What went wrong with the Republican party anyway?

So, one of my major themes for years has been the asymmetry between the Republican and Democratic parties.  In large part, because I think there’s a somewhat knee-jerk response, to just assume that everything is symmetrical.  So, given that the Republican Party has clearly gone off the rails and Democrats have not, how do we explain that?  Lee Drutman— whose been doing the best writing of anybody on political parties over the past couple years– takes an excellent stab.  Well worth reading the whole thing.  But since, you come here for my expert excerpts…

At this point, it should be obvious that the Republican Party has gone insane. The pressing question now is: “Why has the Republican Party gone insane?”

My argument is that the modern Republican Party is a direct result of the design flaws of the American political system — our winner-take-all single-member electoral districts, our reliance on private money to finance elections, and our increasingly presidentialist system of government. You simply can’t understand the GOP’s pathologies without understanding the larger political system in which it operates.

It’s tempting to lay the blame on well-known destructive political leaders (Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, etc.). But why should politicians here and now be any more destructive than at any other time and place? What’s different here and now are the opportunities and incentives. That’s why we need a structural explanation…

Understanding the nature of coalitions helps to explain Chait’s other question: If our system is so poorly designed, why did only one party go off in an extreme direction?

Chait actually supplies the answer in his response. The Democratic and Republican coalitions are very different (a point that Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins also make, much more extensively, in Asymmetric Politics). As Chait astutely notes:

[The] Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. [emphases mine] (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike.

There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites.

Since the 1980s, Republicans have held together a coalition around a woolly vision of “limited-government conservatism” that could mean different things to different people. Libertarian-minded business owners saw it as low taxes and deregulation. Conservative Christians saw it in terms of religious liberty or not extending rights to LGBTQ citizens. Middle-class whites who scored high on racial resentment scales saw it as government not taking their money to give free things to freeloading black and brown people.

These different [Republican] groups can be kept in the same big-tent coalition because they all understood that on the values they cared about most, the Democratic Party was not the party for people like them. Over time, as they identified as conservatives and Republicans, they learned the orthodoxies that “people like them” stood for, and were pulled along for the sake of keeping the governing coalition together, understanding that any defection would spell defeat in a two-party system.

By contrast, Democrats have been the party of the working class, the party of cosmopolitan urban professionals, and the party of minority groups. There was really no coherent “liberal” ideology that held these groups together, other than an interest group logroll in which each constituency got something. The need to keep all these constituencies happy is why the party stayed moderate, and also lacked a compelling vision from the Clinton era forward.

I especially like Drutman’s section on campaign finance:

Finally, we can’t discuss the nature of the two political coalitions without discussing the role of private money in politics. Broadly speaking, the wealthy and corporations have used money (through campaign contributions and lobbying) to shape economic policy so that it disproportionately benefits the rich and corporations.

This money has made it harder for the Democratic Party to truly be the party of the working class (one reason, as Chait notes, that Democrats have remained moderate).

But its more consequential effect was that it pulled the Republican Party very far right on economic issues. And because many of these far-right economic positions are broadly unpopular on their own, the Republican Party has had to work even harder to disqualify Democrats, turning up negative partisanship to ever higher levels and having to rely more and more on anti-elite/anti-government and now increasingly overt racial demagoguery in order to keep Republicans voting Republican.

Great stuff.  And again, I would argue “what went wrong with the Republican Party anyway” is one of the absolutely key questions to understanding contemporary American politics and how we can, hopefully, improve things.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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