The Implosion of the Republican Party and its Reassurance for Democratic Stability

In a two-party constitutional republic with the cultural heterogeneity, institutional complexity and heightened asymmetric polarization which characterizes the American state, one of the oldest questions in political science becomes remarkably frustrating: “Who governs?”

We might say, of course, the president governs. So too does Congress. This goes without mentioning a multilayered court system and a gargantuan bureaucracy constituting thousands of pages in the Federal Register. 

All political agency and governing ability, whether it belongs to the president or to members of Congress, is illuminated by the partisan pigments of party affiliation. As seductive as seeking to “rise above the fray” may seem to many voters, the two-party system drives American politics forward in identifiable and reassuring patterns. Electoral realignments and cyclical ideological eras are endemic to our system, which is why current patterns within the Republican Party are remarkably telling of whether democratic backsliding presents a real danger to our country.

Multiple stories from The New York Times have highlighted the emerging rift between Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump, a fascinating struggle which centers on the recruitment of future conservative candidates for office. On Feb. 13, 2022, columnist Jonathan Martin noted that while McConnell loyally spearheaded the Trump administration’s agenda through Congress, he now finds himself leading a desperate but well-funded effort to oppose many of Trump’s preferred candidates in critical Senate and House races.

Since the Reagan Revolution, the various constituencies of the Republican Party have been bound together by an ideological trajectory of welfare state retrenchment, bureaucratic deregulation and a Judeo-Christian moral worldview. It is only now, in the post-Trump era, that the grand old path of movement conservatism has begun to unravel in rapid fashion. Trump, of course, prizes loyalty above ideological consistency, particularly in his vociferous demands that Republican candidates publicly challenge the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election.

Trump and McConnell represent two centers of political gravity in the Republican Party not unlike Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy in 1978. Carter, of course, still occupied the White House at that point in time, but his hold over key historical Democratic Party bases, such as white blue-collar workers in the Midwest and the South, had already begun to weaken. His support among the younger, McGovern-era New Left was also jeopardized by Kennedy’s challenge in the 1980 primaries. Ronald Reagan needed only to take voters by the arm and flash a few charming smiles in order to orchestrate a comprehensive and ideological demolition of the long-standing New Deal order.

History informs the present, and in this case, it informs us that the implosion of the Republican Party, or at least the post-Reagan version, is imminent. In the same manner that previous versions of the two parties have collapsed under inept presidents, particularly during moments of great national crisis, the circumstances of Trump’s presidency and his personal traits have allowed for the factionalization and ideological disintegration of the Republican Party. Does this mean that President Joe Biden and the Democrats should be optimistic about their chances in November 2022? Far from it; many polls have reflected immense dissatisfaction among voters with the ongoing COVID-19 calamity, stagnant job creation and dismal international developments in the Middle East and eastern Europe. 

On the other hand, never before has one party been “re-birthed” in the sense that it recreates itself to lead a new political order. From the Jacksonian Democrats to Lincoln’s Republicans, to Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Reagan Revolution, the two parties have played a cyclical game of hide-and-seek throughout history. Notable political scientists such as Stephen Skowronek have studied these phenomena extensively. For the Reagan Republican Party to be replaced by Trump’s Republican Party would be a first in American political history. Trump has certainly redefined American politics in all sorts of dimensions, and nothing should be ruled out as impossible. The strong likelihood, however, is that Biden will stand ready, perhaps as a herald, of a new Democratic era where new solutions will be offered in response to modern problems. For once in his life, Trump may be doing American liberal democracy a favor.