How the GOP Dies

Pollster and author Stanley Greenberg has written a book about the death of the Republican Party titled, “R.I.P. G.O.P.” Stephanie Mencimer wrote a review of it in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly. Noting that the author focused a whole chapter on J. D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy—which suggests that the challenges faced by people from his community were the result of “poor life choices that bore little relationship to larger economic or political forces”—Mencimer summarizes Greenberg’s point with this.

What bothers Greenberg most about Hillbilly Elegy is that many of Vance’s Republican enthusiasts (though not Vance himself) have concluded from the book that nothing can be done about the social collapse. Their takeaway, he says, is that “government activism is ineffective and counterproductive.” That crabbed view of government, Greenberg notes, has restricted Republicans’ ability to do much for the very voters who helped put Donald Trump in the White House. Once they were in charge, he notes, Republicans’ most significant policy initiative aimed at the working class was to add work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps. “Is that really all they have to offer working people?” Greenberg asks. “What an insult.”

This meager gruel is what helped fuel the blue wave election in 2018, Greenberg says. Republicans lost dramatically all across the industrial Midwest and the Rust Belt because it turned out that the non-evangelical working class “wanted more from Republicans than this anti-government trope.”

“Republicans would do well to unlearn the lessons of Hillbilly Elegy,” he concludes, if they want to remain relevant.

Mencimer is right to suggest that Republicans don’t seem interested in remaining relevant when it comes to policy. She echoes what Zach Roth suggested when he wrote that, at some point, the GOP decided that “being outnumbered didn’t have to mean losing.” Instead, they zeroed in on things like obstruction, voter suppression, and gerrymandering. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has demonstrated that he is content with undermining Congress while stacking the courts with extremists in an attempt to bypass the majority of voters.

But both Greenberg and Mencimer fail to address what Zak Cheney-Rice captured in an article titled, “A Non-Racist Conservative Movement Would Kill the Republican Party.” He focused on pieces from Ross Douthat and Timothy P. Carney, which articulated the same theme: “American conservatism has a racism problem, and conservatives who care must build a movement that is unwelcoming to racists.” Cheney-Rice points out the issue both Mencimer and Greenberg missed.

[I]t’s been apparent since the Nixon administration that the Republican Party would collapse without support from racists….In any case, the GOP hasn’t been able to convince most voters that corporate welfare, reduced protections for marginalized people, and diminished health-care options for all but the most financially secure are good things on their own terms, without using racism to sweeten the deal.

It was during the Nixon administration that a massive political realignment began. The so-called “party of Lincoln” launched its Southern Strategy following the passage of civil rights laws. As Cheney-Rice noted, “The mid-century black exodus from the GOP was no fluke or paranoid manifestation. It was a response to sustained antagonism toward their rights by Republicans.”

A critical part of this movement for Republicans was to become what David Roberts called the “post-truth party.”

Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract, since Americans oppose them in the abstract even as they support their specific manifestations. They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics. They’ve realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda.

As Cheney-Rice articulated, the success of their “post-truth politics” depended on “using racism to sweeten the deal.” Meanwhile, the Cold War provided cover for their military interventionism all around the globe.

All of that came to a screeching halt near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. The “global war on terror” had become the substitute for the Cold War and resulted in the country being mired in two wars. Post-truth politics were destroyed by the Great Recession. The country responded by electing the country’s first African American president.

As I have often stated, that was the point at which the Republican Party faced a crucial question. Should they double-down on post-truth politics or re-evaluate their agenda? In many ways, they did neither. Instead, they launched their plan to obstruct anything Obama and the Democrats tried to do and became the “post-policy party.” Other than continue to support tax cuts for the wealthy, they pretty much abandoned the rest of the conservative agenda and zeroed in on simply being against anything Democrats supported. They didn’t, however, abandon racism as their cover.

In order to justify their total obstruction against Obama—even during the height of the Great Recession—narratives flourished about how the president was not really American, didn’t love his country, hated white people, and was probably a secret Muslim. Right wing media carried the ball on most of those accusations, while Republican politicians simply looked the other way. That is what made John McCain’s moment of moral clarity stand out. On the other hand, it should come as no surprise that Donald Trump launched himself onto the national political stage by embracing birtherism. His eventual campaign was a hodgepodge of policy proposals, which he has mostly abandoned, while the racism remains.

As a result, the conservative agenda at this point was summarized pretty well by Cheney-Rice.

[T]he implementation of conservative policies means that migrant children are dying in cages, black voters are being purged from voter rolls by the thousands, Native lands are being plundered for oil infrastructure, and black mothers are losing their lives and babies because adequate health care is out of reach.

That is precisely why Mitch McConnell is happy to embrace the idea of being the “grim reaper.” He has no policy agenda, which is the ultimate conclusion for a party that has been built on the idea that “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.”

When it comes to the demise of the GOP, I don’t think that it is possible to predict what happens next because there are simply too many contingencies and alternatives to consider. But it is nevertheless important to be clear about what brought us to this point. Heading towards the moment that white people become a minority in this country, the Republicans have positioned themselves such that, if they abandon racism, they have nothing.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.