The GOP’s Authoritarian Strategy

The GOP’s Authoritarian Strategy

Demographic trends threaten the party’s electoral future—but it does have another option.


Recent polls and demographic studies shed new light on the direction of American politics. For some time now, Ronald Brownstein of National Journal has been pointing out that national voting preferences are increasingly falling into racial and ethnic patterns. The deepest of the trends underlying this development is the increase in the number of minorities in both the population as a whole and in the voting booth. Ever since 1965, when ethnic and racial immigration restrictions were lifted, nonwhites began to increase as a percentage of the population. The consequence has been a growing “gray/brown” gap, a divide pitting an aging white population that votes heavily Republican against an increasingly diverse younger population, which tends to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2008, Obama won only 43 percent of the white vote but fully 80 percent of the minority vote—enough to give him his 53 to 47 percent victory.

The trend appears to favor the Democrats. Barring the intervention of dramatic events—which, of course, cannot be entirely barred—demography becomes destiny. This year, Brownstein calculates that if Obama repeats his 80 percent win among minorities, he will need only 40 percent of the white vote to prevail.

Republicans obviously wish to prevent such developments. The South, where their advantage among whites is so great they’ve been able to win consistently with almost no minority support, has shown a way: direct your appeal to the white majority. The result has been the Republicanization of the South as well as the Southernization of the Republican Party. In the country at large, in which the percentage of white voters is still around 73 percent (higher than the South’s), a similar strategy could pay even greater dividends. Indeed, the Romney campaign has been dabbling with this option. As Thomas Edsall has written in the New York Times, “On television and the Internet…the Romney campaign is clearly determined ‘to make this about’ race.” Call it the “Southernization strategy.”

One piece of evidence is a recent ad run by the Romney campaign falsely accusing the Obama administration of acting to “gut” welfare reform by lifting all work requirements [see Betsy Reed, “The GOP’s Welfare Lie,” September 24]. No one with even a passing acquaintance with recent American politics can fail to recognize this as an underhanded attempt to appeal to those whites who see welfare as a giveaway to blacks and other minorities. Romney added evidence for this conclusion when he said the (apocryphal) repeal of work requirements was designed by Obama to “shore up his base.” The same theme appears in the GOP campaign’s charge, also false, that Obama would cut Medicare, which serves the senior “gray” population, by $716 billion to fund Obamacare, which tends more to serve the youthful “brown” population.

But there’s a problem with this strategy: it may win the present, but at the cost of losing the future. The proportion of minority voters can only grow, while that of white seniors can only decline. It would be surprising if the Republicans were to accept such a trade-off. It is well known, for instance, that Karl Rove, who now all but runs the party from his perch at the pinnacle of an interlocking group of fabulously well-endowed Super PACs and other funding groups, yearns to establish lasting GOP hegemony over American politics. As former House majority leader Tom DeLay put it in 2004, “The Republican Party is a permanent majority for the future of this country.”

There have been some suggestions that the Republicans are ready to surrender this larger ambition. One GOP operative, speaking of the strategy of appealing to whites, said to Brownstein, “This is the last time anyone will try to do this.” And Jonathan Chait of New York magazine cites the comment as evidence that the 2012 campaign is indeed the last hurrah for this approach. He links the Brownstein findings with suggestions coming from the Romney camp that their candidate would be content with one term—during which, freed from the need for re-election, Romney would attempt a radical repeal of New Deal programs and a wholesale redistribution of income upward, leaving the Democrats in future years with the daunting task of trying to reverse such sweeping change. As Chait put it, the goal would be to “pull out one more win, and thus the Republican determination to make such a win as consequential as possible.”

The new insight offered by Brownstein and Chait is that the short-term and long-term GOP strategies are on a collision course. This requires explanation. We can be certain that the contradiction has not gone unnoticed by the party’s Machiavels. Are they really ready to give up their ambition of creating a permanent ruling class in exchange for a one-term blitz? If electoral strategies were the only card in the Republican deck, we might have to accept this “last hurrah” hypothesis. But there is more in the GOP playbook than electioneering.

For at least a generation, the party has also pursued power by extra-electoral means. The procedure has been to use and abuse power acquired in one institution to acquire more power in other institutions. As is well known, the framers of the Constitution established a separation of powers: each branch of government was designed to monitor and correct any abuses perpetrated by the others. The Republicans have thrown this system into reverse. They use each branch as a stronghold from which to mount attacks on the others and usurp their powers, all in pursuit of increasing and consolidating their own party’s power. Thus, in the name of protecting the Constitution—so often praised at the Republican convention—they have stood the Constitution on its head.

Court powers are used to intervene in the executive power, as the Supreme Court did so outrageously in 2000, when it overrode the decision of voters in Florida and put George W. Bush in the White House. Legislative powers are used to curtail the power of citizens, as GOP legislatures have done throughout the country to suppress Democratic-leaning poor and minority voters by raising onerous obstacles to voting, such as requiring government-issued photo IDs. Legislative powers are also used to reach into the executive, as the GOP-controlled House did when it impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 for minor offenses, mostly of a personal nature. Executive power is used to spy on and punish opposition figures, as Nixon did in the Watergate crisis, or to corrupt due process, as the Bush White House did when it fired nine United States attorneys for failing to fall into line with its voter-suppression schemes.

More than government institutions are involved. The pattern extends to trade unions, the news media and, above all, corporations. Legislative and judicial power is used to attack unions, which tend to support the Democrats, as when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker eviscerated the bargaining rights of public employee unions. Judicial power is used to increase the power of corporations, as when the Supreme Court removed limits on their ability to financially intervene in elections with its Citizens United ruling. (This decision may be to the election of 2012 what Bush v. Gore was to 2000.) Legislative power is used to generate more legislative power, as when Tom DeLay used money raised in Washington to manipulate redistricting in Texas (though, in that instance, he was convicted of money-laundering for his pains). Paralleling these moves is the transformation of the GOP itself into an organization that renegade Republican operative Mike Lofgren has characterized as “less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and…more like…one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” In the background is the biggest institutional shift of all: the steady transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich and corporations.

With all of this afoot, the GOP doesn’t need to abandon its dream of permanent domination. The long, slow power grab of the institutional structure reconciles its long-term and short-term ambitions. But if it succeeds along this path, then it—and the rest of us—would have to give up the dream of a fair electoral system that expresses the will of the people. The Republicans would have to suspend the Republic—in the name, of course, of saving it.

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