long read: predictions regarding future of GOP

In my "Politics and Policy" course last semester we were assigned to write a scenario analysis. This technique requires that, for any given phenomenon, one isolate the factors that are unlikely to change from those that could shift. Having ascertained the potential source of any new developments, the analyst then determines both the content and the likelihood of those changes. Scenario analysis is not really about predicting the future as much as it is preparing for it by way of gleaning a better understanding of the present. It is a common tool in diplomatic, military and corporate environments, but can be applied to just about anything.

I wrote about the potential dissolution of the Republican Party. Even before the election of President Trump, I had long been fascinated with the ability of the GOP to hold its "big tent" together. Its factions, I thought, had been making nice for far too long. In my view, tensions seemed to be mounting and the compromises that they had to make in order to maintain intellectual and emotional consistency were getting to be too great. And Trump's election seemed to bring all of these tensions to a head. And as an historian I was well aware that parties have come and gone in US politics. So it seemed a good subject for a scenario analysis.

My professor really liked the paper and thought that I should try to publish it. I made some halfhearted attempts in that regard, but nothing panned out. The essay was written in December and now it's March. The paper is probably a little dated and my time is increasingly occupied these days with the professional report I have to write in order to graduate (more on that in future posts). So I've put the scenario analysis up here. I think that some might find it interesting, for whatever wisdom might lie in its analysis as well as what I would imagine would be for most readers an introduction to the technique itself.

As a result of its origin, this post is a bit long. The original paper was fourteen double-spaced pages. So you might want to budget your time accordingly.

Throughout nearly all of American political history, two political parties have competed for the presidency and the vast majority of Congressional seats. But they have not always been the same two parties. Political scientists refer to any particular period, with its characteristic two parties, as a “party system.” In the 1790s, the first party system emerged when Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists battled Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans. The Federalists did not last long, and soon the Republicans, who changed their name to the Democratic-Republicans and then to the Democrats, were opposed by the Whigs in the second party system. The Whigs collapsed over the slavery issue, which prompted the formation of the Republican Party. The GOP has lasted ever since, and continues to oppose the Democratic Party under the aegis of the third party system. The fact that the third party system has lasted so long, however, does not mean that another political realignment cannot take place. Today’s Republican Party is under a great deal of strain, and these pressures might very well cause a catastrophic political implosion. Using scenario analysis, we will consider alternative possibilities related to the potential emergence of a fourth American party system in order to determine what these scenarios say about current political conditions.

On the surface, the Republicans appear to be doing quite well. A Republican is president of the United States. The GOP controls Congress, with 248 of 435 House seats and 52 of 100 Senate seats (plus the tie-breaking vice-presidential vote).[1] The party controls 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, and 34 state governors are Republicans.[2] Yet underneath it all, the Republican Party is facing a crisis of cohesion.

The face of this reckoning is, of course, President Donald Trump. In his 2016 campaign, Trump continuously broke the boundaries of what had previously been considered acceptable political discourse. As a primary candidate and as the Republican nominee, he criticized Republican senator and Vietnam POW John McCain for having been captured, insulted the parents of a slain American soldier, referenced a debate moderator’s menstrual cycle, and questioned the integrity of a judge because of his racial heritage. When an old videotape surfaced on which Trump claimed that, in wooing women, he liked to “grab them by the pussy” because “if you’re a star…you can do anything,” many assumed that he would drop out of the race. But he did not. Several influential Republicans announced that they would not vote for their party’s standard-bearer. These included Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Prominent conservative columnist George Will left the Republican Party over Trump’s nomination.[3] And now Donald Trump is president of the United States, charged with leading the party, not to mention the nation, that he has effectively divided.

Constants

Of course, whether the third American party system ceases to exist depends on the outcome of a number of contingent factors. These variables are what Peter Schwartz calls “driving forces,” defined as “the elements that move the plot of a scenario.”[4] In contrast to these drivers, which are unpredictable by definition, another important factor in a scenario analysis is what Schwartz calls the “predetermined elements,” which we will refer to here as “constants.” Schwartz writes that if an event “seems certain, no matter which scenario comes to pass” then it is a constant.[5] When considering the possible decline of the Republican Party, the constants will be those elements in the scenario that will not depend on the winner of a particular election or the fate of a specific piece of legislation.

