Is the Republican Party Dying?

The question is in the air, so why not ask it?

I think the answer is no.  But the question is out there because the Republican party is badly divided, in a way that many of us have never seen.  As a historian, I think that maybe this is what a party looks like when it’s beginning to go.  Like long ago when the once all-powerful Federalists petered out and ceased to matter nationally (circa 1820); or when the high-minded Whig Party gave up the ghost, startlingly soon after getting Zachary Taylor into the White House (circa 1850).  Or when the Democratic Party split in two on the eve of the Civil War, its members suddenly riven over slavery.

Parties do die, of course; but no major party has died in a very long time.  Our 20th-century parties are much hardier and more redoubtable institutions than were their counterparts 150 years ago.  That, in itself, is an argument against the Republican Party disappearing.

The GOP has a big problem, though.  Its conservative wing is weakening the party, in the sense of compromising its appeal to moderates.  This is something I’ve written about several times.  Over the past five years, the GOP establishment made a couple of costly mistakes, as when John McCain chose his “game-changing” running-mate, or when the Republican leadership decided to embrace the uncompromising Tea Partiers rather than cut them loose.  Had the Tea Party been treated as a distinct third party, the limits of its appeal would have become evident, and by now it would have been dead.  Instead, in the aftermath of the mid-term elections, congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner proclaimed that there was no difference between themselves and the Tea Party, with the consequence that the Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

It’s a problem the party itself could solve, and perhaps it will.  It could enforce some kind of ideological discipline through the instrument of the party platform or disavow some of its members who, in their fervor, have assailed some of the country’s most sacred national principles, such as the separation of church and state or the independence of the judiciary.  These are not creations of a particular party; they are features of our Constitution that the Founding Fathers labored to establish and that we have a duty to take seriously, and even revere.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that spatial and social segregation is a factor perpetuating the moderate-conservative divide.  Remember those maps Richard Florida did a few years ago, showing that people of higher education and means were becoming geographically concentrated in particular areas of the US, along the coasts, and near cities?  This type of migration, along with increased social stratification, has produced a country where people of different types no longer live together or interact as they did formerly.  The social relationships so fostered were politically moderating.  Instead, we see the demographic divide being replicated in the results of recent Republican primaries, resulting in a protracted struggle between Mitt Romney and his conservative-backed rivals.

Going forward, this balkanization will assure the conservatives of continued strength in Congressional races, governorships, and state legislatures.  Whether this mix of conditions will serve the Republican Party as a whole well in the years ahead remains to be seen.

Susan Barsy, The Incredible Shrinking GOP, Our Polity, November 2012.
Ryan Lizza, “Can The GOP Save Itself?“, The New Yorker, March 2012.

13 responses

  1. Susan–I have noticed this, too. I iike to explain to my out-of-town friends that, in the old days, the citizens of the city of Chicago voted Democratic because they had to; today, it is because they want to. What is remarkable today is that the Democratic candidate for president can expect to get nearly 85% of the vote; on par with Washington D.C. The difference between these two cities is that the percentages of African-Americans is about 1/3 in Chicago and 4/5 in DC. Where are the Republicans? They moved out of the city over time to the collar counties! I would like to say it is about schools — but those in McHenry, Will, and much Lake County are pretty bad! I think it is about race myself. What do you think of this theory: Race relations have improved a lot in the city of Chicago because whites uncomfortable living with blacks have left.

    Two trends I noticed in the voting data in the Illinois Republican primary that i think speak to your thesis but I am not sure how: Romney killed his opponents in the suburbs — winning by about 30 % points. Except for places like Peoria Country, whose politics you understand a bit about — he was beaten pretty handily. This fits my view that Illinois = Cook county + Kansas! But, seriously, it highlights a pretty bad divide in the GOP — which we saw in the Democratic party in the late 60s and 70s, when there were still Southern White Democrats! Second trend in the data is not a trend at all: Romney won the city by the same % as he won the suburbs, except only about 45,000 city folk voted in the GOP primary. Bobby Rush received about 45,000 votes in a meaningless primary.

    • I think we have to look at the cultural demands of our political system in a global context. The American political system has always demanded a toleration of difference, and that is a very great demand to place on humans. The majority of the world is still organized according to religion or blood, with people killing those who are unlike them in a brute drive for power. Some countries repress religion entirely, or institutionalize racial or sectarian differences into caste structures. Our political principles set up a high standard, one that carries the rewards of peace and that from a moral and humanitarian view is well worth striving to achieve. It’s not surprising, though, that Americans struggle with this, and that many many Americans have not gotten used to racial or religious difference. Even in the city, among Democrats, there isn’t as much integration as you might expect to see. Tolerance is taking hold as a norm–and faster than it was before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 60s–but still the creation of a multicultural nation is hard to achieve.

  2. Susan – great blog – I just tweeted a link so more people will read it. Then I’m sending copies to my family – they will love it..

  3. A very timely article. My view is very close to yours. I like your emphasis on the migration of the more well-to-do to urban areas. But why, why does this occur, why do these more well-off folks pick up and leave their roots, many going back generations? Is is because “they” can no longer stand the “provinciality” of where they come from? Is the migration driven more by philosophical or financial reasons? In either case I suppose this group just becomes more politically tolerant.

    • Sam— It’s more like something that happens over a life-cycle, when young people leave their native places to go to college and then move someplace else afterward for the economic opportunity. This results in a more homogeneous population in the place they left, particularly if no new people move in. There are many such places in the US. People in cities are not necessarily more tolerant; there is a lot of social differentiation there as well, as people live near like-minded people, often in class-specific neighborhoods or suburbs. But what you do find there, in the aggregate, are people of many different viewpoints and kinds. Their aggregate views are more likely to skew moderate or Democratic. SB

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  5. An interesting element of the problem is the abundance of ‘safe-seat’ districts for both parties…I think it’s fairly conventional wisdom that part of the hyperpartisanship is structural, and reflecting the fact that only small portion of the House of Representatives actually face competitive elections.

    • Cary–You’re right. Does it seem to you that political geography is increasingly reinforcing and perpetuating partisan identification and (its flipside) division? I wonder if there is a “natural limit” to gerrymandering that we are about to reach, where creating “safe” districts produces undesired consequences and diminishing returns. I am thinking here of the Texas redistricting with its near-perfect negation of the growth in its minority population. Republican lawmakers did this to consolidate an existing advantage, but try then selling your party as one friendly to minorities. . . .
      It will be very interesting to see how the Republican narrative plays out. I do think the party will splinter apart, and that there is some opportunity for a new party to form. For the foreseeable future, however, there will be fierce divisions in government, regardless of who wins the presidency.
      On a related point: have you been following the effort in California to develop a primary process that is more friendly to individual candidates and more indifferent to party? It marks a return to the idea that we need good people as leaders, more than we need strong partisan identification. . . I think that CA’s new system elevates the two top vote-getters to the general election, to encourage more spirited competition even among members of the same party.
      Thanks for writing in–it’s good to hear from you.

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