Turning on a Dime

Author: Gary Hart

How do political institutions change directions?  This question obviously arises regarding the Republic Party since 2016.

Since the end of the Cold War, at least, Republicans believed in several immutable fundamentals: balanced budgets; deep suspicion of Russia (and previously the Soviet Union); the “moral majority”; law and order; respect for the military; expanded international trade, among other solid doctrines.

Today, with the exception of “never Trump” Republicans, the Party has exploded deficits, held secret meetings with Russian authorities during and after the 2016 election, fallen in love with a twice divorced President with highly questionable conduct toward women, defied and demeaned domestic law enforcement agencies including the Department of Justice and the FBI, demonstrated contempt for the intelligence services, upset security and economic alliances, cast established trade agreements aside, and generally run rough-shod over the rule of law.

All this amazing transformation in about 24 months.

Did the traditional Republican Party lose its soul?  How can a long-established American political institution make 180 degree turns on so many fundamental beliefs so quickly?  Is there any precedence for this, including in the Democratic Party?

The closest one can come to an answer to the last question might be the embrace of a wide range of civil rights policies by the Democrats in the 1960s that cost the Party the “solid South” and enabled Richard Nixon to turn the South into a Republican stronghold.  That was the only modern realignment even close to the bizarre Republican conversion to the current anti-Republican Party.

Explaining this phenomenon requires a profound scholarly understanding of political institutions and their ability to cast aside overnight established beliefs.  Those of us confused by this virtually unprecedented mass role reversal eagerly await such explanations.  Surely, economic upheaval, including in Germany in the 1930s, offers one explanation.  Except, the American economy has been relatively stable and growing since the Obama years after 2008.

Demagogues in America and in Europe have capitalized on discontent caused by migrations south-to-north to foster pseudo-nationalistic movements.  New social media have offered platforms for demagoguery.  Yet none of this accounts for the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation of a formerly conservative political party virtually overnight.

It is a mystery awaiting authoritative analysis, discussion, and explanation.

Political pundits, lacking other categories and congenitally committed to established ones, refer to the Trump “base” as conservative.  But that “base” has abandoned traditional conservative principles and is, instead, highly reactionary.  Reaction is the dark side of conservatism when it cannot get its way.

This observation offers one possible explanation, that is that conservatism has been unable to address sweeping global changes, including technology disruptions, mass migrations, and globalization itself.

During the Republican nomination process, Trump, largely through ridicule, marginalized the field of presidential contenders and revealed the confusion and disarray within current conservatism.  He essentially held the previous Republican Party in contempt and opened the door to what Mrs. Clinton unfortunately called “the basket of deplorables” to enter the hallowed halls of traditional conservatism and sack the place.

His coup mimicked the actions of barbarian raiders throughout history and got him to the White House, leaving behind the field of conservative nobility so sorely used.

Once again, however, the speed with which this happened could only have taken place due to considerable long-term undermining of the pillars of conservatism and the Republican Party.

So, today we have the dominant party in the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court unmoored from conservative ideology and, at least in the first two branches of government, beholden to reactionary forces.  Those forces are reacting to immigration, international alliances, the emergence of minorities, the rise of women to positions of authority, and to polite society (generally called “elites”) founded on collective respect.

And, on the other end of the political teeter-totter, a Democrat Party in search of new directions in an interesting and colorful array of aspirants.  That is a subject for another discussion, but not one in which the traditional Democratic Party is going to reverse course like the Republican coup of 2016.

[A lovely Passover Remembrance and Buona Pasqua to all: GH]

3 Responses to “Turning on a Dime”

  1. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Here are my candidates for an “explanation”:

    1. Inequality. The reaction among lower middle working class voters in rust belt states was, I think, fueled by the view that neither party had improved their lives in particularly noticeable ways. The political system moves at a pace that is, at best, incremental. And while holding actions — like the Democrats fighting off Reaganism in the 1980s — and centrist administrations — like Clinton’s and Obama’s, which could not be anything else given the numbers in Congress — are better than the alternatives, this can appear to be only marginally so in a world where economic productivity explodes and real wealth increases, but virtually all of it goes to the top.

    2. Racism and Sexism — The country is a federated republic, not a democracy, and power is distributed, in part, geographically. So residual pockets of racism and sexism can matter. Some portion of the Republican voter pool falls into these categories and can swing elections. For them, Trump is a godsend.

    3. Trump — You cannot discount the fact that he has taken over the institutional GOP and unleashed a voter pool that had either stayed home or been marginalized in the past. I bemoan the cowardice of elected Republicans who refuse to criticize Trump given his extraordinary degree of dishonesty and corruption. But politicians are first vote counters and elected Republicans now live in fear of being primaried by a Trumpist.

    In my view, numbers 3 and 2 are making it possible for the GOP to exploit number 1. Or as LBJ was reputed to have said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”

  2. Michael Says:

    I don’t think the modern Republican Party (defined as the Party since Reagan) had much of a soul to begin with. It only cared about the deficits (it itself exploded) when it was out of power; was always hostile to women’s rights, especially reproductive rights; the “silent majority” was code for white America, and used as part of its strategy of constant race-baiting to gin up its electorate. Yes, it promoted a strong military, but never with any real strategy for making it efficient and cost effective, using any suggestion that procurement choices be made as a gudgel to beat the Democrats over the head as “soft on defense.” But I think the real change came with the rise of talk radio Fox News, which quickly became the drivers of movement conservatism. Concerned only with ratings and not the consequences of policy, they pushed the Republican Party into supporting ever more extreme and eventually conspiratorial positions, which eventually made it impossible for the party to govern, even when it held all the levers of power. From there it’s not a great leap to a demagogue like Trump. It should surprise no one that a Party, which lacked the backbone to stand up to the media machine that was driving their voters to the polls with manufactured outrage, now has no will to stand up to the monster that the same outrage created.

  3. Brian McCarthy Says:


    The Republican Party has only one a single popular vote in a presidential election since 1988 (GWB in 2004), 30 years ago.

    The Electoral College is all that stands between the GOP and irrelevancy – or maybe not. Clearly, electoral strategies would change if there were a national popular vote for president. But lately it seems the GOP doesn’t know the buttons to push and needs to rely on the 250 year old antiquated Electoral College for its nationwide wins.

    What does happen if we scrap the Electoral College and have a straight national popular election?

    It won’t happen in my lifetime. Just speculating.


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