Domestic Affairs

The Future of the Republican Party

On January 13, just over a week out from then President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, President Trump became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached for a second time. 

After insurrectionists stormed the halls of the Capitol in an ill-fated attempt to overturn the results of an election that has long been decided, House Democrats charged the President with “incitement of insurrection.” Every Democrat, along with ten Republican representatives, voted for impeachment, making it the most bipartisan impeachment vote in history. The Senate trial, set to take place the second week of February, could earn even more Republican supporters, though the final count will likely fall short of the mark needed for conviction.

In an era marked by polarization and gridlock, it is remarkable to see any proposal achieve cross partisan support — let alone a vote charging the former President with committing high crimes and misdemeanors. Yet, the assault on the capital, spearheaded by the rhetoric of the President and his Republican allies in Congress, may have acted as a wake up call for some in Congress previously willing to overlook, or even aid, Trump’s misdeeds. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, is reportedly open to breaking with Trump in the Senate trial because such a vote would, “make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the Republican Party.” Nevertheless, the Trump faction of the Republican Party is not going away anytime soon. And if enough Senate Republicans do not jump ship now by voting to bar Trump from seeking future office, he may choose to run again in 2024, extending the intraparty tension that threatens to tear the party apart, possibly through the creation of a third, more explicitly Trumpist, party.

In the wake of these rifts and Republican losses in the Senate run-off races in Georgia, handing the Senate majority to the Democrats, some commentators claim that this might represent a fateful splintering of the GOP. This diagnosis, however, has come far too soon. While Trump’s impeachment and the Republican losses in Congress represent short term failings, the party’s removal from power may be its long term saving grace. The beginning of a new administration allows the party to start anew. No longer tasked with having to govern, the Republican Party can rally together in opposition to the policy goals shared by Biden and Democrats in Congress in ways that may threaten the democratic system itself.

Minority status in Congress is nothing new for Republicans. In 2008, after President Obama’s election, Democrats controlled an even greater proportion of seats across both houses of Congress than they do today. Still, the Democrats struggled to pass a national agenda —  Republicans had committed to a policy of obstruction. The strategy the GOP employed was summed up by former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner who, referencing the Democrats’ policy goals, said, “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

With the Democratic Party’s return to power, the Republican Party is likely to fall back on the tactics used during the Obama administration. And this reprised strategy could help ease strain among the Republican ranks as a new common enemy is found. If President Trump helped expose the fault lines within the Republican coalition, the perceived threat posed by President Biden and Democrats in Congress is likely to reunify the party’s apparatus. No doubt even more moderate Republicans will go along with the obstructionist scheme. Plus, the ever looming threat of U.S. debt offers Republicans of all stripes a convenient excuse to reject Democratic policies out of hand, even if such fears were conveniently ignored during Trump’s term in office. 

While it may seem too early to argue that bipartisanship is out of the picture — Biden, for example, seems to think that he will be able to succeed even where Obama failed — the nature of electoral politics makes cooperation unlikely. As political scientist Francis Lee points out, the Republican Party has a structural incentive to act as a roadblock rather than a helping hand. Politics is a zero-sum game. In the eyes of Republicans, working with Democrats will only make the Democratic majority look better. Therefore, obstructing all major proposals and blaming the other side for not offering sufficient compromises tends to yield the best returns. The natural result is policy gridlock, prompting greater frustration towards the democratic institutions tasked with governing.

Furthermore, Republicans are likely content with holding out hope for a swift return to power rather than agreeing to painful compromises. Opposition parties have historically performed well in midterm elections, and thanks to down-ballot victories at the state level in the most recent cycle, Republicans are set to have disproportionate control over the redistricting process. This year, Republican legislatures will get to redraw 43% of House seats compared with just 17% for Democratic legislatures, a disparity produced by the fact that blue states are more likely to have independent redistricting commissions in place. 

Even more worrying, Republican politicians have signaled a willingness to limit access to voting when the democratic process doesn’t go their way. This year in Georgia, for example, Republicans, provoked by Democratic success in the state, have moved to, “end no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia, which was disproportionately used by Democratic voters in the 2020 elections.” Through gerrymandering and reducing access to the ballot, Republicans can hope to achieve a reversal in electoral fortunes so that come 2022, the political landscape will be strongly tilted in a favorable direction for Republicans no matter which party receives greater national support. 

Breaking apart the Republican Party would require a significant portion of the party’s members to go against their electoral best interests. The far easier, and therefore far more likely, path forward for Republicans is to find new boogeymen to rally against in Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi. Unfortunately, the consequences of such tactics are dire. As a result of the strategy Republicans at the state and national level are set to employ, the trajectory of American democracy may be in even greater danger than that of the GOP.

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