The Republican Party civil war is now on. This much seems pretty clear. Yet those expecting a dramatic breakup of the party are likely to be disappointed. Most likely, the civil war will be long and protracted.
To understand why, we need to look beyond the in-the-moment anxieties of disappointed party elites so in vogue right now, and at the broader structural dynamics of American politics — the nature of the party coalitions in American politics, the consequences our geographically oriented winner-take-all system of elections, and the ways in which an internally divided party can actually limp along fine without needing to decide what it wants to be.
Over time, my strong hunch is that the nationalist-populist faction represented by Trump will take over the Republican Party (I'd guess by the late 2020s). We are headed toward a realignment. But barring some dramatic event that leads to a lasting wave election (highly unlikely, given the current high levels of loyal partisan voting), it's going to take some time. But the longer it takes, the worse American politics is going to be.
The breakdown of the current GOP coalition
When the modern GOP coalition was effectively solidified in 1980, it forged a common thread among roughly three types of voters: Main Street business Republicans who identified primarily around economic issues (think Paul Ryan supporters), Christian conservatives who were reasonably affluent but were first and foremost motivated by the culture wars (think Ted Cruz voters), and so-called "Reagan Democrats," which became the nickname for the disaffected working-class whites whose aversion to the Democratic Party's condescending elitism and racial liberalism overwhelmed their hope that government could somehow help them out (think Donald Trump supporters).
For decades, these different voters came together around a shared "conservative" ideology of "limited government." I use quotes because these labels meant very different things to the different voters within the Republican coalition. For the traditionally Republican economic conservatives, this meant low taxes and low regulation. For newer converts to the Republican coalition, limited government primarily meant government not taking their money so that poor black people could get a generous welfare check.
For a while, careful language, well-chosen symbolic fights, and grand but vague promises could belie the inherent capaciousness of the terms. And for a while, all the factions could unite around a strong belief in American greatness, and the need for strength abroad to defeat communism.
But as time went on, cracks emerged. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Iraq War turned sour, jobs went overseas, and then the economy cratered.
More and more, the downscale Republican voters felt they were being betrayed by their party's elites. Eventually, the only thing that united these factions was the story that the America was engaged in a Manichean struggle between good and evil in which Democrats were definitely on the side of evil.
Then Republicans got control of the House and the Senate. But they failed to repeal Obamacare and cut federal spending in half, as they had promised. And so, sure enough, the base's anger turned on them too.
In retrospect, this was always a difficult coalition. But so are all party coalitions in our two-party system. As the political scientists Gary Miller and Norman Schofield have astutely noted: "Successful American parties must be coalitions of enemies. A party gets to be a majority party by forming fragile ties across wide and deep differences in one dimension or the other. Maintaining such a divers majority coalition is necessarily an enormous struggle against strong centrifugal forces."
Now the centrifugal forces are taking over. The party is breaking apart. But the structure of American politics right now makes it unlikely that we see a sharp break or a decisive moment. Rather, we will see a long and protracted civil war, full of volatility.
It is easy to blame establishment Republican leaders for bringing this on themselves, and they deserve plenty of blame. Since Barack Obama became president, they've waged an unrelenting war of "obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions," as Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein put it. They riled up their base, and in so doing unleashed a toxic anger that powered both Cruz and Trump in the 2016 primary. But they did so for a simple reason: It was the only force that could hold their increasingly fractious coalition together. And especially in a two-party system, everything depends on holding your coalition together. And over time, this becomes harder and harder to do.
Our two-party system makes party civil wars long and protracted
In the weeks to come, expect plenty of loose talk about the case for a third party. This is unlikely to happen. If any of the three factions within the Republican Party actually started a third party, it would effectively be handing majority status to the Democrats. For this reason, none will.
In US presidential elections, national parties have split twice. Both times (1860 and 1912), the splits handed victory the other party. This is the nature of our winner-take-all, single-winner approach to elections. If there can only be one winner, voting for a third party almost always turns into a protest vote. If one party splits, the other party wins. This holds true in House and Senate races as well.
