As good as this piece is, it’s missing something critical. Profs. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson have identified why the Republicans have managed to hit high-water marks in the states and in the House of Representatives during the same era in which they’ve done very poorly on the presidential level. What they don’t consider, however, is that the Republican Party has no necessary relationship to the Conservative Movement, nor does the balance of its fiscal, defense, and socially conservative factions have to remain constant.
Donald Trump can’t break the Grand Old Party, but he can reshuffle it. Whether he does or doesn’t, however, the Republicans are about to have a reckoning.
It’s true that the Republicans are fairly comfortable as an opposition party. Having spent most of the time since FDR’s election in 1933 in the congressional minority, they are suspicious of federal power, contemptuous of federal programs, and ill-suited for the job of running our federal agencies. They don’t want to lose presidential elections, but their higher priority is being able to obstruct the normal functioning of government rather than see to it that it runs smoothly.
For social conservatives, they want local control of schools and the right to discriminate. Fiscal conservatives want lower taxes and less intrusive regulations. Military hawks want money spent on military hardware, not school lunches and addiction recovery programs.
But things have been coming apart for a while now, and Donald Trump really has nothing to do with how the fissures have begun to open up within the Conservative Movement. While social conservatives want local control, what they want more than anything else is to control the courts, particularly with the long term goal of banning abortion. They cannot accomplish that if they keep losing presidential elections. Their concerns are the primary reason why the Senate Republicans will not capitulate on Scalia’s seat until after the ballots are cast in November. The party can’t afford to demoralize their Christian foot soldiers.
The business community wants lows taxes and lax regulations, but they also want our bills paid on time and they’d like to see substantial infrastructure spending. The bargain they made with the social conservatives doesn’t include defaulting on our debts and letting our bridges crumble. They also want free trade agreements and relatively liberal immigration policies. And they don’t want their corporate brands sullied by association with anti-gay or anti-Latino bigotry.
The hawks want nothing to do with the isolationists, and they know that foreign policy is ultimately set by the executive branch, so they’re the least complacent of all the conservative factions about their inability to win presidential elections.
These fissures have become so painful and so evident that they’re splintering the heretofore united front of conservative media. And this is probably more consequential that most people realize. Profs. Hacker and Pierson understand how geographical, demographic, and ideological sorting favors the Republican Party (allowing them, for example, to easily win the House in 2012 despite getting fewer votes). What they don’t consider is how key it is for the right to be able to speak to their constituents with one voice and one message. Nuance is the death of right-wing movements, and the Republican voter is getting inundated with nuance these days.
What appears to be dying is not the Republican Party, which, given enough time, could easily morph into either America’s socialist party or its National Front. It’s the Conservative Movement that is in real trouble, not the party they seized control of in the latter half of the 20th-Century.
It’s simply not true that the Republicans can hold together indefinitely under this kind of pressure. I believe the proof of this is what we’re all witnessing right now.