When we think about the ebb and flow of majorities in American politics, we like to imagine that there is a clear link between politics and policy – between gaining power and having an agenda to implement, between winning votes and responding to substantive challenges, between FDR’s majorities and his New Deal or Reagan’s victories and his Reaganomics.
The present-day Republican Party makes a mockery of this conceit. It is a majority party that behaves like it’s in the political wilderness, an election-winning machine that has no idea what to do with national power.
It has the tics of an opposition party, the raw wounds of a beaten coalition, the dated ideas of a bankrupt force. Its attempts to pass a health care bill aren’t just painful to watch; they have the same unheimlich quality as a calf born with two heads, the feeling of watching something that the laws of politics or nature should not permit to exist.
And yet it does: The same feckless GOP that exists in a constant state of low-grade civil war controls not only Congress and the White House, but most statehouses and state legislatures as well. All of the contemporary Republican Party’s critics – left-wing and centrist and conservative – keep saying that the GOP is broken and adrift, and years of government shutdowns and Obamacare debacles and everything about the Trump era keep proving us correct.
Yet Republican power endures, and while it’s politically vulnerable, there’s no reason to be sure it can’t survive the 2018 midterms and indeed the entire reign of Donald Trump.
This strange endurance is a central fact of our present politics. We have an empty majority, a party that can rule but cannot govern. And whether you’re a conservative who wants to reform the GOP or a liberal who wants to crush it, you need to wrestle with why Republicans keep getting returned to office even though it’s clear that debacles like what we’ve been watching on health care are what they’re likely to produce.
One possibility is that this is a temporary situation, a transitional moment – that the Republican majority seems uncanny because it is a walking corpse, that Americans vote for Republican politicians out of a Reagan-forged habit that just takes a long time to fully break.
This theory lies behind the plausible comparison, which I’ve cited before, between Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter. Carter inherited an aging, cracking left-of-center coalition that had been given a jolt of life by Watergate and his own outsider persona. Like Trump, he enjoyed congressional majorities; like Trump (so far) he got nothing done, and his era’s empty majority was the last phase in the old Democratic coalition’s long decline.
I find this analogy compelling but history does not repeat itself so neatly. If Trump’s distinctive populism seems “disjunctive,” in the lingo of political scientists – straddling the long Reagan era and a new politics waiting to be born – so too did George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” When Bush’s presidency ran aground and Barack Obama was elected, everyone assumed that was the end of Reaganism, with Bush’s Carter-esque second term giving way to liberalism’s 1980.
But then it wasn’t, and instead here we are almost a decade later having the same kind of conversation. And one lesson of that decade, of every election when Barack Obama wasn’t on the ballot, is that a party that’s terrible at governing can still win elections if the other party is even worse at politics.
Which the Democrats, amazingly, have been. Or to be less judgmental, let’s say that there’s been a strange cycle at work, where Republican incompetence helps liberalism consolidate its hold on highly educated America … but that consolidation, in turn, breeds liberal insularity and overconfidence (in big data and election science, in demographic inevitability, in the wisdom of declaring certain policy debates closed) and helps Republican support persist as a kind of protest vote, an attempt to limit liberalism’s hegemony by keeping legislative power in the other party’s hands.
How might this strange loop be broken? A big enough crisis under Trump would probably make the empty majority an ex-majority temporarily. But even the Iraq War and the financial crisis didn’t prevent U.S. politics from reverting to a Republican advantage.
An engaged and visionary Republican president might be able to escape the loop, by pouring new ideas into his party’s empty vessel – as Trump did, in his demagogic way, during the 2016 campaign. But Trump is no visionary, and in his shadow no new-model conservatism is likely to develop, no future leader likely to ascend.
So that leaves the Democrats as the only people with the power to put an end to the current spectacle of Republican incompetence and folly.
All they need to do is persuade Americans that they have more to fear from conservative hackwork than from a liberalism in command of politics as well as culture.
That’s all. Simple. Place your bets.