Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer. Photo: Saad Salem/Getty Images/500px
The Republican Party and American democracy are having a bit of a falling out.
A half-century ago, conservatives claimed to speak for a silent majority of the electorate; now they brag about representing the (even quieter) majority of American dirt and grass. The dispersion of Republican voters across the U.S. landmass can still paint electoral maps red, but the GOP’s standard-bearer has lost the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. Last year, with voter turnout historically high, the party’s House candidates lost the nationwide vote by 8.6 percent. As of 2018, there were 12 million more registered Democrats than Republicans on America’s voting rolls.
That disparity is liable to get worse before it gets better. The millennial and Gen-Z generations are the most progressive in the history of opinion polling. Donald Trump’s disapproval rating among Americans under 35 hovers around 70 percent. Gen Z has just begun aging into the electorate, while millennials are reaching the stage of life when a generation’s civic participation typically takes off. And there’s reason to think that Trump’s lurid assault on young Americans’ values has accelerated their political maturation: Last year, millennial turnout surged by 20 percent, while Gen Z voted at a higher rate in its first midterm election than either of its predecessors did. As a result, Gen Z, Gen X, and millennials collectively outvoted their elders in a midterm for the first time ever.
But conservative elites aren’t acting as though they believe millennials will soon be “mugged by reality.” In recent years, the movement has evinced far less interest in winning over the rising generations than in suppressing their influence. GOP-controlled states have fought to disenfranchise college students and entrench their party’s legislative majorities through extravagant gerrymanders, while congressional Republicans have focused relentlessly on consolidating power over the judiciary — a countermajoritarian branch of government that has, under conservative control, eviscerated federal voting-rights protections and insulated partisan gerrymandering from constitutional challenge. Meanwhile, in right-wing discourse, the movement’s fear and loathing of the emerging American majority is no longer disguised. Tucker Carlson warns his viewers that immigrants threaten to make the Democrats a permanent majority party (and thus, that blue America’s plot to legalize the undocumented amounts to a “coup”). Republican lawmakers regularly defend the right of America’s rural minority to lord it over the majority because “we are a republic, not a democracy.”
These ahistorical defenses of the Electoral College — and the “alt-lite” adaptations of the great-replacement conspiracy theory — have helped fill the void where an affirmative conservative agenda once stood. The financial crisis badly wounded the right’s “In robber barons we trust” economic philosophy. And the combination of Trump’s proud indifference to small government pieties, plus the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare, and the heavy electoral price Republicans paid for even trying, have forced Ayn Rand’s apostles to play dead. If the GOP regains full control of government in 2021, it’s anyone’s guess what they’d do with it. The party’s thought leaders have much to say about Twitter etiquette and the intricate policy challenges raised by Drag Queen Story Hour but precious little to offer on trifling matters like how to restore shared prosperity or stop Americans’ life expectancy from continuing to decline.
In sum: The Republican Party is unpopular and is poised to grow steadily more so. It has no viable governing vision. And its only discernible plan for addressing those deficiencies is to wage legal and ideological war on popular democracy.
Given that this is my view of the contemporary GOP, I was eager to be persuaded by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s Tuesday New York Times column, “The Republican Party Is Doomed.” And my will to believe only grew upon encountering Greenberg’s opening paragraph:
The 2020 election will be transformative like few in our history. It will end with the death of the Republican Party as we know it, leaving the survivors to begin the struggle to renew the party of Lincoln and make it relevant for our times. It will liberate the Democratic Party from the country’s suffocating polarization and allow it to use government to address the vast array of problems facing the nation.
But, alas, the case for political reality resembling a liberal Democrat’s wildest (albeit still rather milquetoast) dreams looks thin.
Greenberg’s argument goes like this: A critical mass of American voters never got over the 2008 financial crisis or made peace with the tepid recovery. Barack Obama’s fealty to the big banks and his failure to avert “prolonged unemployment” and “stagnant wages for the whole of his first term” kept the GOP in the game despite the growing obsolescence of libertarian economics. In 2016, Trump capitalized on Hillary Clinton’s complacency about the recovery, eking out an Electoral College majority on the strength of swing voters’ desire for change and the Democratic base’s disaffection with Obamaism.
But now Trump is the one insisting the American economy is already great. Thus, in 2020, he “will be the latest presidential candidate punished by the voters for not getting it,” Greenberg writes. Meanwhile, with the GOP no longer able to coast on being the opposition in a time of wrenching middle-class decline, the bankruptcy of the party’s fiscal agenda — combined with its (related) dependence on nativists and Evangelicals whose reactionary social views are increasingly at odds with those of the median voter — will finally earn the party the historic rebuke it deserves. Or at least this will happen so long as Democrats disavow their vestigial attachment to bipartisanship and moderation and mobilize their base behind a bold vision for sweeping progressive reform.
