Politics & Policy

The Demoralizing of the GOP (and America)

President Trump talks to reporters as he stands with Republican Senate leaders on Capitol Hill, January 9, 2019. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Or possibly the reverse

The Republican party is morally sick. Some of the GOP’s vices are pervasive within our political culture, and some are particular to the party itself. In his article for The Atlantic, George Packer got the diagnosis impressively — indeed perfectly — wrong.

Packer writes that the Republican party isn’t a “coalition of interests in search of a majority” but is “ideological in character.” The GOP’s institutional and ideological corruption is supposedly rooted in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 insurgency against the party’s establishment, and “movement” conservatism’s general hostility to established journalistic, academic, and political elites.

Some of Packer’s charges are standard partisan mewling that one would expect from a Democratic consultant. When the Senate’s blocking of a presidential court appointment counts as “taking away democratic rights,” you know the author has lost either his perspective or his integrity. Somebody should tell Packer about Joe Biden’s extensive history of killing court appointments by blocking hearings and votes. No doubt Packer’s love of democratic rights will be terribly outraged.

Packer might respond that blocking one Supreme Court nominee is much worse than blocking a slew of lower-court nominations. And it is worse . . . for liberal partisans — but only because they lost. Most of Packer’s indictment is the kind of self-serving griping one might get from Hillary Clinton after giving her a six-figure speaking fee and a couple of bottles of wine.

Packer does strike upon one useful mechanism for distinguishing personal and institutional corruption. He notes that while President Nixon was personally corrupt, his party’s congressional leadership under Hugh Scott and John Rhodes played by the rules.

That is a good standard for a party’s institutional integrity. Does the party’s congressional leadership and membership confront a corrupt and immoral president, or does it support him?

We have a president who is a serial liar, who has faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, and whose presidency has been dogged by an investigation into obstruction of justice and other process crimes in order to cover up his past misdeeds. This all reminds Packer of . . . Barry Goldwater?

Before going back to 1964 to figure out why congressional Republicans are sticking with Trump even though they must strongly suspect that he did something criminal, maybe we should go back to the 1990s. Who were the Democratic Hugh Scotts who decided that a president who had clearly committed perjury and obstruction of justice (and who was accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape) had to be removed for the sake of justice and public ethics?

They didn’t exist. It was more important that the Democrats win than it was to play by the rules. This win-first mentality was best exemplified by Anita Hill, who asked about Bill Clinton, “Is he our best bet, notwithstanding some behavior that we might dislike?”

Hill’s answer (and the answer of the congressional Democrats) was that yes, Clinton was liberalism’s best bet, and his “behavior” (even if criminal) came second. The Democrats couldn’t afford to play by the rules. They had to win. Maybe Anita Hill is just a really big Barry Goldwater fan.

We — Democrats and Republicans — are still in the same unethical place. Trump voters give the same answer as Anita Hill and the 1990s congressional Democrats. He is their best bet. It is the same answer that Roy Moore voters give. It is the same answer that Robert Menendez voters give. We have lived in a world of cynical and sociopathic calculation for over a generation. Trump just makes the bargain a little more obvious than most.

Packer’s partisan and blinkered explanation of the recent history of public ethics is the kind of thing that you can find any given night on MSNBC, but his theory about the relationship of Trumpism and movement conservatism is a more interesting kind of error.

Ideologies and Interests
When Packer writes that the Republican party “isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority,” he is obviously wrong in a trivial sense — in a country as big as America, both of our major parties will inevitably be coalitions of disparate interests — but he is suggesting a useful analytical tool. A party can have more or less ideological cohesion. A party’s interest groups could have more or less of a shared vision of the common good.

For decades, Republicans were closer to the more ideological side of the interest-group/ideology spectrum. The core of the Republican party was a “fusion” of economic and social conservatism. The economic conservatism focused more on tax cuts than on balanced budgets, and the social conservatism had room for a divorced actor and a reformed drunk as its foremost leaders. Some Republicans — such as Texas senator Phil Gramm — were economic conservatives first. Others — such as Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — were social conservatives first. But they were both fusionist conservatives. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush softened the edges of both economic and social conservatism while staying within that consensus.

There were still liberal Republicans. Some (such as Lincoln Chafee and Jim Jeffords) left the party, while others, such as Susan Collins, stayed and tried to pull policy a few clicks toward the center. But for all that, it would be somewhat true to describe the Republican party as slowly evolving into an ideological vehicle in search of a majority. Conservatives were never a majority of the country, but Republicans were confident that they lived in a center-right country in which competent electioneering and just a little bit of luck (or just the absence of bad luck) would lead to Republican — and conservative — dominance.

The irony is that Packer chose to describe the GOP this way just as the description was becoming untrue. When looking at the Voter Study Group’s famous visualization of the 2016 electorate, one sees that the Democrats have a larger core of supporters who are both economic and social liberals, while Republicans are divided among conservatives and populists. Looking at the Voter Study Group’s findings, it is the Democrats who look like an ideological party and the Republicans who look like an uneasy coalition of interest groups.

It took a while, but the George W. Bush administration’s weak growth capped by the Great Recession, the decline of church attendance, the social-conservative defeat on gay marriage, the remorseless social crisis of the working class, and the failed occupation of Iraq all weakened and divided the Republican party’s components.

Churchgoing social conservatives make up a smaller, more embattled fraction of the electorate and have less confidence that cutting taxes has anything to do with a better America. Economic conservatives can’t even rally their own party to their agenda. When they tried to repeal Obamacare, their replacement struggled to get support from even one-quarter of America. Trump’s victory was crucially dependent on white, working-class populists who might show up as “socially conservative” on the Voter Study Group’s charts but who have little in common with the churchy conservatism of Ted Cruz and nothing but contempt for an economic conservatism built around one more tax cut for their bosses.