In the scenarios related to the possible collapse of the third party system, the following factors are best considered as constants.

  • Republican citizens and voters will continue to participate in politics to a greater degree than Democrats.
  • The Electoral College and Senate filibuster will continue to exist and will continue to favor Republicans.
  • The Supreme Court will continue issuing opinions that, for the most part, please conservatives and inspire conservative voters.
  • The Republican Party will continue to have most of its political strength in the same geographic and demographic areas: the Sun Belt, evangelical Christians and white, non-college-educated, rural men.
  • Demographic trends will continue to make the Republican base smaller with each passing cycle.
  • Factionalism will continue to tear at the GOP.

The continued existence of the Republican Party is dependent on its ability to remain competitive in elections. The constants are therefore expressions of political calculus. The first reflects a basic political fact: Republicans are smaller in number than Democrats. In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, nine percent more Americans self-identified as Democratic (48%) than as Republican.[6] The GOP maintains electoral parity by working harder, voting in larger numbers and participating in more state and local elections. The Democrats believe that as Millennials mature, Latino numbers continue to grow and older white conservatives die, the demographic cavalry will ride to their party’s rescue. Republicans have no such illusions: there is no reason to expect that states or regions will switch from blue to red, younger Republicans will replace older Democrats, or that new issues will emerge that will motivate voters to switch to the GOP.

Rather than a demographic edge, what the Republicans have in their favor is a significant institutional advantage. There are a large number of states with small populations in which Republicans dominate. This trend gives the GOP the opportunity to exert power in the less democratic institutions of American democracy, such as the Electoral College, the Senate and the Supreme Court. These institutions have a long history and are difficult to alter. In some cases, they enjoy Constitutional protection. Thus they are likely to continue to bolster the Republican Party.

This is the Republican situation as it looks today: a shrinking base, inexorably declining but still very committed, depending for its power on the least democratic features of American government. It would not take much to upset this apple cart.

Drivers

No matter how precarious the current situation may be for the Republicans, nothing significant will change without the presence of a specific catalyst. These are the drivers of the scenario. In considering any possible Republican decline, there are many possible drivers. Listed here are five of the most significant.

Trump Himself

Concerns that Trump’s nomination might cleave the GOP or that his election might provoke a Constitutional crisis have proven to be unfounded. Nonetheless, he is exacerbating tensions within the party. Trump is having difficulty staffing his administration, as Republicans do not want to work for a president who has shown little loyalty to subordinates.[7] But winning forgives a lot of sins, and many Republicans who vehemently objected to Trump’s candidacy have fallen in line since he became president. Those who have not are finding themselves on the outside looking in. McCain provided the deciding vote in the Senate against the Obamacare repeal that Trump supported in the campaign, but he is presumed to be retiring after a recent diagnosis of brain cancer. Anti-Trump Republican Senators Jeff Flake (AZ) and Bob Corker (TN) have both resigned rather than face angry Trump supporters in next year’s party primaries. Overall, the Republican establishment has fallen in line behind Trump, albeit begrudgingly.

But the president’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable and his support among the party elites is soft. His administration is under investigation for conspiracy to influence the election and some Democrats have already called for his impeachment. It is certainly possible, though perhaps not likely, that Trump himself could bring about Republican discord significant enough to cause a fourth American policy system before the end of his term, be it in three or seven years.

White Populist Nationalism

Far more important than Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies, however, are the electoral forces that he has unleashed in the country. The difference that made Trump’s victory, many pundits concluded, was his appeal to the white working class.[8] And the way in which Trump appealed to these voters has challenged traditional Republican thinking. Having been left behind by globalization, and still waiting for the economic recovery that the rest of the country seems to be enjoying, white working-class voters feel as though they have been cheated. Trump has grasped and exploited their sense of grievance, in so doing setting them at odds with Republican orthodoxies. As journalist George Packer explained during the campaign, Trump grasped

what Republican élites are still struggling to fathom: the ideology that has gripped their [p]arty since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the [p]arty, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade. Trump sensed the rage that flared from this pain and made it the fuel of his campaign.[9] 

The economic populism to which Trump has given a voice is greatly at odds with what had been the typical Republican philosophy and strategy for several decades. To the extent that this is true, the GOP is less threatened by the short-term spectacle of the president’s unusual behavior than by its increasing dependence on a faction of the electorate that does not believe in the basic principles of the party.

