By Mike Koetting September 10, 2020
This is the third of three posts on why I think the Republican Party must be electorally annihilated.
The first two posts made the argument that the Republican Party no longer had moral claim to be one of the parties in America’s two-party system. These arguments did not mention Donald Trump. I believe Trump is a symptom—a particularly toxic symptom to be sure—but not the fundamental reason for the Republicans’ loss of legitimacy in the American system.
I don’t want to downplay the outrageous excesses of Donald Trump. In private, even Republican legislators shake their heads and roll their eyes at Trump. But however awful Trump is—and he is a real threat to democracy–the more important point for this argument is that he is in fact the logical end point of today’s Republican Party.
It starts with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. As Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute puts it:
When such a tactic is deployed for half a century, no one should be surprised when white-supremacist sentiments turn out to be an animating core of group identity…. Trump is most accurately understood as the inevitable end of a road paved brick by brick through 13 presidential election cycles since 1968.
It continues through Reagan’s open attacks on the legitimacy of government, through Newt Gingrich’s approach to skipping issues in favor of contentless messaging, Karl Rove’s flagrant use of wedge issues and voter suppression, Add 30 years of muttering about presumably otherwise unfettered freedoms that were being curtailed, and 10 years of immigrant bashing, and the Republicans created a core of the electorate that was primed for Donald Trump.
To be sure, they had help. The rise of right wing social media and Fox news accelerated these trends. Of course, the Republican Party winked and nodded at these developments, often adding fuel to various fires. Likewise, the strident anti-New Dealers—most openly identified with Koch, Mercer and the like—but in fact widely sprinkled throughout high income America, provided funds for these ventures, even as they kept their true motives submerged. (It is risible to pretend that Trump could have won had he openly campaigned on the tax bill plan he supported and signed.)
The consequences were a growth of income inequality to levels not seen in a century. But the Republicans deflected from their actual policies by blaming “the other,” “liberals,” and a myth of curtailed freedoms. This created deep bitterness in the hearts of the White losers in the distribution. Trump ruthlessly exploited every one of these cracks in the electorate, but he did not start it and relied on a portion of the electorate cultivated for years to be ready for his message. It is hard to understand how any Republican could have been surprised when Trump won the nomination. He is the president for whom they had been paving the way.
The failure of Republicans to constrain Trump is the ultimate evidence in the emptiness of this party. In 1974, a group of Republican leaders took Nixon aside and told him it was time to resign. Since 2016, the Republicans—with very few exceptions—have continued to defend the indefensible. One might argue about any one of Trump’s questionable actions, but considered as a whole, he is indisputably an outrage. There are no doubt myriad reasons and considerations for Republic inaction, but the net impact is tidily summarized by Stuart Spencer, a former Republican operative:
Trump was the moral test, and the Republican Party failed. It’s an utter disaster for the long-term fate of the Party. The Party has become an obsession with power without purpose.
The prosecution rests. The Republican Party as it currently stands no longer deserves to be one of America’s two governing parties. It has eschewed the responsibilities of loyal and sensible participation in the difficult business of democracy.
But I want to be crystal clear about what I am not implying. This is not an argument for an unlimited era of total hegemony by the Democratic Party. Democracy rests on the ability to reconcile the diverging needs for a good society, in particular the ability to balance between collective welfare and individual freedoms. In America we have chosen to represent this structurally via a two-party system where each party carries one of these banners a bit more prominently. This hasn’t worked perfectly, but—modifying the old saying—it was good enough for government to work.
I can’t imagine great alternatives to the two-party system in 2020 America. Maybe a multi-party, parliamentary system might be better at some level of theory, but the odds of that here are beyond remote. There may well be systems (various types of proportional voting) that could reduce the likelihood of extreme polarization. Those are worth consideration. But, given context, I think what we need most urgently is a functional two-party system. At one level, I’m inclined to agree with Steve Schmidt, one of the founders of the Lincoln Project:
I think a good sign of being an idiot in life is believing that all virtue is vested in one of these political parties and all evil in the other.
On the other hand, it is clearly the case that a party can lose its way so badly that it no longer serves its structural purpose. When the gap between its purported values and its actions reaches a certain point, it can no longer function as an honest broker in reconciling the structural tensions inherent in liberal democracy. The Lincoln Project and other similar organizations are raising the same flag of alarm that I am raising.
I also want to be clear this is not a partisan issue in the narrow sense of the term. It sounds partisan because it is explicitly couched in terms of the electoral annihilation of the Republican Party as it now exists. But the argument is not about what the Democrats offer—an important, but separate discussion—but about the degree to which the Republican Party has forsaken its role as a good-faith participant in a two party system. Given that Republicans have abrogated their responsibilities, the appropriate response is to remove them from the board. And the only way to do that is through the political process. This is less about supporting Democrats and more about maintaining our system of democracy.
I don’t know what the next move will be for those who want to regroup around the principles espoused by the Republican Party before the current occupants of the party bent and distorted them to achieve the maintenance of power beyond any other aim. It is possible that an entirely new party will be created. Or the existing party may undergo a severe makeover—as the Democratic Party did between 1960 and 1980 when they shed the Dixiecrats. (The many years of tolerance by the Democratic Party of openly aggressive white supremacy, particularly in the South, is more evidence that no political party has a monopoly on morality.)
I am happy to leave the Republican restructuring project to others. It will be enormously difficult to get all the problems they have let loose back into the bottle. As Annie Lowery points out in The Atlantic, they have built their coalition on culture wars and slash and burn of the safety net. Creating a new brand that is electorally competitive will take a long time. It will be hard to avoid the temptation to enlist those warriors in the new party, but if they do, they will get the same feckless Republican party.
That, however, is not my problem. If the Republican Party in its current form is annihilated, my attention will be more focused on trying to keep the Democratic Party from going off the rails, the possibility of which will most likely be enhanced by the momentary absence of counter-vailing electoral currents.
American democracy will be best served with a two party system when there are actually two responsible parties.