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It is a measure of the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency that just months after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, nobody in Washington seems to remember it. Congressional Republicans transitioned seamlessly from backing the president as he inflicted gratuitous harm on the economy in pursuit of his unpopular border wall to acquiescing as he declared a phony emergency to usurp Congress’ constitutional power of the purse. Now, they are back in their familiar role of defending his efforts to thwart an independent investigation into the links between his 2016 campaign and a hostile foreign power bent on subverting U.S. elections.
American governance, it seems, is in a bad way. But the crisis did not begin when Trump entered office. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016, Washington would hardly be humming along. Instead, it would be mired in a more intense version of the ruinous politics that plagued Barack Obama’s presidency after 2010. Solutions to pressing national problems would still be stuck in partisan gridlock. Narrow, powerful interests would still dominate debates and decisions. And popular resentment—rooted in economic and demographic shifts and stoked by those seeking to translate voter anger into profit or votes—would still be roiling elections and governance alike.
For a generation, the capacity of the United States to harness governmental authority for broad public purposes has been in steep decline, even as the need for effective governance in a complex, interdependent world has grown. Almost every aspect of today’s crisis is part of this long-term shift. In 2017, for example, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but Trump’s shortsighted decision was only the latest example of the country’s halting and grossly inadequate approach to climate change. The current radicalized debate over immigration reflects heightened racial and cultural resentment, but it also stems from three decades of failure to reach a consensus on reasonable reforms to the nation’s antiquated border and citizenship laws. Rising death rates among middle-aged white Americans in large swaths of the country are not merely a contributor to the backlash that elected Trump; they are also a symptom of the virtual collapse of the federal government’s ability to address major public problems.
What went wrong? Skyrocketing inequality, regional economic divergence, and demographic changes have all played their part. But there is one overriding culprit behind the failure of the U.S. political system: the Republican Party. Over the last two and a half decades, the GOP has mutated from a traditional conservative party into an insurgent force that threatens the norms and institutions of American democracy. If Americans are to once again harness the combined powers of democracy and markets for the public good, they must have a clear picture of what has gone wrong with the Republican Party, and why.
Even with the best leadership, the last few decades would have presented big challenges. Like many wealthy countries, the United States has undergone a disruptive transition from an industrial manufacturing economy to a postindustrial knowledge economy. Along with the decline of unions, the deregulation of finance, and the federal government’s retreat from antitrust enforcement, that transition has tilted opportunity and wealth toward those at the very top of the economic pyramid. It has also concentrated growth in cities and sucked it out of rural areas and small towns. Yet even as yawning inequality has made structural reform more pressing, many white Americans have seen the United States’ inevitable march toward a majority-minority society as an even greater threat.
American political institutions have always posed difficulties for those seeking to tackle problems like these. The U.S. system of checks and balances, with its separate branches and levels of government, requires a high level of compromise to function. Historically, the system also facilitated compromise because its frictions and fragmentation—famously celebrated by James Madison at its birth—encouraged a proliferation of interests and perspectives rather than the emergence of a single dominant cleavage. With rare and unpleasant exceptions, as in the run-up to the Civil War, the two major parties featured internal divides large enough to permit cross-party bargaining. Durable coalitions even emerged from time to time that transcended the main party divide. These crosscutting cleavages allowed public officials to overcome the system’s tendencies toward gridlock and confront (albeit often incompletely and haltingly) many of the biggest challenges the nation faced. That process transformed the United States into one of the richest, healthiest, and best-educated societies the world has ever seen.
No longer. Almost every element of today’s political system—from electoral jurisdictions to economic regions, from public officials to advocacy organizations, from the mass public to the mass media—is neatly lined up in the red or the blue column. Political scientists continue to debate how much of this is true ideological polarization, in which partisan disagreements reflect fundamentally different values and worldviews, and how much of it is merely an increased alignment of partisanship with other divides in an ever more diverse and unequal society. But this debate is secondary to the basic change. Once, many cultural, racial, ethnic, and geographic divides cut across parties. Today, it is partisanship all the way down.
In this transformed context, previously muted weaknesses of the American system are coming to the fore: the opportunities for self-aggrandizement by a president unconstrained by norms of restraint or by the other branches of government; the lack of a clear, circumscribed role for the federal courts, which are now filling up with partisan judges armed with lifetime appointments; the politicization of a late-to-develop administrative state; the endless opportunities for obstruction in a bicameral legislature; the huge tilt of the Senate toward rural states. Although state and city governments often have greater freedom to act, intense partisanship at those levels and gridlock at the federal level are pushing them, too, toward more polarized and less effective governance. The laboratories of democracy have become laboratories of division, testing grounds for policy approaches, electoral maps, and voting rules explicitly designed to cripple one side of the partisan fight.
