Governing majorities and the mob
Politics is rooted in the pragmatic accumulation of votes. The prize is power, the key is winning elections: a plurality or majority of votes, as the case maybe. America is a diverse country, so winning power often means assembling coalitions, within and under the umbrella of a two-party dominated system.
In America, Republicans tend to express disdain for government, and Democrats tend to express disdain for business. Over the last 12 months, Republicans physically assaulted the highest symbol of government in the land, and Democrats physically assaulted many of the best-known retail business brands in America. Not broad representations of either party in each case, but, on the fringes. The passions of the mob spilled out on both sides of the political divide.
How is it, that mobs have become such a prominent aspect of American politics? How is it, that Occupy Wall Street (a protest against economic inequality) and the Tea Party (lower taxes, less government,…) emerged and gave birth to the carnage that lay all around?
This article focuses on the peculiar journey of the Republican party.
Putting aside the journey that the Republican party took from the party of Lincoln to the party of the Southern Strategy, the perhaps more critical issue has been the loss of the cold war coalition.
The cold war held together a coalition of anti-communist, anti-big government, small business, states’ rights, mildly to strongly nationalist-leaning people. America was and is a great nation, and everyone in the coalition believed it. Communist Russia, and other evil empires, were common focal and contrasting points of the coalition; the glue that held it together. Then the cold war ended.
The crisis of “faith” did not immediately present itself, with Bill Clinton being swept to power in what was largely seen more as a generational change than a theological change. However, no Republican President since then has enjoyed the kinds of majorities that Ronald Regan did.
President George W Bush just squeaked into his first term by a Supreme Court assisted 271 to 266 margin, and his second term was almost just as close, 286 to 251. Donald Trump won his first and only term by 304 to 227, lost the popular vote significantly, though won the greatest number of states by a significant margin. In the final analysis, a few key states separated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; and those states were decided by narrow margins.
By the time Donald Trump came to power, the Republican party was no longer the party of cold war warriors. By the time Donald Trump left the presidency, the Republican party had been stained by the presence and influence of QAnon, the Proud boys, and most notably, by the January 6th 2021 assault on the Capitol.
That so many Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, so easily buy into conspiracy theories, characterizes the social media driven era we live in. It is also an outgrowth of an era America was shocked into, on 9/11, when individual actors now seemed as capable of destruction as nation-states; where our financial institutions suffered a huge credibility blow in 2007/2008/2009, when The Church has been rocked by unending pedophilia scandals; when working class people came to resent globalization, when a microbe rocked the world economy, and during which, political discourse has sunk to the depths of incitement, on both sides of the divide. It has not been the plagues described in the Bible, but it has been a significant amount of instability. The electorate has been, may still be, ripe for exploitation by those promising stability and a return to glory, just as Adolf Hitler did.
One of the great mysteries of our time is we don’t know what the result would have been if Bernie Sanders had run against Donald Trump in 2016. We might have our suspicions that Bernie would have been painted into a pinko-communist corner. However, we don’t how working class would have broken for Sanders and Trump, and that is one of the great mysteries of our time. Which party is the party of the working class?
Republicans, with perhaps the exception of Reagan-Democrats, have often been viewed as the country-club set. The fact that they are even in the conversation as the party of the working class, is an amazing transformation. A transformation that Biden’s immediate cancelation of the Keystone pipeline put an exclamation mark on. Not just because Republican’s have often been seen as the party of oil & gas, but because no Republican leader would cancel the Keystone pipeline today, as that action would also impact working class Americans. It was the Republican party that championed the Fracking revolution, not just as a path to energy independence, not just as an alignment with oil & gas, but also as a way of creating jobs for Americans who toil with their hands and backs.
From country club cold warriors to champions of the working class, and the conspiracies of the working class, it has been quite the transformation, it is a transformation born of the end of the cold war, it is a transformation born of the Democratic Party’s lack of vocal prioritization of working-class issues, it is a transformation born of terrorism, globalization, culture wars, shocking disruptions to the economy / job markets, and more.
When vacuums arise, coalitions evolve to fill those vacuums, and that in essence is the story of where the Republican party has come to. Nothing particularly more complicated than the old coalition was no longer vibrant enough to win elections, so the Republican party slid into a new coalition, perhaps still not capable of winning national elections, but one that is still forming and evolving.
I suspect that those country-club cold warriors pining for a return to the good old days, are going to be disappointed. Coalitions form where they have political potency, and the old coalition does not.
Having looked into the political abyss on January 6th, 2021, there is a question for both political parties, is the next step to jump fully into the abyss or step back from it, whether to tolerate Senators threatening a Supreme Court on its steps, and Presidents the Capitol just a few yards from it. In addition to that question, the Republican Party has to navigate the question of what coalition can win national elections. A process that started with the end of the cold war, and is still ongoing.