Where's The Party?
The Republican identity
On paper, the two-party system that has governed this nation since the mid-to-late 19th century remains intact.
In local, state, and federal elections, candidates square off — Democrats with the (D) next to their names and Republicans with the (R). We speak of red states and blue states, donkeys and elephants. We look back in history at a run of presidents from one party or another and who controls Congress. We tend to place the present into an ongoing narrative.
But it is an illusion — the momentum from the past still driving the train forward even though we are off the tracks. In the Republican embrace of Donald Trump, a large segment of the party has morphed into a cult of personality. Its leader has sought to subvert the democratic process rather than win fairly or lose responsibly, much less gracefully.
Many Republican politicians understand that this is weakening their electoral standing. Looking at the results in 2018, 2020, and 2022 is sobering — many races Republicans should have, or at least could have, won were lost. This is but the most recent manifestation of a process that has been going on for a while.
Much of the institutional power of the Republican Party relies on the peculiarities of our system of government. Only one Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote since 1988 — George W. Bush in 2004. But thanks to the Electoral College, Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016, Republican candidates won the presidency (and the power to appoint Supreme Court justices) despite receiving fewer votes nationwide than their opponent. And Trump wasn’t that far off from doing it again in 2020 — a few votes shifting in a few battleground states could have given him the win, even though he lost the popular vote by more than 7 million. When you throw in partisan gerrymandering and how Senate representation is allocated, Republicans are often able to accrue power in Washington without being the more popular party.
Perhaps due in part to their systematic advantages, the Republicans have pursued an electoral approach that focuses more on exploiting the mechanics of elections than advocating for policy.
The foundational premise of our system is that political parties compete for votes according to policy and preference. There is an understanding that in some areas of the country, for social, historical, or other reasons, one party might be strong and another weak. These allegiances can shift over time, and often have.
But what we are seeing now is something different. And it begins with a fundamental question: For what does the current Republican Party stand? Tax cuts for the wealthy and the interests of big business are a given. But what else? We are not talking about the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan or John McCain, or even Barry Goldwater. One could love or abhor what the Republican Party in those eras stood for, but you could at least come up with a cogent set of policies.
In 2016, Republicans won both houses of Congress and the presidency. What legislation of significance did they pass? When Democrats had unified control after 2008, they passed the Affordable Care Act. The flurry of legislation of the Congress that is ending now is historic, especially when one considers Democrats had only 50 senators.
To note all this is not to say that the Democrats have all the answers or that their policies are perfect, or even anything approaching that. It is to say that they are acting like a typical political party, albeit one with a broad and sometimes fractious coalition. The Republicans are not.
This is a dangerous road we are traveling. It might not be popular to say with some, but we need a strong Republican Party, or something else to rise from its ashes.
Politics is predicated on the fact that not everyone is going to agree with each other on how we should run our government. That can be framed as a weakness, but it is more accurately a strength. We benefit from a competition for ideas. We benefit from having to persuade people that some ideas have more merit. We benefit from coalitions and consensus building.
None of that describes the modern Republican Party, or at least its actions on the national level. And America is far weaker because of it.
One gets the sense that many Republicans are among the most frustrated by what has transpired. Some, like Liz Cheney, have denounced those who peddle authoritarianism under the banner of a party she once helped lead. Many others have left the party entirely.
There are Republican politicians who are trying to chart a path of greater honesty and dedication to American ideals. They are mostly found at the state level, especially in blue and purple states where they have no choice but to work with Democrats. We also can find some kernels of hope in the recent Congress, where there have been a surprising number of bipartisan bills.
As we look at the incoming House of Representatives and a Senate with Mitch McConnell still as minority leader, however, the prospect of a Republican Party as a partner in governance seems like a pipe dream. This is not sustainable, for the Republican Party or the nation.
Sometime in the future, Americans may adopt some other completely different political system. But for the present, let us see clearly that a healthy policy- and values-driven two-party system is what our country needs just now. Not to have it is a danger.
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