Why the GOP Is No Longer a Responsible Party

By Mike Koetting August 27, 2020

This is the second of three posts on why the Republican Party in its current form deserves electoral annihilation.


In the decade after Gingrich unveiled the Contract with America, Republicans faced two problems:

  • The number of people likely to be consumed by total fear of the changes in society was declining as the demography changed.
  • The “make whatever you can and treat taxes as theft” message was really attractive to only a small sliver of the population. A sliver with access to phenomenal resources to be sure. But still a message that most Americans found suspect.

Steve Greenberg/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In short, Republicans had to either adapt their core strategy or try to survive as a minority party. They chose the latter. They used four strategies:

  • Burying messages about their economic intent in a more general message about government taking your freedom, which contributed to general paranoia.
  • Promulgating a series of “wedge issues” designed to motivate sectors of their constituencies to vote on those issues without regard to larger context.
  • Using newly available technologies to gerrymander on an unprecedented scale in order to inflate the value of votes from their supporters. And simply suppress votes where that worked.
  • Legislative obstruction of anything proposed by Democrats

These issues have been well discussed and documented elsewhere. There are tons of articles on how Republicans simply obstructed legislation rather than offering solutions. The refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination was a classic example. And David Daly’s Ratf**ked outlined the impressive success of gerrymandering. In Wisconsin, for instance, Republicans hold a 63-36 margin in the House despite the fact that in aggregate Democratic candidates received 190,000 more votes. One in five Americans lives in a state where at least one house of the legislature is controlled by a party that did not get the majority of votes.

But rather than focusing on these issues per se, I want to explore the consequences that went beyond the direct impact.

Increased Dependence on the Base

The more the Republican Party relied on an ever-shrinking base, the less latitude it had within its base because districts had been constructed with scientific precision to achieve maximum leverage with a minimum margin. This made primaries less about selecting a candidate who would do well in the general election—as that was engineered to be a largely foregone conclusion–and more about selecting a candidate who met the test of ideological purity.

Wedge issues had the same impact. Wedge issues gain traction by raising the importance of the issues. Republicans focused on certain issues that had relatively clear dividing lines and treated those as if they were the most important—perhaps the only issue—in an election. But once activated, these “wedge” voters don’t disappear; they stay around and carry that wedge issue into successive elections—regardless of what other issues may also be in play. Thus, the wedge element became an indispensable part of their narrow coalition, effectively imprisoning the party on that issue. The Republican Party, for instance, is now totally fenced in on the issue of gun rights, even when many of its members know that the sentiment of the overall nation is somewhere else and even have questions themselves about what they have unleashed.

Republicans Recognized They Were Propping up a Minority

The Republican Party knew exactly what it was doing when it embarked on strategies to govern as a minority. By the 2012 election it was clear to Republicans that they had a problem. In its so-called “autopsy” on the 2012 election a group of analysts commissioned by the Republican Party concluded that the GOP was seen as too-backwards looking and needed to broaden its base to include younger people and others.

We need to campaign among Hispanic, Black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities.

But the GOP couldn’t go there. It was too deeply entrenched as a white-party, and, indeed, one that catered to only a portion of the white electorate. So it went the only place it could: governing as a minority party.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a fraction of the quotes that outline the approach.

  • The Republican speaker of the Georgia House complained that high turnout would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives:”
  • The Romney consultant who said voting ID requirements and long lines were part of his party’s tool kit.
  • The North Carolina Republican in charge of drawing North Carolina’s 2023 map (that was subsequently rejected by the courts for the degree to which it disenfranchised Black voters) said:  “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

Indeed, the website for REDMAP (the Republican Party $30M initiative to maximize their legislative advantage after the 2010 census) crows about their success:

However, all components of a successful congressional race, including recruitment, message development and resource allocation, rest on the district lines….In the 2012 election Republicans won a 33 seat margin in the U.S. House….having enduring Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.

Republicans Stopped Participating in Policy

As the Republicans became more focused on their ability to govern as a minority party with a narrower base, they gave up on the idea of participating in actual policy, but retreated to pseudo-policy assertions designed to obstruct rather than govern. Don’t have a sensible replacement for the ACA? “Repeal and replace.” (No need to discuss with what.) Need support from big business for environment deregulation? “We really don’t know whether we have an environmental issue.” (What evidence would it take?) Want to lower taxes? “These tax decreases will pay for themselves.” (How much counter-evidence is necessary? And whatever happened to the concern for deficit reduction?)

There may still be ideological differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. But they are no longer expressed in actual policy discussions, which require accepting a standard of evidence and understanding that policy is messy and requires compromise. Rather, as exhaustively documented in Steven Benen’s book Imposters, Republicans stopped participating in the give and take that is essential to the development of policy in a democratic society. They substituted issue engagement with rhetoric that sounds like they are talking policy, but in fact are spinning campaign slogans unconnected to substantive policy analysis, even if occasionally supported by an actual fact.

Among other things, the unwillingness to participate in policy has made Republicans the party of anti-science. Watching this play out in the coronavirus epidemic has been painful. It may be more painful to realize this same dynamic is at play around environmental issues, the potentially catastrophic consequences of which are temporarily masked by the longer feed-back loop of environmental issues. Science does not always have the right answer and it often needs to be tempered by context. But it creates a crucial standard for discussing complicated issues—if you participate.

The Republican Party’s withdrawal from policy has also nourished the anti-government sentiment that has always lurked in American politics. Skepticism of the powers of government is one thing; but openly supporting anti-government sentiment is another—and a dangerous thing for a democracy. Democracy depends on the will of people to be involved. Allowing the idea to flourish that almost any government act can be construed as a deleterious restriction of otherwise unlimited freedom creates foolish understandings of what “freedom” means. Contemporary society will simply not work unless the majority understand that all freedoms are tradeoffs. Moreover, the reluctance to address the worsening income gaps created by weakening the New Deal makes it more difficult for government to deliver benefits to many Americans, further increasing the income gap and undermining belief in the social contract.

Holding Power Is the Only Goal

Many Republicans realize they are prisoners of a base which has large elements deeply at odds with the majority of Americans, realize they are holding on only by manipulating the levers of power regardless of underlying sentiment, and know they have stopped participating meaningfully in public policy.

Still, they want to hold on to power, apparently for its own sake. Maybe they see themselves as some bulwark against the forces of liberalism. But they are unable to articulate that position in a way that relates to the actual policy choices confronting America as opposed to a caricatured version of leftists taking away freedoms.

It is time to face up to the fact Republicans are no longer fit to be one of the two parties governing America. Although it is a bit less obvious at this moment, they are the contemporary Whig party. It is time for the Republican Party as it now stands to meet the same fate. Despite its apparent electoral heft, It, too, is no longer substantively relevant.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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