By contrast, in a proportional representation system like most advanced democracies have, a party as divided as the Republican Party would be more likely to split, since each faction could have its own representation in the legislature.
In a time of weaker partisan affiliation and intense issue voting, like, say, the 1850s, party factions might care more about the issues and less about their partisan loyalties, making them more likely to shift parties.
But voters these days are not ideologues. They are partisans. This means they care more about supporting the party that "people like them" vote for than they do about the issues. The 2016 election should have made this very clear. Most Republicans united around Trump and against Clinton not because of "conservative principles" but because they were Republicans.
In an earlier era, one might have argued that winner-take-all systems that lead to just two parties did a better job of marginalizing extremism, since parties had to win by forming big-tent coalitions, making them less likely to take on extremist positions. After all, under proportional representation, an extremist party with 20 percent of the popular vote could get an almost one-fifth of the seats in parliament. But under a two-party system, 20 percent of the vote would still be a minority within a party, leading to at best a few seats in the legislature and no shot at the presidency.
But now we see the flip side of that. If you can go from 20 percent to 26 percent, you can take over a major party. And that makes an extremist faction a whole lot more powerful.
Absent changes to our electoral system, the only way to wield power in American politics is to control one of the two major parties. That's a big and rare prize worth fighting for. This is why the intraparty civil war will be long.
The slow burn of intraparty civil war
Another big reason there is unlikely to be an immediate decisive break in the Republican Party is that, absent the presidential nomination, there are really no obvious forcing moments for a watershed conflict to decide between the factions.
The most obvious and immediate upcoming flashpoint will be the election of the next speaker of the House. Given the fractiousness in the Republican caucus, it seems almost impossible that members will agree on a single strong speaker.
Instead, in order to be elected, a speaker will have to agree to take a much lighter touch, perhaps letting different factions with the party control different committees, perhaps making sure different factions each get representation on the Rules Committee, perhaps something more informal. If and when this happens, this will remove what would otherwise be the single most decisive thing the party has to agree on.
Here it's important to understand that an internally divided party can function perfectly well as a majority in Congress for an extended period of time. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Democrats often voted as if they were two separate parties, Democrats and Southern Democrats, with Southern Democrats being much more conservative, especially on race and social issues. Together, they agreed to elect leaders who deftly sidestepped the issues that divided the party, let committees operate somewhat independently, and generally took a light touch to party discipline. For almost all of this time, Democrats were the majority party.
But as Southern Democrats gave way to Southern Republicans, the Democratic caucus gave more and more power to its leaders, who then enforced more party loyalty. An era of increased party voting followed.
If Democrats are acting strategically now, they might see a real benefit in pushing issues where they can divide the Republican Party, trying to pick off a few establishment Republicans on issues like immigration and trade.
The more they do this, the more they expose these Republicans to hardcore Trump- or Cruz-inspired primary challenges. And the more Republicans go with these types of candidates, the more likely Democrats might be able to pick up whatever remaining swing districts and states exist by relying on the Clinton voter coalition of college-educated whites and minorities, which are making up a larger and larger share of the electorate.
But would establishment Republicans go along with Democrats, even if they agree on the policy substance on some of these issues? Maybe. More likely not. For one, the establishment Republicans who do remain are not necessarily all that moderate. For another, for almost a decade now, the only strategy they've known has been to unify the party around opposition to Democrats.
If so, they will oppose almost everything Clinton proposes simply because she has proposed it, and then double down on efforts to turn Congress into a nonstop oversight machine (Benghazi! Emails! Clinton Foundation!), holding out for control of the Senate in 2018 and the White House in 2020. After all, as political scientist Frances Lee convincingly argues, there are few incentives for compromise and bipartisanship when control of Congress keeps swinging back and forth, and the dream of unified control is always within reach.
Then again, this absolutist, obstructionist strategy is precisely what made Republican voters so angry and resentful over the past decade, and this anger fueled the popularity of Cruz and Trump in the GOP primary. Republican leaders who continue to feed this resentment are only bringing us closer to the levels of distrust in our institutions and each other that are impossible to recover from. If establishment Republicans are going to go extinct anyway, they might as well go extinct fighting for reasonableness, and then carve out a role for themselves in potential centrist Democratic majority.
