Democratic Party’s membership in Congress.” Thus Hillary Clinton has no serious opposition. That’s the sign of a retreating party, according to Rothman.
Giving the Republicans’ flanks and factions room to roam may be messy, but it will pay off. “Much of the GOP’s present disarray can be fairly attributed to the party’s desire to accommodate its restive base,” Rothman writes, approvingly.
A less sanguine version of this institutional argument comes from John Lawrence, who was a top aide to Nancy Pelosi for many years. Writing in The Atlantic, Lawrence compares the GOP’s predicament to the Democrats in the 1970s. After Watergate, voters sent a large crop of young, liberal Democrats to Congress. They forced reforms and loud arguments on the old guard. In the end, it was too messy and Reagan reigned for eight years.
“Americans may well be seeing the repetition of a pattern of victory-reform-factionalization-defeat that has become a recurrent feature in an environment where parties are aligned in ideological, partisan conflict,” Lawrence says.
A third theory of this GOP moment is that demographics are destiny. “The Republican Party has grown more conservative, more downscale economically, older and more Southern in character,” writes Gerald Seib, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. “In that light, its revolt against what is perceived as a Wall Street-led establishment and the polite, small-c conservatism that was personified by Gerald Ford is only natural.”
Since 1990, Seib notes, the percentage of blue-collar workers identifying as Republicans went up from 35 percent to 44 percent. Influenced by Reagan, more 18-34 year-olds in 1990 were Republicans than Democrats; not anymore. Loyal to FDR’s Social Security, voters over 65 back in 1990 were strongly Democratic; not anymore.
These new Republicans are more conservative but less establishment than the pre-Reagan party. “A Republican Party that is more populist, conservative and Southern is likely to reject what such voters see as elitist establishment leaders and their moneyed interests,” Seib writes. So now there’s full-blown rebellion in the House and in the presidential primaries.
If you’re a Republican, this is the theory you really don’t want to buy. It’s the kiss of death. That’s because the core Republican demographic of white males is shrinking; the key populations in the Democratic tent are growing in the electorate: young people, minorities and women.
These theories all help understand why the Republicans are so tangled up. It is difficult to see how the party can overcome its ideological chasm, its factions and its long-term demographic challenge.
But, oddly enough, it isn’t at all hard to see the Republicans coming out of next year’s elections happy with the results. They do have the good luck to be running against the Democrats after all.