At President Biden’s first hundred days benchmark, one crucial question should be: How is the GOP doing?
Republican leaders have been anxiously watching their popularity slide as America becomes blacker and browner. Georgia and Virginia, for example, are no longer reliably red states. And Gallup this month concluded that only 25 percent of voters self-identify as Republican (another 15 percent are “leaners”), the party’s worst showing against the Democrats since 2012 and sharply down since November.
Yet the party and conventional wisdom assume it can return to minority rule by leveraging several antidemocratic legacies: the Electoral College bequeathed from 1789, extreme gerrymandering, oceans of special-interest money, the Senate filibuster, an upper chamber based more on acreage than population, and an outbreak of recent state voter suppression bills. Then throw in two bonuses: that this week’s Census allocation will likely shift three to five seats from blue to red and that the party out of power has gained an average of 28 House seats in every first midterm election since 1974.
However, such levees holding back the popular will are now at risk of being breached by… call it a “perfect storm”: the stench of Trump, the January 6 insurrection, the pandemic, and an epidemic of GOP lies.
First, the country is lurching from the twice-impeached Trump to the reassuring and popular Biden. The 45th president has become a rotting albatross around the necks of GOP candidates who struggle to win primaries without him—or contested general elections with him. Second, we’re still in the grip of a potentially shape-shifting pandemic that arrived “on his watch” because Trump wasn’t watching (best estimates are 200,000 needless deaths, the equivalent of wiping out Buffalo or Madison). Third, the insurrection produced unforgettable images of right-wing extremists vandalizing democracy.
Struggling to reconcile their 19th-century laissez-faire philosophy with a 21st-century society, Republican leaders are resorting to conspiracy theories and self-evident lies to paper over some very unpopular policies—on gun safety, tax rates, climate violence, health care, race and justice, social spending, the minimum wage, and money in politics. Trump’s astounding volume of 30,573 documented untruths over four years, according to the Washington Post fact-checker, has been followed by a new surge of indignant dissembling: Biden’s a socialist who stole the election. The insurrection was composed of law-abiding Trumpers or antifa supporters—or both. Masks are more about liberty than safety. The For the People Act will “destroy” democracy by restoring majority rule. “Reverse racism” is worse than racism. No statehood for the majority-minority D.C. because it’s too small (with a population larger than Wyoming’s) and not in the Constitution (neither were the Dakotas). Nonexistent voter fraud requires enactment of laws to stop it.
This is performative farce posing as policy. Though unserious, such gaslighting can work to corrupt public sentiment. In a 1942 entry in his diary, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote, “There are so many lies that truth and swindle can scarcely be distinguished. That is best for us.” Decades later, in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok concluded that “a society whose members were unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones would collapse.”
Many politicians tell “stretchers,” in Mark Twain’s word, or engage in misstatements, hypocrisy, or worse. But it’s hard to recall when a major party in America has relied so extensively on Big Lies, hyperbole, fear-mongering, cherry-picking, fact-free assertions, both sides–ism and a blizzard of buzzwords (“fake media,” “woke liberal mob”). Indeed, lacking any positive agenda, the GOP seems content merely to demonize Democrats and ascribe sinister motives to them to “own the liberals”… then hope that tribal loyalty and confirmation bias will close the deal with credulous voters.
This “anti-leftist delirium,” in the phrase of The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, appears less a bug than a feature of the Republican platform. Indeed, since the party’s 2016 convention didn’t have one, it is the platform.
Given the “megatrends” slamming into the party, two outcomes seem possible.
MAGA, again. The GOP could return to power nationally by repeating its ol’ time religion of tax cuts, Confederate nostalgia, nativism, and riffs against big government, spread by the accelerants of Fox and social media. But since attacking reds, Blacks, and “welfare queens” lacks current cachet, Republican leaders are road-testing fresher targets like socialism, transgender students, Maxine Waters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and, especially, “cancel culture.” But so far, these don’t pack nearly as much of a punch.
Slow-motion realignment. Since 1856, American elections have largely swung between the two major parties, since each could at least come up with some arguments to defend their positions. Political realignments have been very rare. The Depression did kick off a 36-year national liberal ascendancy; regionally, the South flipped from D to R after the 1960s Civil Rights Acts.
Instead of delivering one big shock to the status quo, accumulating Republican crises will likely put them on the defensive in the 2022 and ’24 elections: e.g., mask and vaccine denialism that allowed Covid-19 to spread, an economy that produced zero net jobs under 45, a first-ever decline in life expectancy, periodic right-wing domestic violence retriggering memories of January 6, the freakiness of the Marjorie Taylor Green/Matt Gaetz contingent, and the party’s continuing genuflection to Trump. Several presidential aspirants are already vying to out-wing and out-Fox one another in a race to the bottom to be the most extreme, not mainstream (see DeSantis, Hawley, Cruz et al.).
The negative ads write themselves.
So do positive ads for Democrats—based on the party’s success in stemming the pandemic, creating a 5 percent-plus growth economy led by a hard-to-hate president who sent $1,400 stimulus checks to millions of families—despite unanimous Republican opposition. While no one should discount GOP creativity in drumming up new hobgoblins, the emerging story line is a contest between a party of grievance and a party of governance, between a party of the past and one running to “win the future.” Might that even add up to a “Morning in America”?
Nor will it take a large swath of Never-Trumpers exiting the party to tilt the axis of power. Biden beat Trump in the popular vote 51.4 percent to 46.9 percent. If Democrats can convince even an eighth of swing blue-collar white voters to care more about the well-being of their families than about Dr. Seuss, the result would be 55-45 percent landslides that no Republican legislature, local election official, or voter-suppression law could reverse. Small shifts can yield big differences.
Two other variables could significantly affect the prospects of the Party of Lincoln. First, can HR 1 get approved by Congress and SCOTUS to blunt an outbreak of state anti-voting laws? How long will a majority party simply shrug off starting 19 seats behind in congressional elections because of extreme gerrymandering? Or tolerate 10 percent of the country in 20 states electing 40 senators, enough to filibuster popular bills?
Second, beyond specific issues, will President Biden unapologetically exploit his bully pulpit to reframe the prevailing paradigm from the free enterprise theology of Adam Smith to the regulated markets of Keynes, Krugman, and Warren? “In a democracy,” said Bill Clinton, “you can’t love your country and hate its government.” As George Lakoff and Frank Luntz have demonstrated, frames and slogans can decide elections.
Ultimately, the triumph of either MAGA, again, or a slow-motion realignment will depend on whether a sufficient number of swing voters share Benjamin Franklin’s optimism in 1732: “When Truth and Error have fair play,” he wrote, “the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” Over the three centuries since then, historic truths have eventually defeated monarchy, slavery, fascism, the Iron Curtain, McCarthyism, and apartheid. Will authoritarian nationalism in American soon yield, as the framers intended, to a democracy of progress?