Opinion

Three Reasons the Republican Party Keeps Coming Apart at the Seams

For decades, the cliché in politics was that “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.” The Democratic Party was thought to be a loosely connected cluster of fractious interest groups often at war with itself. “I don’t belong to an organized political party,” Will Rogers famously said. “I’m a Democrat.” Republicans were considered the more cohesive political force.

If that was ever true, it’s not now. These days, Democrats fall in line and Republicans fall apart.

It’s not just the 14 votes Kevin McCarthy lost before promising away enough of his power and prestige to finally be named speaker. It’s his predecessors, Paul Ryan and John Boehner, who both quit the job McCarthy now holds. It’s the Tea Party repeatedly knocking off Republican incumbents. It’s Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus forcing government shutdowns their colleagues never wanted. It’s Donald Trump humiliating virtually the entire Republican Party establishment and becoming the erratic axis around which all Republican Party politics revolves. It’s House Republicans ousting and isolating Liz Cheney because she insisted on investigating an armed assault on the chamber they inhabit. Today, a gaggle of Republicans isn’t a party. It’s closer to a riot.

Perhaps the rise of small-donor money and social media and nationalized politics corroded party cohesion. But Democrats have been buffeted by all that, too, and responded very differently. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2008, but rather than exiling the Clintons to the political wilderness, he named Hillary secretary of state, and then supported her as his successor. In 2020, the party establishment coalesced behind Joe Biden. When Harry Reid retired from the Senate, he was replaced as leader by his deputy, Chuck Schumer. When Bernie Sanders lost in 2016, he became part of Schumer’s Senate leadership team, and when he lost in 2020, he blessed a unity task force with Biden. Nancy Pelosi led House Democrats from 2003 to 2022, and the handoff to Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark was drama free.

So why has the Republican Party repeatedly turned on itself in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t? There’s no one explanation, so here are three.

Republicans are caught between money and media.

For decades, the Republican Party has been an awkward alliance between a donor class that wants deregulation and corporate tax breaks and entitlement cuts and guest workers and an ethnonationalist grass roots that resents the way the country is diversifying, urbanizing, liberalizing and secularizing. The Republican Party, as an organization, mediates between these two wings, choosing candidates and policies and messages that keep the coalition from blowing apart.

At least, it did. “One way I’ve been thinking about the Republican Party is that it’s outsourced most of its traditional party functions,” Nicole Hemmer, author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” told me. “It outsourced funding to PACS. It outsourced media to the right-wing media.”

Let’s take funding first. Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez have documented the way money has flowed out of the Republican Party’s official organizations and into an “extra-party consortia of conservative donors” centered around the Koch network (which, importantly, is and long has been far bigger than the Kochs themselves). Between 2002 and 2014, for example, the share of resources controlled by the Republican Party campaign committees went from 53 percent of the money Skocpol and her colleagues could track to 30 percent.

What rose in their place were groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Action network and the American Legislative Exchange Council — sophisticated, well-financed organizations that began to act as a shadow Republican Party and dragged the G.O.P.’s agenda further toward the wishes of its corporate class.

What were the hallmark Republican economic policies in this era? Social Security privatization. Repeated tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Free trade deals. Repealing Obamacare. Cutting Medicaid. Privatizing Medicare. TARP. Deep spending cuts. “Elected Republicans were following agendas that just weren’t popular, not even with their own voters,” Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, told me.

But what really eroded the party’s legitimacy with its own voters was that the attention to the corporate agenda was paired with inattention, and sometimes opposition, to the ethnonationalist agenda. This was particularly true on immigration, where the George W. Bush administration tried, and failed, to pass a major reform bill in 2007. In 2013, a key group of Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to make another run at it only to see their bill killed by Republicans in the House. There’s a reason immigration was Trump’s driving issue in 2016: It was the point of maximum divergence between the Republican Party’s elite and its grass roots.

The failure of Bush’s 2007 immigration bill is worth revisiting, because it reveals the pincer the Republican Party was caught in even before the Tea Party’s rise. The bill itself was a priority for the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party. The revolt against that bill was centered in talk radio, which was able to channel the fury of grass-roots conservatives into a force capable of turning Republican officeholders against a Republican president.

It wouldn’t be the last time. As the Republican Party’s corporate class was building the organizations it needed to tighten its control over policy, the party’s grass-roots base was building the media ecosystem it needed to control Republican politicians. First came Rush Limbaugh and his imitators on talk radio, then Fox News (and eventually its imitators and competitors, like OANN), and then the blogs, and then digitally native outlets like Breitbart and the Daily Wire. The oft-missed secret of the right-wing media ecosystem is that it is ruthlessly competitive. If you lose touch with what the audience actually cares about, you lose them to another show, another station, another site.

Conservative media became, on one hand, the place that grass-roots discontent with the Republican Party’s leadership or agenda could be turned against the party’s elite, and on the other hand, the place where the party’s elite could learn about what the grass roots really wanted. It also — with the rise of online fund-raising — became a place rebellious Republicans candidates could find money even after they alienated their colleagues and repelled the Koch class. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene was one of the 10 top fund-raisers in the House in the 2022 election cycle.

So that’s one explanation for what happened to the Republican Party: It’s caught between a powerful business wing that drives its agenda and an antagonistic media that speaks for its ethnonationalist base, and it can’t reconcile the two.

