Things looked dismal in 2010 as Democrats watched the approach of electoral disaster.
It was a season of conservative rage. Pretty much every season is a season of conservative rage. It has been so since President Obama first took office.
But 2010 was also a time of slow, frustratingly slow, economic recovery.
January 20, 2009 had seen the first inauguration of the first African-American President of the most powerful country in the history of the world. January 20, 2009 had also seen the single meeting designed to slow and, if possible, stop the sluggish economic recovery.
Republican legislative leaders gathered at a Washington restaurant and hammered out an agreement. They would oppose, and delay, and, whenever it could be done, kill any proposal that came from the new President. Reform, efficiency, appointments, laws, would all be on the chopping block. Even proposals that had been eagerly advocated by Republicans in previous years would be opposed by Republicans for the next four years.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had organized the meeting. He issued the guiding principle. There would be only one priority. This President will not, must not, have a second term. That meant one mission, one above all others. Anything that might promote economic recovery would be tied up in legislative obstruction.
In the world outside of Washington, the economy was paramount. Senate procedures, the tool by which Republicans worked tirelessly to break the recovery, were an arcane mystery to most most of the public. The glacial recovery looked lost, and voters saw a Democratic majority. Who you gonna blame?
By 2010, the answer to that was clear. Republicans were in the ascendancy, the surge seemed across the board.
In the midst of all that, I rashly predicted the demise of the Republican Party as a national force. Within the next ten years, I said, the death throes would be evident. It hasn’t happened yet, but today it does look plausible. The process has been accelerating just below the surface for a generation. Teutonic shifts that precede massive earthquakes can be unnoticeable on the calm surface of everyday living. But those shifts are sometimes detectable none-the-less.
This shift has been in front of us for decades, hidden in plain sight. The process goes step by step.
If GOP candidates get few enough votes in enough elections, the party will disappear. That seems obvious enough.
If the GOP grows extreme enough, it will attract fewer voters, thus fulfilling the primary condition. Republicans will get fewer and fewer votes in enough elections, and the party will disappear.
If less conservative members continue to leave the party, the party will become increasingly extreme. Thus fulfilling the secondary condition. The GOP will grow extreme enough, attracting fewer and fewer voters, few enough for the party to disappear.
If more conservative members of the party continue to believe intolerance is the key to victory, they will continue to make the GOP a less and less hospitable home for mainstream conservatives. Thus fulfilling the tertiary condition, and making the rest a certainty. When intolerance becomes the only standard, less conservative members will continue to leave the party. The party will become increasingly extreme. When it becomes extreme enough, it will attract fewer and fewer voters, few enough for the party to disappear.
If extreme conservatives listen to what they are being told by conservative media, they will become increasingly certain that any setbacks are caused by a lack of purity. That means those who vote in primaries will continue to believe intolerance is the key to victory. They will make the GOP a less and less hospitable home for mainstream conservatives. Intolerance will become the only standard. Less extreme members will leave the party. The party will become increasingly extreme. When it becomes extreme enough, it will attract fewer and fewer voters, and the party will disappear.
If conservative media stop telling extremists they are right, extreme conservatives now have the easy ability to find other more conservative media alternatives. Thus making it all come together in a very happy, yellow-brick-road ending.
Extreme conservatives listen to what they are being told by conservative media. They are increasingly certain that all setbacks are caused by a lack of purity. Those who vote in primaries are making the party a hostile party for mainstream conservatives. Less extreme members are leaving the party. The party has become increasingly extreme. When it becomes extreme enough, it will attract fewer and fewer voters, and (all together, now) the party will disappear.
That last step has no precedent.
Through history, political parties have occasionally moved away from the mainstream. In most cases, they have suffered defeat. When defeat has been massive and continuous, the cruel message has been overpowering. Parties must move toward the political center or they will lose again and again.
This time, the message has been lost. Beginning in the early 1990s, Republican victories have been by lower and lower margins. Republican losses have been by more and more. Republicans have lost the majority of voters in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections, bouncing back in 4 out of the last 7 midterms.
If Donald Trump loses the next election, as seems possible, Republicans will have been rejected by most voters in 6 out of 7 elections for President.
As Hillary Clinton takes office, if she takes office, that newest Republican loss will not demonstrate the Republican death cycle. Losses, even massive losses, come and go, as parties adjust to reality.
The mortality of the Republican Party will instead be demonstrated by the continuing embrace of Trumpism by those Republicans who still remain Republicans.
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