I’m not a trained political scientist and I’m not up on all their lingo, so I may not even know what they mean by realignment. They seem to have a definition for it that I don’t recognize. What I do know is that Seth Masket seems to be asking the wrong kinds of questions and using the wrong kinds of precedents.
For starters, he’s citing evidence that purports to show that previous political realignments have been very much bottom-up affairs. Then he’s telling us that Trump is very much a top-down candidate.
The first part seems potentially irrelevant, and the latter part is highly contentious.
Trump is very much sui generis, but that doesn’t mean that the road he’s on wasn’t largely paved for him. So, depending on how you want to look at it, either Trump is threatening to realign politics from the top down despite all precedents, or he’s actually just the culmination of a process whereby the grassroots became completely alienated from the Establishment of the Republican Party.
But what Masket is asking is if the Republican Party is as screwed up at the local and state level as they are at the presidential level. And, to try to get an answer to that question, he looks at the kinds of candidates who are running for office and whether the insiders or outsiders are doing well in Republican primaries.
It’s true that most Republican candidates look very much like traditional political candidates. There aren’t a bunch of Trumpistas winning primaries all over the place. But that tells us virtually nothing.
There’s a time lag between when these races took shape and when it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee. After the disrupting effect of Trump being in charge of the party for six months, the party may not just go back to being what it was before.
It also matters whether or not these conventional Republican candidates win or lose. Does it really matter if senators like John McCain, Roy Blunt, Ron Johnson, Mark Kirk, Richard Burr, Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, and Kelly Ayotte lose in a primary or the general election, so long as they lose?
To me, though, the question is about enduring change, by which I mean that we want to know if the GOP will snap back into being once the presidential election is over.
And, to answer that question, you want to know what’s happening to their mechanisms of power. You want to know how they’ve been successful and whether they’ll still have all the tools to be successful with the same strategies that have worked in the past.
So, I look at a variety of factors. There’s the three-legged stool of free-market capitalism, massive defense spending, and social conservatism. What happens when Wall Street backs a Democratic nominee, neoconservatives back a Democratic nominee, and a Democratic president locks in a Supreme Court that will be reliably pro-choice for more than a generation? Seems to me that the Republican stool is left as a pile of sawdust.
What happens to the Republicans’ traditional advantage with message discipline when they’ve lost the free trade argument with their own base, the social conservatives have no dog in the fight anymore, and the isolationist wing of the party is at near-parity with the internationalists?
What happens to their partisan media dominance when the talking heads are all squabbling with each other, blaming each other for their failures, and can’t agree to push one united message through each news cycle?
They lose their money advantage, the passion of their door-knocking envelope-licking foot soldiers, the ability to grind their wurlizter until their base is in a mass hypnosis, and any agreement on their basic raison d’être.
Now start with the most basic of concepts.
There are always more poor people than rich people, so a party for rich people cannot compete on an equal playing field. They always need to distract and divert attention from the fact that their policies are primarily aimed at giving rich people what they want. That’s why partisan media dominance is critical. That’s why a unified message is indispensable. That’s why they need to march in lockstep and never validate criticisms coming from the other side.
If they can suppress turnout, that helps, but it is easier to suppress turnout when you control the courts and the Department of Justice. Lose control of them, and this tool’s utility is greatly diminished.
It’s great if you can say that you’re the party of strong defense, but that’s harder to do when half your party is thinking about abandoning NATO. It’s great to say that you’re the party of business, but when business is actively supporting your opponent and opposing you because you won’t build infrastructure, pay the bills on time, or are always threatening to shut down the government, that gets a lot less convincing. Finally, when you lose the battle over gay rights and any chance of overturning Roe v. Wade in the foreseeable future, and the courts are ruling against you time and time again, it’s hard to argue that you can do anything for social conservatives.
What’s made the conservatives successful over the last forty-five years is a combination of these factors along with the racial component. And the racial component has already failed them, which is why passing comprehensive immigration reform was at the top of their priority list after the 2012 election.
How may of these factors that have gone out of whack for the conservatives are just going to snap back into place after the November election?
Finally, my definition of a realignment is when a significant segment of the population stops voting for one party and starts voting for the other one. Along with this, some states that voted reliably for one party either become swing states or the move entirely into the other column.
So, when Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana suddenly went for Obama in 2008, that was a warning sign. The latter two went back to the Republicans in 2012, but now we’re looking at them possibly shifting back, and maybe Georgia, Missouri and Arizona will, too. States like New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada may never vote for a conservative presidential candidate again, although they’ll almost surely vote for a Republican one at some point.
But the Republican Party is just a vehicle. It can carry Eisenhower and Rockefeller Republicans, Reagan Republicans, Palin Republicans or even Bull Moose-progressive Republicans. The question is, will it ever really be a truly conservative party again?
It’s the Humpty-Dumpty question. And the egg was cracked long before Trump emerged triumphant. Cantor is evidence of this. Boehner is evidence of this. Even the phenomenon of Ted Cruz is evidence of this.
The conservative stranglehold of the party is over. There is no more coherent and unified movement. They couldn’t govern as a majority party even before this happened, and there are poor prospects of them getting another chance.
And, so, what you’re seeing is a lot of Republicans saying that they won’t support the nominee, but a lot of them won’t be coming back. That, to me, is a realignment.
And the biggest realignment of them all is the youth vote, because although they’re only voting for the first or second time, they’re not conservatives and they have no sympathy for conservatives, and they could not be more unimpressed with conservatives.
Add it all up, and you have a party that needed a bunch of things to win because rich people are always outnumbered. And those things are all either shattered or burning like a dumpster fire.