In short, the U.S. political system still requires compromise but no longer facilitates it. On the contrary, it is generating a doom loop of polarization as partisan forces run up against institutional guardrails and emerge from the collision not chastened but even more determined to tear them down.
Yet the diagnosis of polarization—true enough as far as it goes—obscures what makes that polarization so destructive. Elite discourse frequently implies that the two parties are mirror images of each other, as if both were moving at the same rate toward the political fringes, shedding norms and principles as they did so. But this is simply not what is happening. The core problem is not equal polarization but asymmetric polarization. The Democratic Party has moved modestly leftward, mostly due to the decline in the party’s presence in the South. But it still aspires to solve problems and so is relatively open to compromise. (For example, Obama’s signature health-care law, now so reviled by Republicans, was built in considerable part from past Republican proposals.) By contrast, the Republican Party has moved dramatically rightward and now represents a radically disruptive force that the U.S. political system is ill equipped to contain.
This trend well predates Trump. Four years before Trump became the GOP’s champion, two respected observers of Washington politics, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, reluctantly concluded that the GOP had become “an insurgent outlier.” It was, they lamented, ever more “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.” Even that harsh portrait now seems mild, as the GOP’s voters, activists, and politicians rally around a leader who engages in relentless race baiting, shocking assaults on press freedom, and nonstop denigration of the rule of law.
The problem is not simply that Republicans have moved much further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left—an asymmetry evident not just in congressional voting patterns but also in the relative position of each party’s presidential, vice-presidential, and judicial nominees. The problem is also that Republicans have proved willing to play what the legal scholar Mark Tushnet has dubbed “constitutional hardball.” Since at least Newt Gingrich’s House speakership in the 1990s, Republicans in Washington have deployed strategies designed to disrupt and delegitimize government, including the constant use of the Senate filibuster, repeated government shutdowns, attempts to hold the U.S. economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and the unwillingness to accept Democratic appointments to key positions—most dramatically in the case of Merrick Garland’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court.
Things are no better at the state level, where anti-Democratic strategies have often become antidemocratic ones. In Texas, Republicans gerrymandered districts by reapportioning House seats just five years after the last line redrawing, rather than following established norms and waiting for the decennial census. In North Carolina and Wisconsin, Republican-controlled legislatures attempted to strip power from state offices after elections in which voters opted for Democrats. In state after state, Republicans have launched systematic efforts to disenfranchise young, low-income, and nonwhite voters who they worried were unlikely to support the GOP. And in several states, Republican elected officials have overridden voter initiatives to expand health care (Maine), enfranchise ex-felons (Florida), and implement ethics reforms (South Dakota).
The radicalism of the GOP means that it is no longer a conventional conservative party. It now displays characteristics of what scholars of comparative politics call an “antisystem party”—one that seeks to foment tribalism, distort elections, and subvert political institutions and norms. Although these tendencies appeared well before Trump’s election, they have grown only stronger under his presidency.
In short, Madison’s formula for ensuring moderation has stopped working. Extremism on the right, rather than provoking a moderating reaction, has become self-reinforcing. Positions that were once at or beyond the outer fringe of American conservatism have become first acceptable and then Republican orthodoxy. More than ever before, the Republican Party is dismissive of climate change, hostile to both the welfare state and the regulatory state, and committed to tax cuts for the rich—positions that make it an outlier even among conservative parties in rich democracies. Trump’s presidency has reinforced the GOP’s insurgent nature, as he and his allies have launched attacks on the foundations of democracy—the press, the courts, law enforcement, the political opposition—with virtually no pushback or even complaints from within their party. These norm-exploding stances raise the specter of democratic backsliding of a kind that seemed impossible only a few years ago. Yet they are less a departure from the recent history of the Republican Party than a hastening of its march down an alarming path.
The standard explanations for the Republican Party’s radicalization focus on race and culture, seeing in the United States the same forces of resentment that have driven right-wing populism in other rich democracies. The parallels are real, but the right-wing backlash in the United States looks different from its foreign counterparts in at least two respects.
