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In the Red Zone

There’s no end-run around partisanship

Well, the Republicans have really gone and done it now! Just when they had a chance to regain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms—and maybe win a few more governorships—they nominated a bunch of far-right losers who are poised to lead their party into quicksand. They could have seized the moment to put the stench of Trumpism behind them; they could have declared the presidential election of 2020 a settled matter, once and for all. Instead, their primaries produced candidates who genuflect to the Deposed Don of Mar-a-Lago and hew to the myth of the Stolen Election and defy the time-tested wisdom that in the general election you must avoid extreme positions and tack to the middle. Accordingly, they will be rebuked by the voters in November. Those famous moderates and independents who so insist on civility and reason will flee the Republicans in droves. We will see headlines in the days following the election like “Republican Party in disarray” and “Democrats in the driver’s seat.”

Or, so it would be if we lived in a rational and meritocratic political world. As it is, such a scenario sounds like it could be the idle daydream of a partisan Democrat. In this dream, the road to victory is found by steering toward the center. And so, by all rights, the GOP should have no real chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate. After all, they chose J.D. Vance to run in Ohio, a two-faced Yalie who in 2016 told Charlie Rose “I’m a Never Trump guy,” and then in running for office became a groveling Trump Rules guy. Vance is up against Tim Ryan, a moderate Democratic Congress member, a down-to-earth fellow who has let Ohio voters know that sometimes President Joe Biden is a little too far to the left for his tastes. Surely an easy choice for rational Ohio voters.

Today’s Republican Party believes that extremism in defense of Trumpism is no vice.

The situation is similar in Georgia. Republicans could have dislodged Democrat Raphael Warnock, who was narrowly elected in a January 2021 run-off after a special election. But the Georgia GOP selected Herschel Walker, a gaffe-prone, Trump-endorsed, former football star with a messy personal life and no apparent political aptitude. A recent profile in the New York Times quoted an acquaintance of Walker in his hometown of Wrightsville saying Walker would be in over his head if he were elected as that town’s mayor (population: just over thirty-six hundred). The following day it got much worse, as The Daily Beast dug up evidence that Walker, supposedly an anti-abortion absolutist, had paid for a former girlfriend’s abortion. This led Georgia’s model of marriage fidelity Newt Gingrich to step up the next day with a ringing defense of Walker. A group of “prayer warriors” at First Baptist Church in Atlanta gathered with the embattled candidate, even as Walker’s son Christian denounced him on Twitter. It may be all part of God’s plan, but it doesn’t seem like a good campaign plan!

And, per the centrist Democrat laws of nature, the Repubs have a double-whammy of weakness in Pennsylvania: they put up Dr. Mehmet Oz, a long-time New Jersey resident whose television  career, as the Washington Post recently put it, “provided a platform for potentially dangerous products and fringe viewpoints.” Oz seems intent on winning the votes of Pennsylvania’s health-food fanatics, asserting that his opponent, the less-healthy but plainspoken lieutenant governor John Fetterman, might not have had a stroke if he “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life.” For governor, they’ve got Doug Mastriano, a Trump cultist and QAnon promoter who chartered buses to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, and rallied on Capitol grounds to “stop the steal.” Mastriano has ties to the right-wing social media site Gab, which is popular with white nationalists and anti-Semites. The founder of Gab makes a point of not talking with “reporters who aren’t Christian or with outlets who aren’t Christian” and claims that Mastriano “has a very similar media strategy.”

Fevered Democratic dreams aside, some of these Republican extremists and hacks are bound to lose. Even those of us who tend to expect the worst in every election season will remember that bad Republicans are sometimes sent packing: there was the time late Missouri Congress member Todd Akin spoke about “legitimate rape” and it sunk his Senate campaign. There was Bible-thumping Roy Moore, who failed to win an Alabama Senate seat after reports emerged that he had had sexual contact with a fourteen-year-old girl when he was thirty-two. With a little luck this time around, the Democrats could win the Pennsylvania or Ohio Senate seat, hold on in Georgia and other states where Democratic incumbents are challenged by aggressive right-wingers (Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, etc.), and perhaps emerge on November 9 with a 51-49 Senate majority, keeping the Kentucky conniver Mitch McConnell from becoming Majority Leader again.

