The news about Herschel Walker, the U.S. Senate candidate from Georgia, follows a depressing but familiar track. A Republican politician is enmeshed in a scandal that would sink any candidate decades ago. But instead of taking their lumps or withdrawing, the GOP candidate refuses to apologize for or, in some cases, even acknowledge the incident. Republican donors and pundits double down on their support, as does the GOP electorate. It’s a pattern that played out the same way after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood revelation, and Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault allegations.
Republicans have adopted the Nietzschean ethic of “the will to power,” even if it means embracing hypocrisy. As the pundit Dana Loesch recently said, “I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles … I want control of the Senate.” That’s refreshingly honest, at least.
Much could be said here about Republican sexual politics and abortion ethics. After all, if conservatives believe abortion is murder, a vote for Walker is a vote for a deceptive murderer. If Republicans believe that “family values” are the key to a healthy society, how do they square supporting a serial philanderer, deadbeat dad, and alleged domestic abuser over a well-respected pastor? The answer is that Republican culture wars aren’t about fetal life or family values, but the defense of patriarchy and theocracy.
But the more interesting question is why Republicans have sunk to this amoral nadir. The answers are complex: the radicalization of the GOP base and its aspiring politicians by Fox News and right-wing social media; generalized status anxiety among groups aligned with the Republicans; unaccountable and secretive far-right donors untethered to social opprobrium; and worldwide ethnonationalist, theocratic movements rowing in the same direction.
Republicans have decided that short-term power is more important than long-term integrity.
But why now?
The Strom Thurmonds and Pat Buchanans have always been with us. Racist, sexist, and homophobic violence are endemic, and Fox News has been in operation for decades. Social media algorithms inflame passions but inflame them more on the right. Why?
The short answer is that conservatives know that they are losing the culture wars. In a normal democratic battle of ideas, quotidian matters like taxation and regulation are debated ad nauseum. Each side endures defeats and celebrates victories. Losing is temporary; the battle lost today can be won tomorrow.
How important is it for Republicans to take Congress next month? In all likelihood, the House will remain closely divided, and the Senate as well. Biden will still be president. A political party confident in its future would not sacrifice its long-term reputation for one Senate seat.
But modern Republicans lack this confidence. Some dubbed the 2016 presidential contest the “Flight 93 election,” arguing that crashing the metaphorical plane was a better alternative than seeing Hillary Clinton inaugurated. Republicans still act as though their survival is imperiled if Democrats, at best, rack up majoritarian policy wins such as COVID-19 relief or more solar panels. Conversely, it was Republicans who staged a violent coup and are still fomenting a legalistic overthrow of democratic balloting to secure permanent minority rule.
Their desperation is loathsome but understandable. The long-term prognosis for today’s GOP coalition is bleak. The oldest Millennials are over 40 and supported Biden by a whopping 20 points. Republicans had hoped that Gen Z might prove more fertile ground, but voters 26 and under backed Biden by a similar margin. But it gets worse for conservatives: Most Millennials and Gen Zers backed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries. Biden’s polling weaknesses are driven mainly by young voters annoyed that he isn’t sufficiently progressive, although student loan debt relief and cannabis reform may help. The idea that voters become conservative with age is a myth. Millennials who have spent 20 years voting on the left side of Democratic primaries aren’t about to shift hard right.
White evangelical churches—the mainstay of the Republican base—are rapidly declining in membership, especially among the young. That’s because younger Americans are better educated than previous generations, and higher education levels correlate with liberal voting preferences. And while the Republican Party has made gains with minority voters, its yawning deficits among nonwhite voters remain significant in a country that is not getting any whiter.
Conservatives are not just declining in raw numbers but also in economic power: How long can the Republican Party maintain the fiction that it constitutes the “makers” and liberals represent the“takers” when Trump-voting counties only represent 30 percent of the GDP?
Structural advantages in the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandered House and legislative districts will keep the GOP competitive. Its stolen stranglehold on the Supreme Court will degrade liberal democracy and social safety nets.
But how long will an ascendant progressive majority tolerate this? Not forever, and conservatives know it, which explains why they’re mortgaging their future to support Herschel Walker. Republican culture warriors walk a bleak path, so they indulge hypocrisy and undermine democracy before the popular will rolls back their power.