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Yes, the Republican Party has become pathological. But why?

We’re not going to fix American democracy until we can explain why the GOP went crazy.

Donald Trump Addresses Faith And Freedom Coalition Road To Majority Conference Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In response to a recent essay I published here on Vox about the dangers of our current hyperpartisanship, Jonathan Chait offered some pushback. Whereas I lay blame for our current dysfunctional polarization on the design flaws of American political institutions, Chait focuses blame on a more immediate cause: “the pathologies of the Republican Party.”

First off, Chait is absolutely right that the Republican Party has become deeply pathological. In Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s now-classic and still-true description of the party, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

I suspect even many elite Republicans would agree at this point. But the undeniable reality is that about half of the voting population has decided that even with its glaring flaws, the Republican Party is still the better of the two partisan options our political system offers.

At this point, it should be obvious that the Republican Party has gone insane. The pressing question now is: “Why has the Republican Party gone insane?”

My argument is that the modern Republican Party is a direct result of the design flaws of the American political system — our winner-take-all single-member electoral districts, our reliance on private money to finance elections, and our increasingly presidentialist system of government. You simply can’t understand the GOP’s pathologies without understanding the larger political system in which it operates.

It’s tempting to lay the blame on well-known destructive political leaders (Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, etc.). But why should politicians here and now be any more destructive than at any other time and place? What’s different here and now are the opportunities and incentives. That’s why we need a structural explanation.

The failure of the “common sense will eventually prevail” approach

For a long time, the dominant theory of the pundit class was that at some point, the center had to hold. The Republican Party couldn’t keep becoming more extreme and continue to win elections. Eventually, moderate Republican voters would have to abandon the party. Democrats would win again. And the GOP would be forced to tack back to the political center to become competitive again. Normalcy would return.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t happen. Republicans kept becoming more extreme and kept winning elections.

Donald Trump’s candidacy should be the final crushing blow to the “common sense will eventually prevail” approach. Never before had a candidate been so manifestly unqualified to be president. And yet 89 percent of Romney voters supported Trump, just as 86 percent of Obama voters voted for Hillary Clinton. And as with every election since 2000, 90 percent of self-identified partisan voters backed their party’s candidate.

Why did so many Republicans support Trump? Most voted for him simply because he was the Republican nominee. About 30 percent of Trump voters said they were voting primarily against Clinton. True, many Republicans had their concerns about Trump.

But whatever qualms Republicans might have about Trump, at least he was on the side of people like them. And by the end of the campaign, Hillary Clinton appeared as the devil incarnate. In a two-party system, what alternative did they have?

The logic of this was simple: The key to winning was disqualifying the other side. In a two-party system, with only two choices, you just have to be less unappealing than the other side. Such is the twisted logic of negative partisanship.

In a parliamentary multi-party system, Republican voters dissatisfied with Trump as their leader could have formed a new conservative party without guaranteeing a Democratic victory. But in our two-party, winner-take-all presidentialist system, they were stuck. And they are still stuck. No matter how unhappy they might be sticking with Trump, to align with Democrats feels like treason, and there’s no real option for a third party. And in a presidentialist system, with so much power in the executive, the stakes of presidential power consume everything else.

Partisanship versus ideology

We often talk about our politics as “ideological.” But one of the most consistent political science findings is that few Americans are actually ideologues. A narrow slice of high-information elites (maybe 15 to 20 percent of the population overall, though no doubt a much higher percentage of Vox readers) has a consistent set of political principles that come ahead of partisan identity. But most people don’t pay as close attention to politics. For most people, partisanship is the cue to help them figure out where they stand on the issues.

I’ll never forget my experience as a young Philadelphia Inquirer reporter on Election Day 2000, sent out to collect local “color” from polling stations across Bucks County. In Doylestown, I met a well-dressed woman wearing a silver elephant lapel pin, glistening in the November sun. She was voting Bush. “If Democrats had the right policies,” she told me, “They’d be Republicans.”

It was only later, after getting a PhD in political science, that I came to appreciate how typical this woman was, though few describe it so plainly. Ask yourself: When was the last time you changed your mind and went against your partisan team?

It would be exhausting to evaluate all policy proposals independently by reading extensively on all sides of the argument and then formulating your own unique set of issue positions and choosing candidates based on which ones agree with you more. Most sensible people have better things to do with their time. And this is precisely why political parties exist in the first place — so that people who have real jobs and families and other interests don’t have to master the intricacies of health care policy in order to figure out whether a single-payer system (for example) is going to work well for them or not.

At heart, when we vote, we ask the question: “Who represents people like me?” We support candidates who we think share our values. And here, party is a very strong cue.