Trump’s embrace of this group raises another thorny problem for the Republican establishment. To a large degree, their identity as voters hinges on racism. Racially animated hostility to immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and Jews, combined with an embrace of neo-Nazism and other forms of white supremacy, has been on ample display throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency. It is not clear what the relationship between the Republican Party and its white nationalist voters will be when President Trump is no longer in office. For the party to reach and retain these voters, it will have to coddle, or even embrace, these views. This will not go down well with Latinos, who are the biggest and fastest-growing group of swing voters in the country. Business interests will also be unwilling to be associated with a party that visibly courts white supremacist voters. But having once enjoyed their moment in the sun, white nationalists might not be content to return to the days of their messages being coded in “dog-whistles.” The manner in which the GOP pursues these voters once Trump is gone will be a major component in the party’s ability to hold itself together.

Economic Volatility

Economic inequality has been increasing for the last several decades, and was exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2007. Today the stock market is at record highs, while wages remain stagnant. Unemployment is low, but the official figure does not count the significant number of men who are so despondent that they have dropped out of the workforce.[10] Functioning simultaneously as, on the one hand, the party of corporations and the wealthy and, on the other, as the representative of the downtrodden working class is a task that can only be performed successfully during periods of tremendous economic stability. Yet over a span of decades, there will be troughs in the business cycle. Should an economic downturn lead to a wide-ranging demand for economic assistance, the Republicans will simply not be able to meet it. Alternatively, even without an exogenous economic crisis, the electorate’s turn to the left on economic issues, perhaps led by younger voters, is not out of the question. A strong turn toward radical economic programs among a sufficiently large set of voters would put tremendous pressure on the GOP.

Elections

The Democrats do not feature very prominently in this analysis. For the most part, the Republicans are suffering from structural problems relating to their own positions and the demographics of the country. But their opponents have not exploited these problems particularly well. As mentioned above, Democrats do not contest down-ballot races with the same fervor that Republicans do. They are willing neither to sufficiently modulate their message to compete in more conservative areas of the country nor to firmly contest the GOP’s conservative premises. With the exception of Barack Obama, a man with unique political gifts, their presidential candidates in recent memory have all been lackluster. Should the Democrats put together a stronger message or strategy, or even field a particularly charismatic couple of candidates for president and vice-president, the Republicans could find themselves out of power for quite a long time.

Gerrymandering

Finally, the generally conservative tilt of the Supreme Court is considered to be one of the constants in this scenario analysis. But there is one particular issue on which the merits are so egregious that there is a reasonable chance that the court will issue a decision detrimental to Republican prospects. That issue is partisan gerrymandering. One of the many reasons why Republicans enjoy an advantage in Congress is that they control many state legislatures, and it is those bodies that draw the Congressional districts. Should the Supreme Court force states to draw their districts in a more fair or objective manner, the impact on Republican electoral prospects would be significant.

Given these constants and drivers, three scenarios seem the most likely and instructive: the party could muddle through its problems allowing things to remain much the same, it could split into two parties, or it could collapse entirely. Careful consideration of these scenarios reveals that, in the end, the major upheavals are unlikely and the system itself might be more stable than it appears.

Scenario One: Animal Farm

Under this scenario, the status quo holds and the Republicans maintain their integrity as a party. They and the Democrats continue to contest most national and statewide elections for the foreseeable future, and the third American party system remains intact. This is the path of inertia and so is probably the most likely.

This scenario will occur as Republicans fall in line behind President Trump, a process that has already begun. This path will become increasingly more likely if most of the drivers break in a favorable direction for Republicans. In this case, the party will not serve as the battleground for a clash of interests, but will just gradually begin to look more like Trump and the Tea Party. There would be no particular moment reminiscent of William F. Buckley “writing out” the John Birch Society from the conservative movement.[11] Instead, this process will commence with mainstream Republicans “normalizing” the president’s behavior by making excuses for his more outlandish pronouncements and supporting his policies and their rationales as doing so becomes increasingly advantageous for them. Some party insiders will be notably less enthusiastic than others, but Republicans will generally cease questioning the judgment, authority, capabilities and competence of the president. There will be a few casualties under this scenario. George Will would probably never rejoin the GOP. Establishment Republicans like Flake, Corker and Romney will feel increasingly less welcome. Primary challenges will cease when more conventional Republicans slowly stop running under the Republican banner. Some might become Democrats. When Trump fails to draw a primary challenger in 2020 and wins a second term, the party’s “new look” will have been effectively established.

