Why Republicans are Destined to Get Worse
A look at the political forces that portend a further descent into madness for the Republican Party.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is not known for his policy chops, his intellectual acumen, public charisma, or his ability to count votes. He has risen to the top ranks of the Republican Party despite being embarrassingly bad at just about every element of politics except one: McCarthy has a phenomenal sense of which way the political winds are shifting. Therefore, I took notice when the wind blown weather vane added his name to the amicus brief supporting a case to overturn a legitimate election by throwing out millions of legally cast and counted votes.
The decision of a Chamber of Commerce California Republican to support a doomed and demented attempt at election theft is evidence of where the politics in the Republican Party are headed. The conspiracy-fueled authoritarianism of the last month is more than passing lunacy to placate Trump. There are a number of political forces that are coalescing to make Republicans act even more irresponsibly insane in the coming years.
Blame the Voters
Predicting the outcome of elections based on polling data (these days not unlike basing predictions on the prevalence of yard signs) is the province of pundits servicing the interests of impatient political junkies. But understanding how political figures make decisions is a necessary component of any legislative, political, and organizing strategy. The only way to understand politicians is to understand their incentive structure. In other words, we need to figure out what various politicians see as their political interest.
McCarthy threw in with the dead enders after initially sitting on the sideline because he determined that doing anything else could eventually lead to his ouster as leader. Mitch McConnell, who clearly knows better, refused for a month to even speak to Joe Biden, because he believes that doing so would put his position as Senate Majority Leader in jeopardy. Nearly every Republican elected official in the country views siding with Trump’s fantastical claims of election theft to be in their political interest.
The small fraction of Republicans that quickly acknowledged the results are the exceptions who prove the rule. Susan Collins represents a blue state. Mitt Romney is a former Presidential candidate with his own donor base in a state that is culturally and politically skeptical of Trump. Lisa Murkowski has an independent brand that is so strong that she was once re-elected in a write in campaign after losing the Republican primary. The rest of the Republicans are standing by Trump because they think it is good politics.
A CBS News/YouGov poll from this past weekend offered clues to why Republicans cannot admit to the reality of the election results. The poll found that:
79 percent of Trump voters believe the election should be contested;
75 percent of Trump voters want Congressional Republicans to try to keep Trump in power;
82 percent of Trump voters refuse to believe that Biden is the legitimate winner of the election.
Trump voters are much more than the fringe far right, Fox News addled base of the Republican Party. They are the Republican Party. According to exit polls, 94 percent of Republicans voted for Trump — up six points from four years ago. It’s clear Congressional Republicans have every incentive to back Trump’s false claims of fraud or risk being drummed out of the party.
In a world of gerrymandered districts and geographic polarization, most elected officials are much more concerned about a primary challenge from their ideological flank than any general election opponent. Historically, Republican radicalization has followed unexpected primary losses.
In 2010, establishment Republicans Bob Bennett and Mike Castle were defeated in primaries by Tea Party candidates. These shocking losses led to the GOP endorsing the worst elements of the Tea Party’s absurd agenda.
In 2012, long-time Republican Senator Richard Lugar lost a primary by more than 20 points in part because of his friendship with Barack Obama helping ensure that the partisan fever would not break in Obama’s second term.
In 2014, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor was upset by an under-funded challenger running on an anti-immigration agenda. Cantor’s loss killed any hope of immigration reform legislation and further pushed the party into racist nationalism.
I worry the 2022 primaries could play a similar role in further radicalizing the Republican Party against the basic tenets of objective truth and American democracy. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is up for reelection. Trump has relentlessly attacked Kemp for his refusal to throw out millions of votes and commit several crimes. During a recent rally in Georgia, Trump floated Congressman Doug Collins — a stalwart Trump ally in the election theft conspiracy — as a primary challenger to Kemp.
Kemp is not a milquetoast moderate. He is a far right ideologue who has rejected the science of COVID, engaged in massive voter suppression, and once aimed a gun at a kid in an ad. The message of a Collins candidacy would be clear — if Brian Kemp can get challenged from the right, no Republican is safe. If Kemp loses a primary or even if he ekes out a narrow victory, not attempting election theft will be seen as RINO behavior in the years to come.
The 2024 Primary
Trump may or may not announce his 2024 candidacy next month. I, frankly, don’t care either way. Even if he does, I remain a bit skeptical that he will run. He is lazy, afraid of failure, and must navigate a legal gauntlet for alleged crimes committed before, during, and after his time in office. The other Republicans with Presidential ambitions are not going let Trump’s utterances stop their shadow campaigns. If Trump doesn’t run (and maybe even if he does), the Republican field could even be larger than the 2020 Democratic primary. In the Senate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley are clearly running. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, and others may join. Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw is also running campaign ads of sorts. A large coterie of villains from the Trump extended universe are also contemplating runs including Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson and several Trump children.