Greenberg’s confidence is more impressive than his evidence. He argues that the results of the 2018 midterms proved the potency of attacking the GOP’s economic vision head-on. He cites recent poll data that suggests the public mood is now friendlier toward “big government” — and more hostile toward corporate CEOs — than it has been in decades. Finally, and most compellingly, he notes that Trump’s standing with white non-college-educated women has fallen sharply since 2016 and that the GOP has been bleeding support from self-identified moderates and secular conservatives. This has left the party beholden to a theocratic, nativist minority whose views are wildly out of step with the rest of the country’s:
This year, Mr. Trump extended his war on immigrants and immigration. Yet the percentage of Americans who say that immigrants strengthen the country and are not a burden has risen from 54 percent after the 2018 election to 65 percent now. This view is held strongly by 52 percent. Only 26 percent agree with the president that immigrants are a burden because they are accused of taking jobs, housing, and health care.
As a case for thinking Trump will fail to win reelection, Greenberg’s column is compelling; as one for thinking the GOP (“as we know it”) will not survive into the next decade, it is not.
There are two defects in Greenberg’s argument. One is his failure to address competing interpretations of the data he cites. Put aside the pollster’s tendentious claims about the nature of Trump’s 2016 appeal (the “economic anxiety” debate is so 2017). Greenberg doesn’t acknowledge the fact that American public opinion has historically been “thermostatic,” growing more liberal when a Republican is in the White House and more conservative when a Democrat is. That doesn’t mean we aren’t seeing a durable realignment in American attitudes on the role of government or the desirability of immigration (as indicated above, I believe demographic change makes that reading more plausible). But given this historic pattern, it’s quite a leap to cast polling showing a leftward lurch in public sentiment under Trump as proof of the conservative movement’s impending demise. Furthermore, in citing opinion data on immigration, Greenberg neglects the question of preference intensity. In 2016, one could have pointed to poll results showing 90 percent support for universal gun background checks and declared the GOP fatally beholden to the fringe views of its gun-nut base. But while the party’s position on gun safety is becoming a liability, it nevertheless did not prevent Republicans from securing full control of the federal government that year. And recent polling suggests that nativist voters put a higher priority on immigration than liberal ones do and that voters with right-leaning views on immigration are overrepresented in Electoral College battlegrounds.
Meanwhile, the credibility of Greenberg’s broader analysis is undermined by his assertion that Democratic voters have grown tired of the cult of bipartisanship and are now “seeking leaders who understand how transformative this election ought to be for both the Republican and the Democratic parties” and are ready to deliver “a powerful, activist government after years of gridlock and political impotence.” I hope Greenberg is right about this, but the available evidence suggests otherwise. Beyond the fact that Joe Biden has secured a commanding lead in the 2020 primary while campaigning as a champion of bipartisanship and Obamaism, when asked directly about their views on bipartisan compromise, a large majority of Democratic voters continue to endorse it.
But the primary defect in Greenberg’s argument is his neglect of the myriad structural advantages the GOP will retain even if it does become a permanent minority party. In his triumphalist account of the 2018 midterms, Greenberg dances around the reality that a historic blue wave did not prevent the GOP from expanding its majority in the Senate. This was partially the product of an especially unfavorable map for Democrats (far more Democratic Senate incumbents were on the ballot last year than Republican ones). But it also reflected two long-term trends in American politics that have accelerated in recent years: the rise of urban-rural polarization and the decline of ticket splitting.
The electorate is increasingly divided along lines of density. White voters’ propensity to support Democrats steadily decreases the farther they live from city centers. Meanwhile, politics has become increasingly nationalized, such that the percentage of Republican voters who are willing to support a Democratic Senate candidate down-ballot has shrunk. This has grave implications for Democrats, since all those sparsely populated, heavily white states in Middle America are massively overrepresented in the upper chamber. At present, the average state is about six points more Republican than the nation as a whole. A historically favorable midterm environment spared some of the Democrats’ red-state incumbents last year. But the next time Joe Manchin and Jon Tester face voters while a Democratic president is in power, they’re unlikely to be so fortunate (as the opposition party almost always does better in midterm elections). Even with their votes, Democrats will still need a minor miracle to assemble a majority in the upper chamber in 2020. And if Republicans hold the Senate, they’ll have an excellent shot at retaining it for the ensuing decade, especially if Trump loses. And as long as the GOP has the upper chamber, it can block Democratic presidents from appointing Supreme Court justices (or federal judges more broadly).
It isn’t hard to see, then, how the right-wing bias of America’s state lines — combined with conservative dominance over the judiciary — could keep the contemporary version of the GOP in business for some time to come. So long as plutocrat-funded, xenophobe-branded Republicans can dominate elections in low-density states, it will be hard for the national party to force an ideological realignment. And so long as John Roberts remains the Supreme Court’s “swing justice,” GOP state governments should be able to push the envelope on suppressing and diluting Democratic votes. Then, in a two-party system, all conservative Republicans would need in order to reclaim the presidency would be a well-timed recession that primes low-information voters’ desire for change.
This grim analysis may be wrong. It’s possible the GOP is on the cusp of maxing out its appeal with rural voters and its capacity to bend election law to its own ends. But any persuasive case for the party’s imminent demise must explain why the party’s structural advantages will fail it. Establishing that Republicans have alienated a majority of Americans is insufficient. If this country were governed by popular sovereignty, the GOP would already be dead.