There's no going back
Some in the party's establishment wing still share a fantasy that Republicans will pivot to the center like Democrats did in 1992, when the party nominated Bill Clinton after losing three presidential elections in a row, and five out of the previous six. "At some point, parties tire of losing," Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, hopes. "It happened to Democrats in the '80s."
But the comparison is misleading. In the 1980s, Democrats were gaining among the professional classes that would form the core support for Clinton's neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the working classes that had formed the core support of Mondale-style labor liberalism were a shrinking part of the Democratic Party's voters. Clinton was simply in tune with this transformation, in the same way that Trump was in tune with the way the Republican Party had now shifted.
Establishment Republicans can certainly keep looking for a savior. The fact that it is impossible to think who that savior might be or what that savior would say to unify the party should tell us something about the impossibility of that savior. If Ronald Reagan ran today, he'd probably be dismissed as a liberal and a squish.
For now, the Paul Ryan "establishment" wing of the party may still be strongest in Washington, particularly in the Senate, but it is weakest among the voters. The Trump "populist" wing is probably strongest among the voters and weakest in Congress. The Ted Cruz "principled Christian conservative" wing is probably somewhere in between. But even the "establishment" wing is not particularly moderate anymore. And more and more, the "establishment" wing is trading its few remaining principles of decency in order to placate the angry voters it created by decades of white-hot resentment rhetoric. For self-preservation reasons, many of these establishment Republicans are slowly transforming themselves to be more in tune with their voters.
Admittedly, these factions are not precise. But the bigger point is that there are multiple factions, and as the different factions achieve roughly equal balance among the party's leading officeholders, the internal stalemate will be particularly bad. Note that the political science literature on national civil wars finds that the more factions, the longer the war. Likewise, when no side can effectively disarm the other(s), the war goes on longer than average.
Usually, civil wars only resolve when it is clear who is on the losing side and who is on the winning side, and the losing side is either obliterated or realizes fighting is useless. In short, the GOP civil war has all the elements of one of these long, protracted fights.
Buoyed by the wealthy donors who desperately want a party that supports truly small government (e.g., the Kochs), establishment Republicans might hold on for a little longer. But eventually, they will be bounced from the party because their voters are not libertarians. Their voters are increasingly angry nationalists. And the more their establishment leaders try to convince them why they should support free trade and globalization, the angrier they become.
Once the establishment is marginalized, the fight within the party will be between the Cruz conservatives and the Trump populists. In many ways, this is a fight over identities. Cruz says that he's "a Christian first, American second, conservative third, and Republican fourth." If asked, I'm pretty sure Trump would say he is an American first, a Republican second, and not bother with either of the other two identities. Given that religiosity is declining in America (even among evangelicals), nationalism is rising, and partisanship (being a Republican) is more important than ideology (being a conservative), Cruz is probably on the losing side of this identity war.
For those who hope Trumpism is a fever that will now break, this lack of a congressional Trumpist faction is a piece of evidence they can cling to. But there are good reasons it hasn't happened yet.
- The electoral support for populism didn't exist until recently.
- The GOP donor class initially succeeded in suppressing populist candidates.
- The electoral geography of the GOP has changed.
- Before Trump, the populist movement lacked a coherent identity.
The electoral support for populism didn't exist until recently.
Over the past decade or so, a few key trends have come together. First, in 2008, the economy tanked. And for many people, particularly those outside the cosmopolitan metropolises (where most Republican votes live), it never really recovered.
Second, immigration increased, provoking a backlash among whites concerned about rapidly changing demographics.
Third, a black man became president, also provoking a backlash among whites.
All three trends fed into Republicans' rhetoric of resentment, which became more ever more choleric with each passing day Barack Hussein Obama served as America's president. This created the foundation for the new Trumpist populism.
The GOP donor class has until now suppressed populist candidates
The GOP donor class has done a very good job of channeling the types of Republicans who get into office by controlling flows of campaign money, working closely with party leaders. This has been true in presidential, Senate, and, to a good extent, House races as well.