We vote Republican or Democrat because at some point in our lives, we decided that either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party was our party, and it became part of our self-identity. Or maybe we didn’t even decide. Most partisan identities are inherited.

Over time, partisan identities become sticky. Especially when reinforced by other identities — racial, cultural, regional, etc. — they become even stickier. We come to see our own status as increasingly linked to the status of our party. If Democrats lose, Democratic partisans feel the loss as a blow to their own sense of self.

The stickiness of these identities gives partisan elites an incredible amount of power to shape and define what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat. Most Republicans and most Democrats will support the positions their party leaders advise. Give voters something to chant and they’ll chant it. This gives partisan leaders incredible power — power they can easily abuse when not checked by other mediating forces.

Remember, one of the reason many pundits predicted Trump wouldn’t capture the Republican nomination was that he was not really a “conservative” — at least as judged by his policy positions. And yet voters didn’t seem to care. He was making the right enemies, and he was talking about “winning.” And, above all, he was running as a Republican — that was what really mattered.

Why the GOP, but not the Democrats, went to extremism

Certainly we shouldn’t overstate the level of blind partisanship. But one of the most remarkable and consistent political science findings is how little voters really think for themselves. This is why many previously moderate Republicans didn’t leave the party as it moved rightward — they just became less moderate. Their ideology was far more flexible than their partisanship, because it was less deeply rooted.

Voters do sometimes switch parties. But switching partisan identity is not like switching between dish detergents. It’s much more central to our identity, and therefore much more difficult.

More common is that voters (as well as many elected leaders) disagree with their own party on some issues, often because there are different elites within the party offering different opinions. But because it’s a two-party system, they’d rather stick with their team and argue with their side, rather than go over to the other side and have to change a whole bunch of other beliefs to feel at home.

In a broader sense, both parties are really coalitions with a fair amount of (usually suppressed) internal dissent. Because we have a two-party system, to be the majority party in America requires a somewhat big-tent approach, and the ability to hold together a somewhat unwieldy coalition. Party leaders’ key to holding together an unwieldy party coalition is to make sure that all the activist groups feel like they’re getting a better deal from their party than the other party.

And in a two-party system, there are two ways to do this: make each group feel valued in their coalition, and/or convince each group that the other party would just be deadly for their interests. Both of these approaches help reinforce partisan identity, both positive and negative.

Understanding the nature of coalitions helps to explain Chait’s other question: If our system is so poorly designed, why did only one party go off in an extreme direction?

Chait actually supplies the answer in his response. The Democratic and Republican coalitions are very different (a point that Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins also make, much more extensively, in Asymmetric Politics). As Chait astutely notes:

[The] Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike.

… There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites.

Since the 1980s, Republicans have held together a coalition around a woolly vision of “limited-government conservatism” that could mean different things to different people. Libertarian-minded business owners saw it as low taxes and deregulation. Conservative Christians saw it in terms of religious liberty or not extending rights to LGBTQ citizens. Middle-class whites who scored high on racial resentment scales saw it as government not taking their money to give free things to freeloading black and brown people.

These different groups can be kept in the same big-tent coalition because they all understood that on the values they cared about most, the Democratic Party was not the party for people like them. Over time, as they identified as conservatives and Republicans, they learned the orthodoxies that “people like them” stood for, and were pulled along for the sake of keeping the governing coalition together, understanding that any defection would spell defeat in a two-party system.

By contrast, Democrats have been the party of the working class, the party of cosmopolitan urban professionals, and the party of minority groups. There was really no coherent “liberal” ideology that held these groups together, other than an interest group logroll in which each constituency got something. The need to keep all these constituencies happy is why the party stayed moderate, and also lacked a compelling vision from the Clinton era forward.

However, now that Democrats rely less and less on socially conservative working-class whites, a clearer “liberal” ideology is emerging in the Democratic Party around social and cultural issues, which may be one reason almost half (48 percent) of Democrats are now calling themselves “liberal” — up from just 28 percent in 2000

A similar shift in political coalitions also explains why Republican extremism began in the 1980s.

Prior to the ’80s, both parties represented much broader coalitions, which cut much more across racial, cultural, and regional identities. Parties were moderate because after the New Deal, they really were national parties, but with different identities in different regions. Even 30 years ago, you could be a culturally conservative Democrat or a culturally liberal Republican. These overlaps made the parties less distinct. They also made it easier to find common ground with opposing partisans based on other shared identities.

These overlaps were the foundation for a political center and multiple coalitions. Moderation existed not because politicians and voters had identified as “moderates” but because they faced cross-pressure from competing and overlapping values and identities, and the center was the place where these values overlapped.

