For liberals, there is a long history of thinking that surely the Republicans will have to change their ways. They have a very unpopular platform and seem only interested in funneling money to the rich. There is almost no rational basis for their policies, so they have cast aside science for a kind of postmodern mentality where reality is whatever they want it to be. And this has morphed into a proto-fascist belief in “might makes right.” Remember the Bush administration idea that 50% plus one vote gave them legitimacy to do whatever they wanted? Surely, we liberals have thought, they cannot continue on like this and win elections!
Now we are hearing rumblings within the conservative moment that if the Republicans don’t win the presidency in 2016, the party is dead. There will be a civil war in the GOP that will tear it apart. Liberals tend to be more cautious. We’ve watched this before. For one thing, if the Republican Party came out in favor of torturing kittens, it would still manage to get 40% of the vote. That just seems to be built in. Still, Brian Beutler seems cautiously optimistic that the Republicans might change if they lose in 2016. I’m not.
The problem is that there is a disconnect between the micro-scale and the macro-scale. What is good for any one politician is not necessarily what is good for the party that she represents. It is interesting that the divide between these goals should be so much greater in the Republican Party than it is in the Democratic Party. But I don’t think it is hard to construct a narrative about why it is so. The conservative movement went through a long period of defeat. For four decades, the closest it came to the presidency was Dwight Eisenhower who wasn’t much more conservative than Adlai Stevenson who the Democrats ran against him. It bears repeating: Republican economic policy is not popular.
With the Democratic Party’s turn toward civil rights in the mid-1960s, the Republicans saw their chance. This is the basis of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy: get people to vote against economic policy that, all else being equal, they would hate — all in the name of saving their culture. The Democrats have never done anything comparable. It’s ironic that identity politics is a label placed on the Democratic Party, but the party has never used identity to get people to vote against their own class interests. It is the Republican Party that pushes the “real America” — incidentally, the places where very few people live — as an identity to policies that these people don’t generally agree with.
Brad DeLong wrote an amazing essay at his site, What About Today’s Republican Party? He highlighted the way that former California governor Pete Wilson got a second term by demagoguing against Latinos in the state. He did this, even while knowing that demographic changes in the state would soon make that position toxic. And now we have a state that in 1988 voted for George HW Bush by over 3.5 percentage points is now at just about a super-majority of Democrats and the idea that the state would vote for a Republican president is outrageous.
DeLong thinks the turning point was Newt Gingrich, who thought that he could demagogue his way to power and then govern the normal way but for the interests of the rich and powerful. Of course, that didn’t work. Once you set up that kind of situation, others are going to use it against you. As DeLong put it, “But then he found that his allies who did not care about governing could use his willingness to strike bipartisan deals — and his problems with his zipper — to bounce him out as well.” Now I think this all goes back a lot further, but the idea is the same.
After the 2012 election, there were many Republicans who thought that the party needed to reform. If the party loses in 2016, we will hear the same voices. But the party will have the same problem in 2016 as it did in 2012. If it becomes a “reasonable” pro-business party, it will have no base of voters. So it will continue to push forward with its white resentment strategy. At some point, it will find a winning coalition. But I suspect that will have more to do with the Democrats making a mistake rather than the Republicans suddenly getting creative.