One of the enduring mysteries in American politics is how the Republican Party has gotten so many of its Faithful to vote against their economic interests. That may be about to change, and the implications for the GOP are fundamental.
Within the two-party system, the Republicans have traditionally represented The Establishment – high earners, olde money and the Old Boys Network. Ideological fealty to the central tenets of laissez-faire capitalism has been gospel; an abiding faith in the convenient aphorism that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ drives its anti-tax, anti-regulation, tough-love for the disadvantaged, and ultimately anti-government ethic. The questions may be many, but the answer is The Market. The Establishment is small in numbers, but prosperous, motivated and connected in ways nearly unthinkable to everybody else – they are the plutocrats, the Masters of the Universe and their aspirational acolytes.
By contrast, the Dems are a loose aggregation of most everybody else, a proletariat that is organized around a more interventionist orthodoxy, whether motivated by traditional labor interests, other concerns for capitalism’s excesses, or direct assistance to the disadvantaged. In their Big Tent, they expect and tolerate the differences among them, and favor using government as a tool to deliver social solutions. These include collective bargaining and anti-discrimination rules, consumer protection, environmental regs, steeply graduated taxation, and direct assistance to needy individuals in forms of Social Security, health care, food programs and disability assistance.
Then there’s a third fraction – folks afar afield economically from The Establishment, but who have a fundamental axe to grind with the liberal Dems – they cannot abide the Big Tent. They include identifiable groups like evangelicals, driven by opposition to secular policies pursued or allowed by government, Tea Partiers, the Marlboro men still(!) holding hostage all those migratory fowl up in Oregon, and the Angry White Men generally, who largely sense the ‘compositional amenities’ (sorry – powerful concept) of their world getting away from them.
They are deeply committed, as demonstrated by their avid participation at the primary election level. There, they’ve flexed their influence occasionally by upsetting an Establishment type, like an Eric Cantor or Mike Castle. Thus the rhetoric in the Primaries has appealed to their issues, and requires the successful candidate to “pivot to the center” in the general election. It cannot be won from a perch that far-out from the trunk of the tree.
That said, they have invariably marched under a GOP banner each November. They have generally been content to let the Masters run things economically, even finding ways to convince themselves that Jesus himself was an original capitalist (see prior blog on the orchestrated rise of the Religious Right). They have mostly not required that the GOP actually nominate someone from among their midst – it has been enough that the Masters throw them a bone regarding their respective issues.
Thus the Conventional Wisdom among pundits has been that this faction, best represented by Candidate Voldetrump, would once again fall into line as their hero fades in the polls and an elder (Jeb!) or younger (Marco?) aspirant assumes the Grand Old Party mantel bestowed by the Masters.
But the pundits have missed a few signals on this one. First, there’s the ‘Citizens United’ tiger let loose to ravage the political landscape in 2010. Since then, both Parties have struggled to remain relevant, and that’s especially true of the GOP. Candidates no longer need the fund-raising muscle of the Establishment, when a single billionaire patron-or-two can sustain a campaign. That rampaging tiger has shown no signs of any inclination to be ridden, by anyone.
Second, there’s the lesson of the insurgents’ coup that recently deposed House Speaker Boehner. Neither he, nor the anointed Establishment successor Mr. McCarthy could corral the heady stampede of their disaffected colleagues. The aftermath revealed the increasing philosophical tensions that made compromise nearly impossible. If Paul Ryan had not existed, who would have been able to cooper together a conservative aisle consensus?
Finally, there’s the wild and sustained enthusiasm and rationalizing of support for a manifestly underwhelming candidate on the merits. ‘Tis said variously that the defining characteristic of his support is authoritarianism, and that the defining American struggle of the newish century will be a thirty-year war on liberalism waged by partisans of the far right revival.
In other words, the movement that finds voice in the wretched demagoguery of that campaign isn’t going away soon, and will no longer be satisfied dancing to the plutocrats’ tune. The Establishment’s choices this time are weak, unready or unable to catch fire, respectively. And the insurgents’ standard-bearer has shown a great capacity for sustained authoritarianism. Unless Mr. Ryan can once again step into the breach to stave-off full-blown rebellion, the 2016 GOP is ripe for an explosion.
Serious third party candidacies have happened before, as in 2000 (Greens/Nader), 1992 (Perot), 1968 (Wallace) and 1912 (Bull Moose/TR). Usually, they have been so closely identified with the individual candidate that all they do is ensure the election of one of the traditional nominees; then they fade away. And the GOP has been remarkably successful at the state and local levels – it’s not clear how a schism would affect those majorities. Finally, The Donaldate did promise Not to break away … of course he did.
But then there’s the Whigs, an influential opposition party over several decades in the 1800s -- so the rise of a new conservative party to the right of the GOP, and dedicated to the traditions of a by-going era, is a distinct possibility. It is remote that such a group could capture the Executive Branch flag, but it would be popular enough in some places to dramatically alter the dynamics of power in the Congress, in ways difficult to predict, but generally leaning leftward.
The world as the Republican Establishment created it may be coming to an end. Ironically, the rise of an institutional conservative alternative seems most likely to steer the transition of the American identity away from the traditional preferred course. This may truly be the year of the GOPocalypse.