It’s time for one of our annual political rituals — CPAC, the American Conservative Union’s conference, begins this Wednesday. A who’s who of conservative leaders go to recite movement-friendly shibboleths, while liberal journalists generally record the panoply of crazy that inevitably seeps into the proceedings.
But 2013 is looking to be something more than spectacle. As conservatives reckon with the party’s declining electoral clout, CPAC is shaping up to become the forum in which the under-the-radar intra-conservative sniping blows up. CPAC declined to invite popular governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell on grounds that they were insufficiently conservative, an absurd charge that infuriated less dogmatic Republicans. The exclusion of gay group GOProud kicked off a similar dustup. It’s no civil war yet, but there certainly have been some civil skirmishes.
There’s a temptation for progressives to bask in the heat generated by the GOP’s self-immolation. The reformist camps are still weak and divided, and so long as the party keeps people like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as members in good standing, the hyper-radicalized, anti-intellectual Republican mainstream will cater to an increasingly small part of the American electorate. It’s a recipe for inevitable progressive triumph, right?
Wrong. Progressives should want the Republican reformers to succeed in creating a party that’s both more substantively tethered to reality and, as a consequence, more electorally viable. The current Republican party is a serious threat given the structure of American politics even if it’s in long-term decline, and the benefits of it collapsing down the line are uncertain at best.
It is impossible to separate the Republican Party’s declining political fortunes from its right-wing radicalization. Here’s the basic dynamic: after the conservative movement captured the Republican party apparatus, the GOP embraced severely conservative policies, turning off more moderate voters. This makes the party’s base more conservative, which leads to more conservative candidates running in primaries and winning. While a smaller percentage of those candidates might win office, the ones that do govern from further to the right, alienating moderates and setting the cycle off again. Hence what’s called “asymmetric polarization:” while Democrats have made a soft turn left, Republicans have lurched right, making Democrats the party better equipped to appeal to the majority of Americans.
Nate Silver, who identified this cyclical pattern in 2009, named it the “Republican death spiral.” Subsequent events, particularly the Senate primary victories of candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin and the House GOP’s consistently abysmal poll numbers, have borne Silver out. Moreover, the 2012 Obama coalition is made up of groups (like young voters and minorities) that represent growing segments of the electorate, whereas the base Republicans are consolidating down to is a dying breed of old, white men. So the GOP is not only appealing to only a minority of Americans, but that minority is itself becoming smaller. Unless Republicans can fix this problem, they’ll be playing with a large and growing handicap for the forseeable electoral future.
Usually at this point in the analysis, progressives tend to develop a slightly self-satisfied smirk. “We’ve won,” the thinking goes. And what could be better in politics than total victory?
Not so fast. We’re still many years away from a Republican collapse into total political non-viability. And in the meantime, the country needs a smarter conservative party that’s less concerned with ideological purity and more concerned with governance.
People often assume that if “Republican death spiral” theory is true, it means that 2004 was the last time a Republican will win the White House. That’s a pretty massive misunderstanding of the argument. The death spiral thesis implies that elections will become increasingly difficult for Republicans, but that’s not the same thing as impossible. While Republicans may have an tougher lift going forward, electoral fundamentals — particularly the state of the economy — are still more important in determining electoral outcomes than party ideology. Even in 2012, when Mitt Romney’s ham-handed campaign and Randian message should have cost him votes, the election basically came out the way the economic fundamentals suggested it would; Obama appears to have gained very little from Romney’s repellently ideological presentation. Jamelle Bouie spells out the implication:
In other words, the Republican loss last year has more to do with outside conditions than it does with anything intrinsic to the party. I’d go even further: Given how normal it is for a party to lose the White House for eight years, it’s still unclear how much reform the GOP actually needs. If the economy is faltering at the end of Obama’s term, and the GOP has recovered lost ground with some minority groups, a Senator Marco Rubio could run with Mitt Romney’s platform and still win.
The economy could tank for all sorts of relatively-plausible reasons that the President simply has no control over. The collapse of the Euro could trigger another financial crisis. China’s economic growth could continue to slow down, battering an already-weak global market. Those are just two near-term examples I came up with off the top of my head — it’s basically impossible to predict what the economy will look like in 2016 and beyond. The global economy could very well empower a radicalized Republican Party even if its stalwart base has shrunk dramatically.
It’s hardly necessary explain to progressives why that’d be a terrible thing. Progressives tend to believe that enacting the current GOP platform would have across-the-board catastrophic consequences. The logic of the death spiral argument requires the GOP to become even more hard-line and intellectually hidebound over time, making its future agenda that much worse. Think about a 2008-style wave sweeping, say, President Ted Cruz, Senate Majority Leader Jim Inhofe, and Speaker of the House Eric Cantor into office. The more radical the Republican Party’s agenda gets, the worse the consequences of its victory would be — which, even in a death spiral world, remains a distinct possibility.
Moreover, an increasingly ideological party doesn’t have to win wave elections to do a lot of damage: it merely has to grind Congressional business to a halt. The last Congress, the 112th, was the least productive in history by basically every discernable metric, and may actually have been, overall, a downright counterproductive one. That’s largely a product of an ideological House majority willing to play Russian roulette with the global economy and a filibuster-happy Senate minority. These problems that are likely to recur: the GOP has a structural advantage in the House due to Democrats clustering in cities and filibuster reform doesn’t look imminent. The debt ceiling, too, doesn’t look like it’s going to be repealed anytime soon. Thus, an even-more radical GOP could not only prevent Congress from tackling critical priorities like global warming and economic inequality — it could escalate its obstruction of critical legislation as a means of extorting major concessions. Imagine if a future GOP returns to debt ceiling hostage-taking, but was radicalized enough to actually shoot the hostage.
The progressive case for GOP reform isn’t entirely negative. Conservatism as an intellectual tradition has had genuine political insights; having a serious, reflective conservative party would help keep progressive thinking sharp. Republican intellectual vacuity may lead to Democratic intellectual laziness. A conservative party with genuinely good ideas, proposing smart laws addressing progressive blindspots, would genuinely make the country a better place. What such a conservative party would look like, and how it could appeal to Americans beyond the current GOP base, is a question for another time, but one I hope to tackle soon.
But wouldn’t all the risks be worth it if decades of progressive political empowerment a la the Democratic-Republican reign after defeating the Federalists from 1800–1824 were a guarantee? Even assuming one-party rule isn’t inherently corrupting, that line of thinking rests on a fantasy. A modern Democratic-Republican party would likely be more conservative than the Democrats are today, as a one-party system would reflect the fact that many Americans are genuinely on the right side of the spectrum. Moreover, one-party rule is unsustainable — inevitably, the progressive and conservative poles would break off and create a new two-party system. So even in a world of complete Republican collapse, there’d be another conservative party soon enough. Not much of a prospective gain given the the risks.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a new, reform-minded conservative party calls itself the Republican Party or not — it desperately needs to start asserting itself. The currently-existing Republican Party cannot be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. But the country deserves a better class of conservatives, one that’s serious about governance and being accountable to the mainstream of American public opinion. Hopefully, the CPAC schisms are the first signs that some conservatives are planning to give us one.