But suppose you were an ardent Democratic partisan living in a blue bubble. You would have to be wondering “How is this even close?” People will surely understand the vast difference—in qualifications, in knowledge, in rectitude and honesty—between a Raphael Warnock and a Herschel Walker, right? People will recognize J.D. Vance and Dr. Oz as phonies, won’t they? Yes, you tell yourself, this time the Republicans have gone too far. They’ve got too many candidates who “run hot”—who carry themselves like true-believing zealots, soldiers for Trump, ever in service of “the Orange Jesus,” as one Republican was reported to have lamented on January 6.

In the political arena we’re in now, of course, there’s no penalty for zeal. As much as Democrats hew to the belief that any candidate who gets too far ahead of the voters will lose—this was the knock against Bernie Sanders, and it’s why the party establishment seems queasy about the presence of socialists in their midst—today’s Republican Party believes that extremism in defense of Trumpism is no vice. The GOP moves further to the right, further into wacko conspiratorial politics and the demonization of phantoms, and the party seems to be as competitive as ever. Even if they fall short in their Senate races, they may well regain control of the House, whereupon they will install into leadership a new cohort of apologists for Trump’s failed hijacking of the 2020 election who intend to finish the job next time.

So what is the explanation? Why did the “Never Trump” faction of the Republican Party seem to amount to about six conservative journalists and a gaggle of jaded consultants inside the Beltway? The GOP’s presidential candidate in 2020 had the power of incumbency and still lost the White House to a Democrat with the charisma of a retired insurance actuary. How is there not a “battle for the soul of the Republican Party” going on? In a better world, half the party would be lining up behind a Liz Cheney bid to emerge as the anti-Trump, and the other half would support a Trump-replacement figure, and the party would be so hopelessly split it would wander in the wilderness for the next several election cycles.

No such luck. The continued strength of the party is another piece of evidence that American exceptionalism is a myth: as in so many other white-majority countries—Hungary, France, Italy, even Sweden—an ugly far-right nationalism is gaining ground, fueled largely by economic precarity and fear of immigrants. The Republican Party is the home for America’s overt and closet white nationalists, and as the recent forced-busing-of-immigrant antics of GOP governors in Texas and Florida demonstrate, the immigration “crisis” is essential to its political appeal. Look at the racial composition of the U.S. electorate: though the white share is not what it used to be—it was 84 percent when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and 74 percent when George W. Bush won in 2000—the 2020 electorate was still 66 percent white, according to the American National Election Studies. More to the point, in key states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the white share of eligible voters in 2018 was above 80 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Even if it were otherwise, the notion that demographic change would eventually give Democrats a solid majority in states like Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada (which would effectively lock the Republicans out of winning the presidency) is not yet looking plausible. The share of voters classified as Hispanic, as well as Asian Americans, is rising. Yet those groups are never going to be a voting monolith in the way Black voters have been for Democrats. So bemoaning racism as the all-purpose explanation for Republican strength does the Democratic Party no good; it’s not going to dissuade a working-class Latino in South Texas who believes Democrats aren’t devoted to working-class prosperity. If racism and xenophobia are the Republican calling cards, that only means Democrats must have an effective strategy to talk about those tactics as the tool that vested interests and the rich use to divide working people.  

There is a case to be made that the reason Democrats have so often seemed hapless in the face of Republican attacks that play on voters’ fears and emotions is because they don’t understand the way partisanship works in modern American politics. Along with those demographic stats in the American National Election Studies, one can find other clues—just as important—about the way partisanship has taken hold in recent decades.

The trendline in support for the Republican Party, in fact, has been zig-zagging generally upward since 1982, when the proportion of consistent Republicans and Republican “leaners” amounted to only 32 percent of the voters. By 2016 it was at 39 percent, and after four years of Trump it was up to 42 percent. Meanwhile, the Democratic share dropped from 55 percent in 1982 to 46 in 2020. Yet in both parties the level of “strong partisans” was up, while the voters who were considered leaners and true independents was down. This is the so-called “polarization” we hear so much tut-tutting about in mainstream punditry.