One can describe the GOP’s conservatism of 1980–2016 as a product of Frank Meyer’s “fusionism” of liberty (especially economic liberty) and virtue, but that undersells the Reaganite accomplishment. Economic freedom didn’t just become popular between Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 and Reagan’s win in 1980. The principles of liberty had to be paired with an agenda that spoke to people’s interests. Appeals to morality had to be paired with people’s intuitions and contemporary experiences. A conservative fusionism that doesn’t speak to people’s interests and experiences turns out to be as impotent as a Ben Sasse lecture on the Constitution.

This fracturing of the relationship between movement conservatism and the GOP can be seen in many ways. Rush Limbaugh said that Ted Cruz was the obvious choice for Republicans “if conservatism is your bag.” The rest of his commentary made it clear that he didn’t think conservatism was the bag even of Rush Limbaugh listeners. Senator Jeff Flake wrote a whole book in which he demanded that Republicans shape up and start acting like a principled ideological movement and not like a bunch of selfish interest groups. Flake is now unemployed.

Even this understates the ideological incoherence of today’s GOP, particularly when compared with the Democrats. On most issues Democrats agree on direction but disagree on the ultimate destination. Some Democrats want to expand Medicaid, others want to drop the age of Medicare eligibility to 55, and others want a single-payer system. They agree on a model of expanded health-care coverage through government-provided comprehensive health-care prepayment. Democrats agree on expanded immigration but disagree on the details. They agree on higher taxes, but disagree on the details.

Republicans disagree on the direction. Many populists and social conservatives have no interest in another high-earner tax cut and — all else being equal — might even support a modest tax increase on high-earners. Many Republican business interests would prefer an expansion of low-skill immigration, which is opposed by the rest of the party. It is tougher for Republicans to come to internal win-win compromises because Republicans voters no longer have a shared vision of the common good.

What they have is a common enemy. Right-leaning economic conservatives are afraid of what even watered-down Bernie Sanders–style tax increases would do to them. Social conservatives are scared of frankly authoritarian social liberalism. For white, working-class populists, it is the sense that liberals, drunk on theories of inevitable Democratic majorities, are ready to discard them as dispensable deplorables. These Republican groups don’t agree on much, but they can’t see how they could get a better deal from the Democrats. They are stuck with each other.

No one understood this better than Trump. It was Trump who — rightly — pointed out that it’s called the Republican party, not the Conservative party. Trump was brutally transactional with Republican voters. They didn’t have to approve of him as a person. He didn’t have to share (or even understand) their values. It was enough that they needed him.

This is what it looks like when a party loses its ideological character, when its shared agenda collapses, when its voters lose confidence in the future, and when its mythology (for the contemporary GOP, the myth of Reagan) no longer moves the general public or the party itself. This should be familiar to Democrats.

Back to the Future
The irony is that today’s GOP looks a lot like the Democratic party of the 1990s. Before Bill Clinton, the Democrats had lost five out of six presidential elections — and its 1988 nominee had spent the election running away from the liberal label. Within two years of Clinton’s election, Democrats would lose control of Congress, including — especially shockingly — the party’s 40-year majority in the House of Representatives. The party had been bleeding white Southerners and Northern ancestrally Democratic white voters for decades at the presidential level and now those voters were supporting Republican candidates for Congress and governor.

The result was that this scared and desperate party took what it could get. Even the most liberal Democrats supported a criminal president who signed a capital-gains-tax cut and said that the era of big government was over. The party split down the middle on (and Clinton signed) the GOP’s welfare-reform legislation. The leaders of the Democratic party decided it had been a mistake to oppose Reagan’s military buildup and George Bush’s Gulf War — this was the background to Hillary Clinton’s, Joe Biden’s, and John Kerry’s votes in favor of the Iraq War. This party was glad to have all the pro-coal gun enthusiasts it could get. The Democrats knew that there weren’t enough liberals to win.

The Democrats now are — in some ways — similar to conservatives in the days right after Reagan’s presidency. Democrats are confident that, given electioneering competence and just a little luck, they have a majority within their grasp. Indeed, if Democrats lose, it is probably the fault of gerrymandering, or the outdated Constitution, or Russian memes. The party has a large core of consistently liberal voters and activists that can form a solid basis for reaching out to just enough persuadable voters to win a majority on the Left’s terms.

Meanwhile, Republicans are lost. Their congressional leadership grew up knowing only Reaganism, and Reaganism is dead. Like George Packer, they can’t imagine a GOP in which movement conservatism is no longer the connective tissue. A generation of the best-credentialed and best-barbered Republican politicians have dreamed of nothing greater than to be Walter Mondale to Reagan’s FDR. Worse, unlike Mondale, they didn’t just lose an election; they lost their party to a demagogue. They are now stuck with a president who is unpopular but is far more popular that the congressional Republican agenda.

There is no rule that a party has to have a shared understanding of the common good. The Republican party could go on indefinitely as a coalition of whoever is unhappy with whatever the Democrats are doing at any given moment.

Still, it would be better if the GOP were a little bit more coherent — if it offered answers instead of just slowing down the Democrats. But for that to happen, Republicans would have to have an understanding of what America needs today, and what might get the support of the majority of their fellow citizens. Trump can provide neither that understanding nor that majority support. Neither can Reagan nostalgia. It would also be good if Republicans (and Democrats) could treat ethics as something other than just a weapon to be wielded against the opposition.

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