In the long run, however, demographic trends do not favor an uncompromising white nationalist party. And once this process of shedding the more establishment elements is complete, that is what the Republican Party will be. The Democrats will begin winning more elections and, seeing less of an electoral challenge to their own philosophy, they will begin moving to the left. Over the course of a generation or two, with memories of Trump now quite distant, the Republicans will become a far-right, minority party. Buoyed by the Senate and the Electoral College, they will win just enough races to remain nationally competitive. Eventually, their operatives will see an opening for a more moderate conservative party, and begin moving the party leftward themselves. Despite all the Sturm und Drang, in the end the parties will occupy similar political spaces to what they do now. Like the cigar-smoking pigs at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm, those looking for a radical reshaping of the way things are done will have turned into exactly the thing that they despise.

Scenario Two: The Dreaded Third Party

The second path envisions a conservative civil war, leading to a third party that will cut in to the base of the GOP and leave it significantly diminished. In this version of events, unlike in the Animal Farm scenario, the drivers tend to fall in directions that do not work for the Republicans. Perhaps Trump will be impeached and convicted and a core minority of his followers will back him for the next Republican presidential nomination. The economy could go south and the standard Republican supply-side formula of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy might infuriate the economic populists. Perhaps most likely, white nationalists could take to the streets, turning their energy against the party apparatus rather than the state. There is no shortage of potential conflict points within the Republican coalition. What is distinctive about this scenario is that it envisions issues coming to a head with a defining conflict: a brokered convention, a refusal to seat delegates, an endless recount in a state primary, even an eruption of violence. In this scenario, the party cleavage yields an ultimate victor. For simplicity’s sake, let us assume the factions are an “establishment” wing and a “nationalist/populist” wing. Once events reach the point of no return, one of these factions will win. It will get to keep the Republican name, treasury, history and ballot lines. The other one will be viable enough that it will split off and start a third party.

No third party has ever lasted very long in American politics. This one will be no exception. Its main functions will be to weaken the Republicans by siphoning away votes. Perhaps the third party will have a regional base in which it can elect statewide candidates, but for the most part it will have few victories on which to depend. It will appear marginalized and have difficulty fundraising. The Republican Party, on the other hand, will have lost a large number of voters and will not be able to compete with the Democrats. Just as the Democrat-Republicans during the Era of Good Feelings and the Republicans of the Gilded Age, Democrats will be the major political force in what is effectively a one-party era.

The U.S. Constitution mandates single-member House districts and a presidential election, rather than a Parliamentary system. These factors create conditions by which American politics will always feature no more and no less than two national parties. The GOP will be a rump party in this scenario, but not for very long. Eventually the new third party will fade away. The country would probably move to the left, but the American drive toward individualism, acquisitiveness and libertarianism would likely not have disappeared. Upon the collapse of the third party, the Republican Party would be able to reconstitute itself as a responsible alternative to the Democrats, who would likely have grown increasingly autocratic with little check on their power.

Scenario Three: The Fourth Party System

The third possibility is one in which the Republican Party completely collapses and a genuine fourth party system arises. The most likely scenario here would be a severe economic crisis taking place while Republicans were in power. Perhaps this emergency would not be as devastating as the Great Depression, but it would need to be more so than the crash of 2007. George W. Bush and Barack Obama responded to that crisis by stabilizing markets through bailing out banks and insurance companies. These actions spawned the Tea Party protests, which reverberate politically to this day. In today’s more polarized environment, and facing a more significant crisis, the Republican Party would not be able to maintain its cohesiveness.

All parties have internal conflicts and intellectual inconsistencies. But the particular tension that characterizes today’s Republican Party—between economic populism, free market ideology and pro-business policies—simply could not withstand the pressures of a major economic crisis. Some Republican policymakers, officeholders, activists and voters would demand that the economy be stabilized, which would require assistance to banks and other financial institutions. Others would see this as bailing out wealthy fat cats while the ordinary people suffer. Some would want to see actions to help out homeowners and the newly unemployed, while others would dismiss such efforts as “handouts.” An ugly racial component might very well hang over the entire response. Under these circumstances, ordinary political processes such as citizen activism, legislative caucusing, selecting candidates and making policy would become so fraught with controversy that the dissolution of the Republican Party would become not only possible, but likely.