First, although energized by popular anger, the radicalized GOP depends heavily on an organized network of powerful, well-funded right-wing groups that are closely tied to the Republican establishment. The billionaire Koch brothers, raising unprecedented resources from the extremely wealthy and extremely conservative, have built a virtual shadow party. Through organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, they have poured a few billion dollars over the past decade into grass-roots mobilization and campaigning on behalf of hard-right Republicans and hard-right policies such as the Trump tax cuts. The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce has undergone a massive expansion, moved far to the right, and become an increasingly integrated part of the Republican Party. The American Legislative Exchange Council has done much the same at the state level. Although some of these groups, such as the National Rifle Association and prominent evangelical organizations, promote social conservatism, the main focus is economic policies that remove constraints on business and reduce taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
The second difference follows from the first. Mostly due to the power of these organized groups, the Republican Party has embraced the rich and dismissed worries about inequality to an extent unmatched by right-wing parties abroad. Typically, right-wing populists are welfare-state chauvinists, advocating greater benefits for native-born workers. Republicans, not so much. Beneath the labels of “repeal Obamacare” and “cut taxes,” their economic priorities are radically inegalitarian and wildly unpopular. Even GOP voters don’t want to slash Medicaid or eliminate health insurance protections for patients with preexisting conditions, and they have scarcely a greater appetite for budget-busting tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Indeed, Trump won the GOP nomination in part by hinting at a more moderate stance on economic issues. In office, however, he has populated his administration with veterans of the Koch network and business lobbyists, joining hands with Republican elites. Together, they have doubled down on the GOP’s plutocratic economic agenda, undercutting the capacity of the government to address national concerns. To maintain the support of the Republican base, meanwhile, they have intensified partisan conflict over noneconomic issues, especially racial ones.
The conversion of a populist backlash into plutocratic governance is further enabled by the presence of a formidable right-wing media network. Partisan media outlets aren’t unique to the right, but the outrage machine is much larger, more influential, and less tempered by countervailing voices on the conservative side of the spectrum. Indeed, the greatest victory of right-wing outlets has been their ability to discredit alternative sources of information. The center-right media space has emptied, and right-wing news and opinion have cut themselves (and their audiences) off from mainstream sources that try to uphold the norms of accuracy and nonpartisanship. The news consumption of the most active elements of the Republican base is increasingly limited to a handful of ideologically convivial outlets—especially Fox News, which is now essentially a form of Trump administration state TV. This media isolation both encourages and enables the confrontational, tribal politics of the GOP.
The final major contributor to the GOP’s radicalization has been electoral geography. Over the last quarter century, as prosperity has become concentrated in urban and coastal areas, nonurban areas have grown more Republican, and urban areas, more Democratic. This has not only hardened geographic political divides. It has also given the Republicans a significant electoral edge, because the U.S. electoral system—its severely malapportioned Senate; its single-member, winner-take-all House districts; and its Electoral College—rewards parties whose supporters are widely distributed across large swaths of sparsely populated territory.
Nowhere is this rural advantage clearer than in the Senate, with its huge bonus for people living in low-population states. The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist explained the math to attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few years back: “While you don’t redistrict states, the nice people who drew the map of the United States districted in such a way that we have all those lovely square states out West with three people who live in them—two are Republican senators, and one’s a Republican congressman.”
The same problem affects the House of Representatives, although in a less obvious way. Democrats, whose supporters are clustered in cities, waste votes by running up huge margins of victory in urban districts, whereas Republicans, whose supporters are spread more efficiently across districts, win a greater number of seats by narrower margins. Urban concentration hurts Democrats at the state level, too, giving Republicans an edge in state legislatures—an edge they’ve then used to gerrymander both state and federal districts to further increase their advantage.
Thus, bias feeds on bias, allowing the GOP to flout majority sentiment while sustaining, or even expanding, its political power. In recent House elections, Republicans’ share of congressional seats has exceeded their share of the two-party vote by roughly five percent. In 2012, they even gained a House majority with a popular-vote minority. With much greater regularity, Republicans have achieved Senate majorities with a minority of national votes (calculated by adding up all the votes from the three two-year election cycles that elect the entire chamber). Republicans have also lost the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. Yet despite all these losses, conservative justices now have a solid majority on the Supreme Court. There, they have enabled blatant vote rigging in Republican-controlled areas (by invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act) and empowered the plutocratic forces behind the Republican Party (by gutting campaign finance regulations and supporting a comprehensive attack on already battered labor unions). Now, the Court looks poised to allow the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census—a measure achieved by circumventing normal procedures and opposed by career officials at the Census Bureau—which would almost certainly reduce the count of noncitizens and thereby the electoral representation of Democratic-leaning areas.
