On the eventual (near) inevitability of Ryan/Paul (or some equally ghastly presidential duo)

Though this will basically be a total Debbie Downer of a post, I’ll kick it off on a more upbeat note: I do believe that despite our still-terrible economy, despite polls that show the electorate to be closely divided, President Obama will win re-election this fall. It’s likely to be close, but I think that the economy is improving just enough (albeit just barely), Mitt Romney is a rotten enough candidate, the racial demographics of the country are continuing to change in a way that favor Democrats, and Barack Obama is a decent campaigner. All those factors seem to augur a Democatic win.

But sadly, America can’t stave off disaster forever. The Republicans have a very good shot at winning the presidency in 2016, and if they don’t do it then, the odds will favor them even more strongly in 2020. The sad fact is, we can’t hold back these jagoffs forever. This country is a two-party system and that’s how we roll, with the White House switching back and forth between the two parties. Even under the most optimistic assumptions, with a country that is in much, much better shape by 2016, with an economy that is purring along and a new health care system that succeeds brilliantly and is more wildly popular than even its most fervent supporters dared to hope, it won’t necessarily redound to the credit of the Democratic party. After all, after eight years of Clinton, the country appeared to be in pretty good shape, but that didn’t prevent the Republicans from winning in 2000 (or, in reality, coming close enough so they could steal it).

None of this would matter terribly much if we still had your father’s — of maybe by now, it’s more like your grandfather’s — G.O.P. But what we’re actually dealing with is a radicalized, hyper-partisan, lunatic fringe party that keeps blazing new trails in wingnuttery. In 2010, I thought that Christine O’Donnell was firmly ensconced in the record books with a Wingnut Achievement Award for national candidates that would not soon be equaled. But just two years later here we have Todd Akin, going for the wingnut gold. Step aside, Christine O’Donnell — you have just been outwingnutted!

The Republicans, unfortunately, will inevitably be elected to the White House again, most likely in four or eight years. And once they’re there, they are likely to be even more conservative and hyper-partisan than George W. Bush’s administration was. Like Dubya’s crew, they will break longstanding political norms and traditions and move the country’s center of gravity ever even more sharply to the right. And then the next Democratic administration will, like the Obama administration, mostly be preoccupied with making sure nothing gets any worse. If they can enact even incremental progressive reforms it will be a miracle.

What could change this? Certainly, if the Republicans lose a couple more elections, and maybe lose them by substantial margins, the party elders may decide to put the breaks on the radicals and reposition the party closer to the center. But for the Republicans to lose, the Democrats have to win. And currently, what the Democrats have to offer voters is limited. Features of our constitution like the electoral college, the U.S. senate, and the non-parliamentary system make change dauntingly hard and favor the interests of smaller, more conservative states. The filibuster reinforces those malignant tendencies. Corporate interests completely control the Republicans and exert a significant, though not total, influence over the Dems, so economic policies that are in the interest of the 99% have a tough time being enacted. And there’s more, but you get the idea. I don’t see either of those structures — our constitution, or our largely unregulated form of capitalism — changing any time soon. Both those structures favor Republican radicalism and obstructionism, and hurt Democrats, particularly any Democratic attempts to represent the interests of working people.

I do, however, see two rays of hope for the Democrats. One is demographic. As Jonathan Chait and others have argued, the increasing non-whiteness of the U.S. population is fertile ground for Democrats, and could be the basis of an “emerging Democratic majority.” The Republican electorate is, increasingly, older, whiter, and more male; in a a recent WSJ/NBC poll, an astonishing zero percent of African-American voters were supporting Mitt Romney. As recently as 2000, the G.O.P. was trying to reach out to more nonwhite voters, particularly Latinos, but with anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and elsewhere, those efforts have come to a screeching halt.

This seems astonishingly short-sighted. Of course, this may be a temporary strategy on the part of the G.O.P., driven by the fact that we have an African-American president, so prying away nonwhite votes from him is especially difficult, and ginning up white resentment of him is an easy way to motivate the Republican base. But Latino voters are unlikely to soon forget those “show us your paper” laws, or the racist treatment many conservatives dished out towards Sonia Sotomayor. Certainly in California, the anti-immigrant zealotry of the Republican party has led to a sharp decline in the party’s fortunes there. Could the same pattern repeat itself in the U.S. as a whole? Let’s hope so!

On the other hand, political coalitions change, parties adapt, and demographics is not destiny. I would think that the strategists of the Republican party are smart enough to figure a way around this, and to be more inclusive of at least some groups or subgroups of nonwhites. We should also keep in mind that who counts as “white” is historically contingent. The Irish, after all, became white; perhaps one day the Latinos will, as well.

Other than demographics, the other hope I see for the Democrats (and the country) — and it is, alas, an exceedingly vague one — is a mass political movement. I am of course disappointed that Occupy didn’t do more, but it did achieve some positive things. It changed the political discourse and at long last, shone the political spotlight on economic inequality. I think it also led Obama to toughen up his rhetoric and to pull back from further damaging budget negotiations with the Republicans.

The problem with a mass movement is, I don’t see, structurally, where it will come from, and what will sustain it. Of course Occupy came seemingly out of nowhere as well, so maybe another movement will take form unexpectedly, learn from Occupy’s mistakes, and build on it from there. There is always that hope. Sadly, though, from where I stand, I don’t see that happening. At least not anytime soon.

What I do see is more G.O.P. extremism and the enactment of more reactionary policies, and Democrats, when they do get in there, frantically plugging holes in the dike to keep things from being worse. They’ll win some important battles, but I think the G.O.P. is poised to win the war. And sadly, I don’t see this dynamic changing for the foreseeable future. So as profoundly relieved as we will all be if we dodge the Mitt Romney bullet and President Obama gets re-elected this fall, our luck won’t hold out forever. Come 2012 or 2020, the band may well be playing “Hail to the Chief” to President Paul Ryan or (even more ghastly) Rand Paul.

But cheer up — during the inauguration you can all come over to my place for a hot cup of hemlock soup!

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee