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