Saturday, September 14, 2013

Reflections on the Future of the Republican Party

To date, my most popular post has been One Reality Republicans May Take Away From This Election. Looking back on it, I would say I was half right, and half dangerously naive.  The half right was the Republicans are beginning to realize they can no longer count on power as their birthright, and that having a Democrat in the White House was going to become a fairly normal event.

Where I was absurdly naive was in thinking that Republicans might accept and learn to deal with this fact.  Just the opposite has happened.  Republicans are increasingly coming to recognize that they can no longer be assured of control of the government, and have therefore become all the more determined to destroy it.  I keep hearing that defeat will finally drive home reality to the Republicans. I also read and liked the following definition of peak wingnut: "Peak Wingnut may be hard to pin down exactly, but I would say it refers to the exact moment that the G.O.P. can no longer field a candidate capable of winning an election because the wingnuts will not allow a rational person to win a primary and cannot turn out enough votes to win an election."  The assumption is that when Republicans become unelectable, they will have no choice but to embrace sanity as a matter of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that any of this is true.  Thus far, Republicans have responded to each defeat by becoming crazier and crazier.  The main evidence is taken from what has happened to other parties.  The Democrats, after spending most of 1968 through 1988 in the wilderness, moved to the center and won in 1992.  The British Labour Party responded to Margaret Thatcher's victories by getting crazier and crazier, thus marginalizing itself more and more.  But ultimately it pulled itself together, moved center, and was able to exploit Conservative mistakes.  Much the same happened to the Conservative Party during Tony Blair's ascendancy.  But I see no evidence to date that the same rule applies to Republicans.

The strongest evidence to the contrary lies in California.  Republicans were once a strong and rational party in California.  Presidents Nixon and Reagan were both once California governors.  But as power began slipping away from California Republicans, they responded by getting crazier and crazier, and by taking the attitude of, "If I can't govern you, nobody will."  They set out to make California ungovernable and largely succeeded.  California required a 2/3 majority to pass a budget.  The Republican Party was always too small to pass anything, but just large enough to prevent a budget from passing.  And (I am told), since Republicans knew that ultimately a budget would have to pass, eventually one would defect, vote for the budget, and be defeated in the next election.

The Senate, by giving each state two Senators, carries a systematic bias toward rural states and therefore tilts toward the Republicans.*  The House is heavily gerrymandered toward Republicans and therefore expected to stay in Republican hands (barring extraordinarily self-destructive behavior by Republicans, a possibility that cannot be ruled out).  On the other hand, there is some evidence that the Electoral College may be biased toward Democrats, meaning that the White House is likely to be in Democratic hands much of the time.**  This means the sort of standoffs we are experiencing now are likely to be the new normal.  And even if one party manages to hold the White House, Senate, and House, the Senate filibuster rule now makes legislation impossible unless that same party has a 60-seat super majority in the Senate, something unlikely to happen very often.  California, here we come!

The good news is that, in California at least, the power of the Republicans has finally been broken.  They have now shrunken down to holding less than a third of the seats in the legislature and can no longer block legislation.  California may become governable again.  The bad news is threefold:

  1. The California Republican Party shows no signs of regaining its sanity.  It keeps getting crazier, but is now marginalized to where it is limited in the damage it can do.
  2. The thought of coastal California liberals holding unchecked power is not exactly a reassuring one.  But worst of all:
  3. It took a good 20 years from when the California Republican Party went insane until it became too marginalized to do any more damage.  And it manged to do a lot of damage in the interim.
If this pattern holds true for the country as a whole, the madness should run its course around 2030 or so.  Hold onto your hats.

*The fact that Democrats have held onto the majority for the past two elections is largely a matter of luck.  Because only 33 to 34 Senators are up for election at any time, a small number of elections can skew the results.  In the last two elections, Republicans have chosen particularly crazy candidate in key races and blown winnable seats as a result.
**Certainly judging from the last two elections, there appears to be a stable coalition in place.  Furthermore, in the last election, even if the swing states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida had all gone for Romney (they did not), Obama would still have won a razor-thin electoral majority.


  1. I think your interpretation of the Senate is flawed. You attribute the Democrats' maintaining control in the Senate to luck in the Republicans' willingness to nominate crazy candidates. But that's exactly what advocates of Peak Wingnut have predicted: that the Republicans will start to lose their grip on the government because they nominate candidates who are too crazy to win elections. The more sensible interpretation is that we're already in the early stages of Peak Wingnut, and that the problem is showing up first in the Senate because it's immune to gerrymandering.

  2. Interesting. Although the Senate does not have the gerrymander problem it has the rotten borough problem -- disproportionate influence by rural areas, another factor that favors Republicans. Although having to win an entire state as opposed to just a (packed) district probably limits the advantages of true nut cases.

    You live in California, Roger. Any insights you can give me on California Republicans and the state's post-Republican future will be much welcome.

  3. I think it's more accurate to say that the Senate has problems of disproportionate representation of small states, not necessarily of rural areas. A lot of the small population states are the physically large but largely rural Western states like Wyoming and the Dakotas, but there are also the physically small Eastern states like Delaware, Vermont, and Rhode Island, which tend to be fairly blue. The largest states also include some solidly red ones, like Texas and Georgia. So overall, the design of the Senate tends to favor the Republicans, but it's a substantially smaller advantage than what gerrymandering gives in the House.

    As for California, I think there is a sense in which it represents the country as a whole written small and a while in advance. The state is extremely polarized, with few competitive districts even after our recent adoption of a non-partisan redistricting commission. That polarization has meant that the Republicans have kept getting crazier and crazier as their popularity has declined. I think the Democrats have been more resistant to extremism, largely because some of their growth has come from picking up people who used to be moderate Republicans but who don't feel welcome in the party anymore.

    There are enough moderates to make moderate Republicans electable- Schwarzenegger is the obvious example- but those moderates are so unpopular within the party it's not clear how much chance they have of making it through the primary. We've also moved to a jungle primary, but the change is recent enough that it's not clear what the long-term impact will be.

    My personal suspicion is that the Republicans will tend to become crazier, but movement will be unequal. In places like California, their irrelevance at the state level will let them go ever deeper into craziness at the local level. In deep red states, they'll also go crazy because there will be no serious Democratic threat to restrain them. The only place where sane Republicans will have a real chance are more purplish states where the electorate is likely to punish the Republicans for picking truly crazy candidates.