Over the last seventy years or so, political scientists have had a running argument about how to understand partisanship—that is, how and why voters bond with a political party and how stable these bonds are. Some have argued that voters make a rational choice based on how they see each party affecting their economic interests. Thus, a president like Jimmy Carter (or Joe Biden) could lose a lot of Democratic votes by presiding over an economy wracked by high inflation and high energy costs. And there is little doubt that voters with weaker partisan feelings vacillate from election to election based on their feelings about the state of the economy.

But there is also evidence that voters’ identification with one party or another tends to remain pretty stable over time—and that true realignments unfold quite slowly. Democrats started worrying around 1948 that the South was going to transform from a Democratic bastion into a Republican one. In 1966, political scientist Philip Converse estimated it wouldn’t happen until the 1980s. It turned out to take longer than that; it wasn’t until the 1990s that whites in the South were consistently voting for Republicans in national, state, and local races. This observation comes from Partisan Hearts and Minds, a 2002 study by political scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler. The authors compile evidence that even as the political fortunes of parties rise and fall over time—and even as parties alter their policy positions and politics—the partisan identification of most voters is hard to shake.

The core of their argument disputes longstanding assumptions that parties win votes because of policy decisions and platforms. The authors draw “a parallel between party identification and religious identification.” Such attachments tend to form in early adulthood. And, the authors write, “when people feel a sense of belonging to a given social group, they absorb the doctrinal positions that the group advocates.” The key point they make about partisan stability is that people can upgrade and downgrade their opinions about the actual party’s performance from year to year without it having much effect on their “partisan identities,” i.e., “without changing the team for which they cheer.” Though Green, et al., were writing well before Trumpism ate the Republican Party, their analysis sheds light on the phenomena we’ve seen: Trump took the party in the direction of isolationism, protectionism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and a general vulgarity that would seem anathema to religious voters, and yet almost all traditional Republicans—including those who once championed interventionist foreign policy and free trade and immigration reform—have remained attached to the party.

Who will lead the long project of rebuilding the Democratic Party?

The explanation has to do with “the special characteristics of social identities.” Most voters look at Democrats and Republicans and care little about their voting records on complicated legislation. Sometimes they care little about a candidate’s character or abilities. (Recall that it was an old Democratic saying in the South that “I’d vote for a yellow dog” before voting for a Republican.) “As people reflect on whether they are Democrats or Republicans (or neither), they call to mind some mental image, or stereotype, of what these sorts of people are like and square these images with their own self-conceptions,” according to Green, et al. Ever since the New Deal, Democrats benefited from the widespread notion it was the party of the working class, while Republicans were the party of the business class and the wealthy. Against all logic, Trump came along and began to attack those stereotypes, selling a fake populism without ever giving up time at his golf courses or resorts.

Much of the Democratic Party’s hopes for the future seem to rest on the conviction there will be an inevitable backlash as Republicans finally go too far. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, if it has truly activated a bloc of motivated voters, especially younger ones, will surely have some backlash effect. But the party needs a strategy beyond “we’re not the Republicans” and “we’re the smart person’s party” and “we’re the party that knows how to craft compromise legislation in Washington.” The Democratic leadership now looks aged and tired. Worse, it seems suspicious of emerging leaders who speak with conviction and passion and, yes, partisanship. We can be sure that a new generation of voters will not see themselves in Joe Biden, or in career insiders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, or in the two stooges, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who long for a losing game of bipartisanship.

It seems a strange question to ask at a time when you’d think the Republican Party would be collapsing under the weight of its own corruption, hypocrisy, and cultishness, but who will lead the long project of rebuilding the Democratic Party? The old coalition between ethnic urban Democratic machines and the Solid South, buttressed by a rising labor movement, is long gone.

Some new Big Tent coalition is required, in which younger leaders unapologetically embrace a partisanship that wins new hearts and minds. Finding bold and popular stands is central to the project, of course. But so is understanding politics in the way it was always understood in the labor movement. Every election poses a question you can’t escape: “Which side are you on?”