Pre-autopsy – Why the Republican Party is Crashing

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.

  1. If GOP candidates get few enough votes in enough elections, the party will disappear. That seems obvious enough.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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Trapped in the Palace of Cows – Who Killed the GOP?

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Trapped in the Palace of Cows (8:02)

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All eyes are on California. The Republican establishment struggles to keep the Presidential nomination from the most extreme candidate in a generation. A win on the west coast will put him over the top, but he can’t quite put a majority together in that state. For most of the primary season a cadre of moderate candidates has divided the opposition. But now there is only one left, and California looks like it will go for establishment moderation.

That is, until voters are reminded of the long simmering scandal about sex, marriage, and adultery.

The nomination will be decided before the opening of the Republican convention at the famous San Francisco Cow Palace.

It was 1964 and the primary campaign was a little meaner than most of us, even those of us who had been born in time to remember anything, remember about those days. Analogies with that campaign may be easier for some in my generation. Most of today’s voters think of Henry Cabot Lodge as a motel chain.

By June of 1964, everyone had known for a long time that Happy and Nelson Rockefeller had divorced in order to marry each other. But scandals sometimes dim with time. The announcement that Happy was now pregnant was a vivid reminder, and it all came back. Barry Goldwater did not need to press the issue. He went from substantially behind among California Republicans to a resounding victory.

The most conservative of conservatives loved the Senator from Arizona. Voters not in that camp had a different view.

The harsh judgement most Americans formed about Senator Goldwater and his supporters has mellowed since those days. He is now viewed as a principled conservative with moral objections as Soviet hegemony went to brutal dominance. His leadership against civil rights laws is now seen as libertarian opposition to federal statism, not as anything approaching race hatred.

But in those days, he was seen as simply extremist. His opponents were moderates. Extremists are thought of as irrational, moderates are reasonable.

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Senator Barry Goldwater, July 16, 1964

His intemperant statements about nuclear weapons were scary just two years following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Americans were mindful of how close the world had come to thermal nuclear destruction. Goldwater campaigned against American tolerance of Iron Curtain tyranny. The nuclear threat had clouded American morality. Americans, he felt, had an unhealthy fear of death, when the freedom of others was at stake.

It wasn’t just about war and peace. The Republican candidate did not seem to mind the excesses of his supporters.

1964 was the year black Republicans were forced out of the party of Lincoln in Georgia and Tennessee. It had been less than a century since President Lincoln had been killed. For the last half of that century, Tennessee had included black members in every delegation to every national convention. There were no exceptions until the anti-black purge of 1964. The convention accepted an all white delegation from Tennessee.

After the Goldwater defeat in 1964, Republicans underwent a painful reassessment. How could they maintain a principled conservatism without scaring the hell out of Americans, without appearing to be the willing accomplices of the worst parts of the white hooded underside of American history?

Richard Nixon was the unfortunate choice to carry the new banner of reason. Watergate has pretty much overcome any other role Republicans imagined for him. But Nixon’s Southern strategy, his alliance with Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, began a muted sort of racial politics. An international policy of death squads and overthrow became a semi-open secret, easily denied.

Nixon was a sort of precursor to Ronald Reagan’s more artful adaptation of the same strategy. Much of white America was resentful of the sudden advancement of minority rights. The conservative lexicon had adapted. Racial code words combined with interracial handshakes. Death squads went below radar as nuclear deals dominated headlines.

Democrats faced their own crises after the McGovern wipeout in 1972. How could they hold to a principled line on equal rights and international peace in the face of an angry white electorate frightened by both?

And so it went as it had always gone through history. Political parties strayed away from the electoral center at the cost of votes. Election defeat brought a painful introspection as those at the helm reconciled core principle with core strategy.

Facing the abyss is nature’s way of focusing attention. Political parties pretty much always found their way back toward the center of public opinion.

That historical pattern seemed to stop in 1992, at least for the Republican party. It is worth asking why.

  • Was it the Southern Strategy of President Nixon that set the party on the slow decline into the irresistable whirlpool of racial anger?
  • Was it the result of careless elites stoking religious paranoia, as the faithful saw themselves surrounded by an increasingly secular society?
  • Was it a conservative elite more loyal to abstraction than the real economic decline of its constituency?
  • Or were the undercurrents of xenophobia and tribalism always there, ready to rise like some monster lurking in the depths?

All may be true, to a point. I suggest a neglected answer is simpler.

It was not strategic error, although mistakes were profound. It was not simple religious, racial, and ethnic bigotry, although lost souls do seem incapable of escape from the dark underbelly of American hate.

The Republican Party is caught in a new sociological vortex. It began when non-liberals forced out liberal Republicans. So the party shrank and grew more conservative. The new conservatism meant that conservatives could make life unbearable for moderates. And so the party shrank a little more, and grew yet more conservative. Conservatives who were not extreme enough followed, and now extreme conservatives who consider even talking to Supreme Court nominees have reason to worry. Some will eventually leave voluntarily. Some will hang from electoral scaffolds.

Why now?

Republicans have lost the majority of voters in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections. Next November does not look promising.

Donald Trump and his sibling rivals differ only in how explicit they choose to be in articulating the same baseline of resentment and hatred. Why is the party not returning to the center?

This generation of conservatives has encountered a new and deadly addiction. It is the comfortable cocoon of technology. Internet and cable alternatives combine with our old friend, talk radio, to offer a new virtual reality. The message is no longer the necessity of reexamination. It doesn’t have to be.

The restraint that was once forced by approaching political abyss is no longer scary. The message of choice is one of comfort. You need not change. You need not even consider changing. Except to become more like you are.

The Republican party will soon be a regional force that will keep shrinking, will keep diving to new extreme depths.

The culprit is hidden in plain sight.
We see it on our desks. We watch it after hours. We hold it while we talk and text.

The Republican Party is dying.
The microchip is the killer.