The only real parallel to this event was the 1854 collapse of the Whigs and the founding of the Republicans the same year. This was also brought about by a great political crisis, over slavery. In retrospect we can see that what happened is not that the Whigs were “wrong” about slavery—more of them tended to be anti-slavery than the Democrats—but that the fulcrum around which they organized their political worldview was no longer relevant. While the country was increasingly concerned with a great moral and political question that would define the nation for generations to come, the Whigs wanted to build canals in order to improve interstate commerce. Similarly, if the twenty-first century Republicans were to collapse, a new party would emerge. But it is difficult to say what it would look like. It would not simply be another party defined by an interest in limited government, entrepreneurialism and traditional moral values. If such a party was viable, the Republicans would still exist. Instead, it would be a new party that would organize itself around the issues that would seem salient in the wake of this tremendous financial crisis and inadequate government response. It is impossible to say in advance what this new party would be. The only thing that can be said right now is that a crisis significant enough to rearrange our political parties would also be significant enough to rearrange our political categories.

What Does the Future Hold?

Of the three scenarios, Animal Farm appears by far the most plausible. Looking at the drivers, the most likely outcomes are that some of them will cause problems for the GOP. At the same time, it seems unlikely that a majority of those factors will break against the Republicans at the same time, and equally implausible that any of them will bring about crises of the level of severity that would end the third party system. Without those drivers pushing the system beyond what it can handle, there is no reason to believe that the current political moment finds us in any more precarious of a situation than have been at play at any other time in the country’s history. In the end, this scenario analysis emphasizes the stability and resilience of the American political system. Even at a political moment such as ours, one that strikes many Americans as unprecedented and seriously off-kilter, it would take a great deal to upend the system in a fundamental way.

Notes

[1]     Congress.gov, “Members of the U.S. Congress,” https://www.congress.gov/members?q=%7B%22congress%22%3A%22115%22%2C%22party%22%3A%22Republican%22%2C%22chamber%22%3A%22Senate%22%7D, accessed December 10, 2017.

[2]     Republican State Leadership Committee, “About,” https://rslc.gop/about_rslc/, accessed December 10, 2017; Republican Governors Association, “About,” https://www.rga.org/about/, accessed December 10, 2017.

[3]     Rachel Chase, “Which Republicans Oppose Trump and Why?,” CNN, August 10, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/10/politics/donald-trump-republican-opposition/index.html, accessed December 12, 2017

[4]     Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View (Crown Business, New York, 1996). 101

[5]     Ibid. 110

[6]     Pew Research Center, Politics and Policy, “A Deep Dive into Party Affiliation,” April 7, 2015, http://www.people-press.org/2015/04/07/a-deep-dive-into-party-affiliation/, accessed December 12, 2017; Lydia Saad, “U.S. Liberals at Record 24%, but Still Trail Conservatives,” Gallup News, July 9, 2015, http://news.gallup.com/poll/180452/liberals-record-trail-conservatives.aspx, accessed December 12, 2017.

[7]     Elise Viebeck, “Trump Administration Sets One of the Slowest Paces for Staffing and Nominations In Recent History,” Washington Post, July 5, 2017, accessed December 12, 2017

[8]     There is no shortage of articles on this subject. Among the first was Nate Cohn, “Why Trump Won: Working Class Whites,” New York Times, November 9, 2016, https://nyti.ms/2jHudoW.

[9]     George Packer, “Head of the Class: How Donald Trump Is Winning Over the White Working Class,” New Yorker, May 16, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/16/how-donald-trump-appeals-to-the-white-working-class, accessed December 12, 2017

[10]   Yuki Noguchi, “An Economic Mystery: Why are Men Leaving the Workforce?,” NPR, September 6, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/09/06/492849471/an-economic-mystery-why-are-men-leaving-the-workforce, accessed December 13, 2017

[11]   Alvin Felzenberg, “The Inside Story of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Crusade against the John Birch Society,” National Review, June 20, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/448774/william-f-buckley-john-birch-society-history-conflict-robert-welch, accessed December 13, 2017.