Concerns about the Republican Party’s demise are exaggerated. Arjun Vishwanath explores the Grand Old Party’s past, present, and future in this four-part series. Part I steps back to evaluate the health of the Republican Party today. Part II traces Donald Trump’s rise and how he exploited the weaknesses in the GOP to win the nomination. Part III looks at how the Republican Party has consistently failed to offer its constituents a positive slate of policies. But Part IV proposes a way forward for the Republican Party to win elections without surrendering its conservative principles.
This piece is crossposted at If Men Were Angels.
Part I: How Did We Get Here?
Any reasonable observer can see that Donald Trump’s nomination has thrown the Republican Party into massive disarray; in saying this, I am not breaking any new ground. It is clear to both conservative and liberal analysts that the malaise of the Republican Party precedes Donald Trump, and his nomination is a symptom of the issues that ail the Republican Party. But I want to explore the problems of the Republican Party more closely, because I think many of the explanations out there fall short.
In order to examine the Republicans’ problems, it is important to understand the ideology and aims of modern conservatism, the primary driver of Republican politics since 1980 . The United States is generally understood to be a right-of-center country in comparison to its similarly developed peers. This is not uniformly the case across each policy area. Even informed voters may be surprised to note that some of the Scandinavian countries—Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—all rank as more deregulated economies according to the Heritage Foundation’s Business Freedom Index. Predominantly Catholic nations such as Ireland and Poland—both of which mostly ban abortion—tend to be more socially conservative on a number of fronts. But these are largely exceptions that prove the rule.
Still, the broader trajectory of American government has been towards increased government intervention in the economy since World War II and social liberalism since the 1950s. This leads many liberals to think that it is only a matter of time before we reach Canada, Germany, or the other Western governments with more progressive policies than ours; on this account, the conservatives are doomed in the long run and are simply dragging out the inevitable “progress” that will take place (presumably once the “old bigots” die).
Interestingly, a number of conservatives gloomily take this view as well – particularly on social issues. Even in the mid 2000s, when the anti-gay marriage forces were at their strongest, conservatives and liberals alike viewed gay marriage as inevitable. Today, on the one major social issue on which views have not significantly moved in the past several decades – abortion – people perceive those around them to be more pro-choice than they actually are.
At the same time, the Republican Party is more dominant than it has been since the 1920s. Republicans have their largest majority in the House since the 1940s, and they control 54 seats in the Senate and 31 governorships (there are 18 Democratic governors and one independent governor). They have complete control of 23 state governments compared to only 7 for the Democrats, and control the vast majority of state legislatures.
How to explain this discrepancy? Some political observers note that Republican control of these levels of government can be attributed to institutional factors. Political scientists have observed that in midterm elections, the party that does not control the presidency usually benefits; in this light, the Republican routs in 2010 and 2014 help to explain their dominance. Republicans also have the additional benefit that their base of older voters turns out much more reliably than the Democrats’ base of younger voters. And while the black turnout rate was greater than the white rate in the 2012 election, the gap hasn’t been significant during recent midterm elections. In the House, Republicans have a natural advantage due to the distribution of Democratic voters – they tend to be clustered in urban areas, and as a result a state like Pennsylvania can have 5 Democratic seats and 13 Republican seats despite President Barack Obama winning the state by over 5 points. Finally, gerrymandering after the 2010 midterm elections plays a role in the House majority, but an overplayed one to be sure.
Heading into the 2016 election, Republicans enjoyed their strongest political position in decades. They controlled two branches of government, and dominated at the state level. The outgoing president was a two-term Democratic incumbent who had presided over a tepid recovery. According to these fundamentals that political scientists have traditionally analyzed to predict presidential elections, a Republican presidential victory in 2016 was favored.
And then they nominated Donald Trump.
Featured image via impulsetoday.com