There are, however, limits to this. In order to keep their donors happy, GOP leaders have embraced broadly unpopular economic policies, including cuts to "entitlements" that most Republicans view as benefits they have earned and therefore deserve. To distract from this, leaders have targeted their voters' anger at Democrats, piling on the forces discussed above. But as John F. Kennedy once put it, "Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside."
The electoral geography of the GOP has changed
More and more, Democrats are representing the highly educated, prosperous urban areas and college towns; Republicans are representing the less well-educated, more sparsely populated parts of the country. This is a significant and increasingly troubling divide. Republicans occupy more and more of the falling-behind places where Trump's zero-sum, declinist narrative of lost greatness appears to resonate most, and where low education and anti-intellectualism predominate.
Many of the strongest Trump regions are the areas that used to be more Democratic-leaning or are still Democratic-leaning, primarily for class reasons. But as the map continues to shift, Republicans' geographical gains will likely be in places most friendly to Trump-style nationalist populism, while Republicans' geographical losses will likely be in places that sent establishment Republicans to Congress.
Before Trump, the populist movement lacked a coherent identity
Until Trump came along, the movement didn't really have a leader. He has galvanized a movement by giving it a sense of identity. As Josh Marshall has astutely noted: "[Trump] has activated the voice of GOP white nationalism, spoken its language out loud and in so doing made it conscious of itself and expanded its ambitions. This seems like a transformative event."
It seems unlikely Trump is going to move on now. He loves and craves the attention, and he desperately wants to "win." Whether as a candidate or a media celebrity/kingmaker, he will be a force. And his voters will be a valuable prize for a new generation of willed and ambitious politicians.
The danger of a long intraparty civil war
If you think a long and protracted intraparty civil war sounds like a dangerous turn of events, you're probably right. But perhaps the only thing worse than the Republican party having this civil war would be the party not having its civil war.
That's because right now, the only thing holding the party together is hatred for Democrats and the white identity politics and virulent anti-government rhetoric that now powers that hatred. The longer the current Republican coalition holds together, the more its party leaders inevitably double down on this as the glue holding the party together. This is really, really bad.
The sooner the civil war happens, the sooner the nationalist-populist faction takes over the party. And the sooner it takes over the party, the sooner its leaders have to confront the fact that it can't win based on white racial resentment politics alone. To win a stable majority, it will likely have to become what Trump has hinted at on various occasions — a workers' party.
This may be hard to envision now. But imagine a Democratic Party that has expanded to absorb the cosmopolitan business elites who used to fund Republicans. A party like this will soon abandon its economic progressive liberals, who will find more and more in common with the orientation of a new Republican "workers' party."
Eventually, the Republican Party could look something like the Democratic Party of the 1930s: an intellectual vanguard of progressive economic intellectuals appended to a voting core of Southern and Appalachian working class who needed the socially redistributive programs these intellectuals were coming up with. If so, we could have a politics divided again by economics, instead of race and identity.
Obviously, it won't be easy to get there. But I think two structural changes would accelerate this process.
One, changing the campaign finance system to make candidates less reliant on super-wealthy donors would end the tightrope walk both parties now have of appealing to their voters and a small elite group of donors at the same time. Because of this tightrope walk, both parties have emphasized race and identity issues over economic issues, since economic issues would split both parties in half at this point. But this split is necessary and overdue. Race war is far, far worse than class war.
Second, changing the electoral rules to allow for more parties would also accelerate the crack-up. Instead of trying to maintain a coalition around negative partisanship, different factions could all run as separate parties. This would reduce the power of extremism. It would also bring back electoral competition and ideological diversity in more of the country at a time when most of America has become monopartisan. Ranked-choice voting would be a good start in this direction. But I'd go even bigger here, with the FairVote plan of multi-winner districts plus ranked-choice voting.
Absent these changes, it would be up to individual political leaders to force the conflicts within the parties — to take chances, to be bold, and to think past the next election. Here I don't have a ton of hope. But our politics depends on creative syntheses and political leaders who take chances. Maybe we'll get lucky with the right leaders at the right time. Maybe.