But as partisan identity has become more closely linked with racial, cultural, and regional identities in the wake of the post-civil rights party realignment, these overlaps have vanished. Our collective sense of cultural, regional, and ethnic status is now more and more linked to the status of our two political parties. This is why politics is breaking in America.

The crucial role of campaign finance

Finally, we can’t discuss the nature of the two political coalitions without discussing the role of private money in politics. Broadly speaking, the wealthy and corporations have used money (through campaign contributions and lobbying) to shape economic policy so that it disproportionately benefits the rich and corporations.

This money has made it harder for the Democratic Party to truly be the party of the working class (one reason, as Chait notes, that Democrats have remained moderate).

But its more consequential effect was that it pulled the Republican Party very far right on economic issues. And because many of these far-right economic positions are broadly unpopular on their own, the Republican Party has had to work even harder to disqualify Democrats, turning up negative partisanship to ever higher levels and having to rely more and more on anti-elite/anti-government and now increasingly overt racial demagoguery in order to keep Republicans voting Republican.

Here it’s worth asking an obvious counterfactual: What if the Supreme Court had ruled differently in the 1976 court case Buckley v. Valeo, and given Congress broader powers to regulate campaign finance? What if Congress had continued to invest in its own internal policy capacity, and not outsourced policymaking to corporate lobbyists? Perhaps economic policy would have stayed moderate, and Republicans could have much more plausibly made a popular case for their modestly center-right economic policy on its own merits, without having to rely on anti-government and racial demagoguery to keep their voting coalition together.

Why the GOP started breaking norms too

As the Republican Party moved to the extremes on policy, for the reasons above, was it necessary that it also become an extreme outlier on basic democratic norms, for example by blocking President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for almost a year despite little objection to the nominee himself?

One factor is that the past three decades have been a very unusual period in American politics, in which national elections have all been quite competitive, with the balance of partisan control of institutions hanging in the balance. Because American institutions are majoritarian, and because the president has considerable power, a small number of votes can mean the balance between two very different outcomes. When the stakes are this high, the political incentives push hard on gaining every little advantage.

Republicans have been particularly aggressive with partisan gerrymandering. After the 2010 census coincided with a wave election for the GOP, Republicans used their control of state legislatures to aggressively redistrict themselves into even more seats, especially in a handful of states. If 2010 had been a wave election for Democrats, Democrats might have taken advantage in the same ways Republicans did, where they could (see, for example, Maryland). But it was Republicans who had the most opportunity, and they took it, locking in a structural advantage for at least a decade.

It’s also worth noting that the institutional design feature that creates two-party politics, the single-member plurality-winner district, is also the design feature that makes gerrymandering possible. In multi-member districts, there’s not much to be gained from futzing with district borders. It’s only in the single-member districts where gerrymandering is worth the effort. That’s why gerrymandering is predominantly an American problem.

Another feature of the single-member district is that when partisan loyalty is high and partisan voting is regional (as has increasingly been the case over the past several decades), few congressional elections will be competitive. Most members will come from safe districts, and when they go home they will be surrounded by like-minded partisans who don’t want them to compromise. Because Republicans were the opposition party from 2009 to 2016, their refusal to compromise took on the quality of radical obstructionism. Moreover, because Republicans saw Democratic failure as their surest way to gain nationally in the next election, anything they did to help Democrats look like they were succeeding, even where common ground could be found, worked against Republican power dynamics.

The story here is not so much about the nature of Republicans, but about structural opportunities and challenges that encouraged a very different response from Republicans than from Democrats.

Now what?

We can all recognize that the Republican Party has gone insane. That’s not hard to do. Naming the problem is a first step, but it offers no practical guide for what to do next.

Maybe the Republican Party will in time collapse under the weight of its own incoherent extremism and declining demographic coalition. But Republicans have locked in some electoral advantages to get the most out of their demographics. And the two-party system makes it almost impossible for parties to collapse. We’ve had the same two parties in this country for 160 years now for this reason. In a multi-party system, an alternative conservative party or new centrist party could emerge. In a two-party system, it’s much less likely.

My deep fear is that things will get much worse before they get better, as I laid out in my admittedly alarmist essay on the dangers of hyperpartisanship, with its doomsday 2020 scenario. The dynamics that have driven the Republican Party to increasingly illiberal extremes are not going away. If anything, they are continuing to intensify.

The image that keeps running through my head these days is of Wile E. Coyote, running to the edge of the cliff, full steam ahead, unable to stop as the solid ground cedes into air and gravity takes over. We don’t know how much running room is left. But we know where it winds up, if we don’t do something to change course. And simply pointing a finger at the runaway coyote doesn’t seem to be working.