All these trends have fed on one another. As inequality has grown, it has empowered economic elites and given their political allies an incentive to substitute antisystem resentment for real efforts to provide economic opportunity. Democrats certainly deserve some of the blame here: both the Clinton and the Obama administrations did little to address the dislocations caused by trade or the growing geographic divergence in economic outcomes. But the biggest barrier to serious action has been the Republican Party. In the absence of an effective response, places left behind by the knowledge economy have proved fertile terrain for fear-mongering by right-wing media and, increasingly, Republican campaigns. And as the GOP has alienated the racial and ethnic minorities that make up a growing share of the electorate, it has found itself drawn to countermajoritarian strategies—gerrymandering, restricting voting, and encouraging aggressive interventions by activist judges—that undermine not just effective governance but also representative democracy itself.
What might foster a better-functioning democracy? It is hard to see a route to a well-functioning democracy that does not involve a serious electoral rebuke of the Republican Party—one bigger and broader than the losses it experienced in 2018. But even with such a rebuke, any Democratic president, no matter how moderate and open to compromise, would face monolithic Republican opposition in Congress and the conservative media. The Senate’s stark and growing rural bias ensures that the Republican Party’s strength in the chamber will exceed its popular support, and Republican senators will be armed with the filibuster and the knowledge that legislative obstruction has delivered them political gains in the past.
Any Democratic president would also face a conservative Supreme Court, whose newest members are Federalist Society stalwarts chosen for their combination of extreme social conservativism and Ayn Rand–style libertarianism. Before these judges, reforms passed by any Democratic-controlled Congress (assuming they survived a filibuster) would face a highly uncertain fate, however obvious their constitutionality might have been in the past.
As bleak as the situation looks, there are reasons for guarded optimism. The first is that effective governance, directed to real public needs, can deliver far-reaching rewards. The potential for such rewards, in turn, can create opportunities for skilled politicians to build broad political coalitions. To take just one example, moving the United States’ inefficient health-care system closer to the best-performing foreign models would reduce pressure on both public and private budgets while softening inequality and making millions of Americans healthier and better off. Climate change presents not only an existential threat but also an inspiring opportunity to create well-paid jobs rebuilding the United States’ crumbling infrastructure and to jump-start a technological revolution in green energy. What’s more, GOP policies such as the 2017 tax cuts hand out so much cash to so few people that reversing them would be an easy way to offer broad gains. In short, the problem is not a shortage of good policy ideas; it is a system that cannot turn them into reality.
Another reason for optimism comes from the growing number of politicians and policymakers who recognize that the immediate priority is updating the United States’ antiquated electoral and political institutions. After winning the 2018 elections, House Democrats put a package of such reforms—given the honorary designation of H.R. 1—at the top of their legislative agenda. The reforms proposed are mostly sensible first steps to increase voter turnout, limit gerrymandering, and curb the role of money in politics. But more important than the specifics is the fact that political reform now occupies the leading edge of progressive thinking. The common theme of these proposals is that in a democracy, popular majorities should decide elections and the winners of those elections should be able to govern. Opportunities for minorities to obstruct normal lawmaking should be limited, and the government’s ability to carry out important public policies should be enhanced. After all, a public sector that lacks the funding and expertise to deliver on ambitious policies is a public sector that continually vindicates the arguments of those trying to cripple it.
Reform will still face fierce opposition at every turn. But if democracy is protected, the forces of reaction cannot win forever. Social tolerance continues to increase, especially among young Americans, and Trump’s presidency has only accelerated this trend. Moreover, the United States is growing less white and less rural with every passing year. The 2018 midterm elections showed that Trump has galvanized young and nonwhite voters and spurred his opponents to organize to defend democratic values. The GOP has turned to a polarizing and countermajoritarian strategy precisely because it knows that it is in a race against time: every election cycle, as the party’s older, white voting base shrinks as a share of the electorate, Republicans’ revanchism appeals to fewer and fewer Americans. The party’s rhetoric conjures up a mythical past because the GOP as currently constituted cannot survive in a democratic future.
Effective governance is elusive not because the problems Americans face are insuperable but because asymmetric polarization has collided with aging political institutions that are poorly equipped to handle a radicalized Republican Party. Reforming these institutions won’t be easy, nor will Republicans naturally move back toward the center. But there are powerful forces pushing for change, and there are ample opportunities for improving American society just waiting to be seized—if Americans can get their government working again.