This very large and very motley crew will be in a fierce competition for the attention and affection of the most radical of Republicans. They will bend the knee to Sean Hannity and Judge Jeanine. They will seek the support of the biggest election truthers. They will try to demonstrate their conservative bona fides by repeatedly and falsely challenging the legitimacy of the Biden presidency. This is why Ted Cruz pushed a doomed to fail Supreme Court challenge to the election results and it is why any number of Republicans will pitch performative fits on the floor of the House when they vote on the Electoral College results in January.
This many high-profile Republicans auditioning for the affection of the Trump base will shift the Overton Window on acceptable behavior within the party. In the future, Republican candidates will view accepting the results of elections they lose as incongruous with winning the Republican nomination. This belief will have consequences for years to come.
What Do About it?
The prospect that Republicans are going to get more dangerously detached is a depressing notion. But just because that is the way the wind is currently blowing doesn’t mean that is the way it has to be. There are alternative futures, but we shouldn’t count on Republicans coming to their senses on their own.
Politicians — and particularly Republican politicians — are governed by their incentive structure. Trying to convince them to do something that they don’t see in their political interest is a fool’s errand. Therefore, if we can’t get Republicans to go against their political incentives, we have to change their political incentives. Here are some thoughts on how to do that:
Weaponize their Behavior: The best way to get Republicans to change their behavior is to make them pay a price for that behavior. Democratic politicians have largely ignored the Republicans efforts to undermine the integrity of the election. To the extent that we have talked about it, we have focused on the fact that their efforts were doomed to fail. That was the right decision in the moment and the majority of Americans accept the election results in part because of it. But I think it’s time to start hammering the Republicans for spending their time and energy on re-litigating the past instead of helping Americans facing a recession and a pandemic. Politics is a series of choices and the Republicans are choosing to ignore the most important issues the majority of Americans are facing right now. They will only get away with this if we let them.
Send a Message in Georgia: A double defeat in Georgia would send an unmistakable message to Republicans that their recent behavior is bad politics. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have been pushing lies about the election, attacked the Republican Governor and Secretary of state, and called for the unlawful invalidation of millions of votes. Trump went to Georgia and focused much of his rally on pushing conspiracy theories and calling for the overturning of a legitimate election. Go to votesaveamerica.com to find out how you can help win Georgia and show Republicans that there are consequences for being anti-democratic assholes.
Make the Majority Matter More: Republicans get away with these shenanigans because democracy is broken. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other structural biases allow Republicans to win with minority support. This increases the power of their base and insulates the party from political accountability. Over the long term, Democrats need to prioritize strengthening American democracy so that every politician must be responsive to the needs of their constituents as opposed to an activist minority. Ending gerrymandering, expanding the franchise, and making voting more accessible are the only way upend minority rule.
None of this is easy nor is it particularly comforting. We are at dangerous juncture in American history. Our two party system is not equipped to deal with one of those two parties losing its mind. We must be clear-eyed about who the Republicans are and how they are likely to behave in the coming years. And then we need to work our asses off to show them the error of their ways through brute political force.
I don't understand why the proud boy visit to the White House and subsequent right wing violence in Washington last weekend hasn't been a bigger story. Please tell me that there are people watching these groups and taking it seriously. My husband has a cousin in Michigan who told him that they would "spare our family" when they come down with their guns. (We live in Chicago?!) My husband laughed at my concern and said that they're just a bunch of clowns. I think all of these white terrorists are a bunch of clowns, but that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. Doesn't this behavior bother all of the Republicans who claim to be so afraid of riots?
Very good analysis.
Of the points you make the 'weaponise' one strikes me as the most important - they are like this because they don't see the electoral downside of it. If they can get the GOP nomination in their district or state they think the General will be fine - and if going for national office, they think a combination of vote suppression, base motivation and a lack of motivation by opponents will see them through.
And the scary thing is that they may well be right.
If there's one thing the cause of democracy needs next year it is for donors and activists to spend the year trying to make this a wedge issue for the 25% of GOP voters who are not adherents of the new Lost Cause.
The US lost 100 years of potential social progress because of a refusal to understand that you have to fight irredentism for more than one of two electoral cycles. As the US becomes ever more polarised and radicalised, comparisons with history are seeming less far-fetched.