But notice a problem lurking in the language here. Talking about “the Republican Party” makes it sound like the Republican Party is, in each era, the same thing, composed of the same people. It’s not.

Same party, different voters.

A few decades ago, the anti-institutional strain in American politics was more mixed between the parties. Democrats generally trusted government and universities and scientists and social workers, Republicans had more faith in corporations and the military and churches. But now you’ll find Fox News attacking the “extremely woke” military and the American Conservative Union insisting that any Republican seeking a congressional leadership post sign onto “a new shared strategy to reprimand corporations that have gone woke.”

“The reason the Democrats are much more supportive of the institutions is because they are the institutions,” Matt Continetti, author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism,” told me. “Republicans are increasingly the non-college party. When Mitt Romney got the nomination in 2012, the G.O.P. was basically split between college and non-college whites. That’s gone. The Republicans have just lost a huge chunk of professional, college-educated voters — what you would have thought of as the spine of the Republican Party 40 years ago has just been sloughed off.”

The problem for the Republican Party as an institution is that it is, in fact, an institution. And so the logic of anti-institutional politics inevitably consumes it, too, particularly when it is in the majority. This was almost comically explicit during the speaker’s fight. “BREAK THE ESTABLISHMENT ONCE AND FOR ALL,” wrote Representative Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican, in a fund-raising appeal tied to his opposition to McCarthy. Representative Chip Roy told reporters the aim was “empowering us to stop the machine in this town from doing what it does.”

The more that the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party expresses itself, the more the party loses once-loyal voters inclined toward institutions and gains new voters who mistrust them. You can see this, to some degree, in the so-called Woo-Anon pipeline, where anti-establishment hippies found themselves, particularly during the pandemic, drifting into the furthest reaches of the right — in one case, going from teaching yoga classes in Southern California to joining the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Democrats are increasingly the party, when they’re in the majority, of the suburbs,” Continetti told me. “And to me, the American suburbs are the ballast of this country — they’re more small-c conservative than movement conservatives. The suburbs don’t want to rock the boat. So the Republican Party, as it’s become more rural and more non-college educated, they don’t have as much investment in the system. By that very reason, they become much more inclined to rock the boat.”

Suburban voters provided Joe Biden his crucial margin of victory in 2020 and saved the Senate for the Democrats in 2022. Depending on how you look at it, they’re a check on the Democratic Party’s radicalism or an impediment against its much-needed populism. Either way, the parties are pushing each other to become more distilled versions of themselves. The closer the Democrats come to the major institutions in American life, the more Republicans turn against them, and vice versa.

Republicans need an enemy.

When I asked Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, what the modern Republican Party was, he replied, “it’s not the Democratic Party.” His point was that not much unites the various factions of the Republican coalition, save opposition to the Democratic Party.

“The anchor of Democratic Party politics is an orientation toward certain public policy goals,” Sam Rosenfeld, author of “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era,” told me. “The conservative movement is oriented more around anti-liberalism than positive goals, and so the issues and fights they choose to pursue are more plastic. What that ends up doing is it gives them permission to open their movement to extremist influences and makes it very difficult to police boundaries.”

It wasn’t always thus. The defining consensus of the midcentury Republican Party was its opposition to the Soviet Union. “The Cold War was the engine driving the mainstream Republican Party to the left,” Gary Gerstle writes in “The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order.” “Its imperatives forced a political party that loathed a large centralized state and the extensive management of private enterprise in the public interest to accept these very policies as the governing principles of American life.”

Gerstle’s point here is subtle. Anti-Communism made Republicans more than a purely anti-government party. Liberals sometimes frame this as hypocrisy on the part of Ronald Reagan and other self-styled conservatives — how can you hate government but love the military? — but in Gerstle’s view, fighting Communism kept Republicans committed to a positive vision of the role of government in modern life. It turned tax cuts and deregulation into questions of freedom. It turned highway construction into a question of national defense.

And so it’s no surprise that you first see today’s Republican Party — complete with government shutdowns, doomed impeachment efforts, bizarre investigations and vicious congressional infighting — in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union had fallen. Then came George W. Bush, and his initially listless administration, which was revived by Al Qaeda — another external enemy that lent focus and coherence to the Republican agenda. But that faded, too. And as that faded, the trends of the Gingrich era took hold. The enemies, again, became Democrats, the government and other Republicans.

There is an irresolvable contradiction between being a party organized around opposition to government and Democrats and being a party that has to run the government in cooperation with Democrats.

You can see this dynamic even now. The easiest route to bipartisan cooperation is to frame a bill as anti-China, like the CHIPS and Science Act. McCarthy’s first act with any bipartisan support was to create a new committee to focus on competition with China. But China isn’t our outright enemy in the way the Soviet Union or Al Qaeda was. It’s certainly not enough of a force to organize Republican Party politics around a positive agenda.

All of this suggests that McCarthy has won himself a miserable prize. To become speaker, he traded away many of the powers he would have had as speaker. He reportedly promised to give those who would destroy him plum committee assignments that will, in turn, give them more control over what comes to the House floor. He apparently agreed to spending caps and budgetary guarantees that will commit House Republicans to the kinds of brutal cuts and dangerous showdowns that make them look like a party of arsonists, not legislators. He made it possible for any member of his caucus to call a vote on him at any time. And most important, he was proved weak before he ever held the gavel.

“All McCarthy has is the title on the door above his office,” Skocpol told me. He’s a hollow speaker for a hollow party.

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