What does the future hold for the GOP?
NORTH LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – NOVEMBER 7: Supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the Clark County Electoral Department on November 7, 2020 in north Las Vegas, Nevada. Supporters of presidential nominee Joe Biden take to the streets across the country to celebrate after news outlets named Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden the winner over President Donald Trump in the US presidential race. (Photo by Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
Jelani Cobb has a piece in the flow New Yorker that sums up the magazine’s trading holdings in terms of political analysis – rigorously rendered arguments that show elements of scholarship but are ultimately undermined by blinding ideology. In the play, Cobb asks a question summarized in the headline: “How Parties Die: Will the G.O.P. go the way of the Whigs? “
This is a relevant question after the party’s defeat last year and as the nation seeks to clear up the complexities and lingering political realities of the Donald Trump phenomenon. And Cobb provides a worthy sketch of Whig’s death as part of his miniature history of political parties in America, from the short-lived federalists to our own era of guerrilla warfare and positioning. But the dislike he obviously feels towards Trump’s rise, and his view that it represents some sort of political depravity, robs him of any obvious ability to step back and look in a scrutinizing and nuanced way at a fundamental question of our time: How are we Explain that this guy overcame all of the political obstacles in 2016 to become President of the United States?
To Cobb, a journalism professor in Columbia and New Yorker It’s simple: the Republican Party has become a party of white racist radicals.
It all started in Cobb’s version with Barry Goldwater in 1964. New York Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller warned the party that year that the Arizona Conservative was a “racist and sectionalist” policy, and others warned that his Nomination to a party would lead to takeover by “the Ku Kluxers, the John Birchers and other right-wing reactionaries”. Cobb notes that even Richard Nixon attacked the John Birch Society’s zealots as “Kooks” (an action campaign chronicler Theodore White described as “brave”) while Goldwater refused to oppose the organization.
And when Goldwater won the nomination anyway, Cobb writes, “the shock of his extremism … began to turn into compliance” as moderate Republicans tried to “protect their own political perspectives.” In other words, when the bad guys gained dominance of the party, the former good guys banded together for political reasons.
Cobb sees the same thing today, for example, in the political behavior of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell – “despising Donald Trump but submitting to the reality of his immense popularity with Republican voters”. And almost everything that has happened in America from Goldwater to Trump is viewed through the same prism. It is a story of white Americans flocking to an increasingly extremist Republican Party as a refuge against the forces of history.
“[T]The party’s predicament, “writes Cobb,” could well be described as the revenge of the “Kooks”. And what drove this rise of a Kooks-dominated GOP? Unsurprisingly, Cobb is turning to the hoarse thought of a “sensational right-wing medium” that is fueling the crazy mood across the country. But he adds, “the emergence of Kook-adjoining characters in the so-called Gingrich Revolution of 1994”. He also throws in the “Tea Party” movement, which was founded in February 2009 as a protest against the promiscuous financial policy in relation to deficits and debt. All of these factors, says Cobb, “have redefined the party’s temperament and its ideological boundaries.”
The analytical flaw here stems from the fact that Cobb makes no effort to identify, analyze, or understand the complex and dynamic political sensitivities of the Americans he writes about with such careless criticism. The analysis is both binary and static. Binary in the fact that Cobb sees only two fundamental aspects that compete with each other in the political market – the commitment to social and racist justice on the one hand and rejection on the other. And it’s static in that this binary struggle has defined American politics and the role of the Republican Party in it from Goldwater to Trump with barely a zig or zag in history.
Cobb connects Goldwater Republicanism with the John Birch Society, Newt Gingrich with Nixon’s “Kooks” and the vast majority of Trump voters with QAnon. This creates a lot of polemics (and probably quite effective reasoning for most of them New Yorker Reader). But it is ultimately superficial political history and transparently tendentious. American politics is far more complex than that: an interplay of competing feelings, attitudes, interests, hopes, and fears, all of which swirl through the community in varying degrees of power and intensity. This wonderful process of democratic politics is never static, always multifaceted. Great victories often contain the seeds of their own reversals; bad defeats sometimes suggest a rebound of the party (as the Goldwater debacle led to the presidency of Ronald Reagan only 16 years later).
This vortex of bourgeois energy shows up in the high-tension question of immigration. Cobb does not examine it in detail, but when he announces the emergence of the Democrats as a “multicultural coalition that emphasizes the rights of citizens, women and immigrants” he puts the issue within the framework of his binary analysis – social justice versus those who do it do against social justice.
However, the problem is far multidimensional. As early as 1964, during the Goldwater controversy, the proportion of foreign-born people in America was around 5 percent – a number that put little pressure on the population due to economic or cultural concerns or fears of the challenge of assimilation. Today that number is at least three times higher, equal to the percentage around the turn of the century when immigration stirred up the political energy we see today. It’s not as easy as immigration – good, immigration – bad. Fluctuating realities often generate legitimate political concerns that deserve respectful recognition in the chaotic process of political decision-making.
At one unguarded moment, Cobb quotes historian Ira Katznelson as saying that Goldwater opposed the civil rights law, an important black mark against him on liberals’ minds at the time, largely for libertarian reasons. This suggests that other non-race factors influenced the debate. Yet Cobb does not seem to get beyond the race to seriously examine such considerations. Similarly, he castigates Republican senators who voted against Trump’s conviction in his January 6 impeachment trial without asking legitimate constitutional questions regarding the Senate’s adequacy to convict a private individual. In an effort to portray these Republicans as astute Trumpists, Cobb glosses over this aspect of the story.
Of course, it should be noted that Trump, with his often hideous behavior and irritating rhetoric, has consistently paved the way for attacks like Cobbs. He surely committed a criminal act on Jan. 6, inducing disgruntled supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and thwart the certification of the electoral college. But Trump’s great political achievement was seeing in 2016 what almost no one else could perceive – that large numbers of Americans in the heartland felt marginalized and attacked by the country’s ruling class. Trump used this strong political reality in often crude ways, but these excited Americans wouldn’t stay calm forever and they won’t go away.
Cobb’s efforts to draw a direct line between what he sees as Goldwater’s extremism and Trump’s excesses meet a strong counter-narrative in Christopher Caldwell’s latest book. The Age of Claim: America since the 1960s. The reforms of this decade, writes Caldwell,
The cost was astonishingly high – money, freedom, rights and social stability. These costs were most unevenly distributed across social classes and generations. Many Americans have been made worse off by the changes. Economic inequality reached levels not seen since the 19th century monopoly era. The margin of maneuver given to the leaders of society enabled the elite to multiply and we now see the danger of brushing aside not only obstacles but also dissent.
Caldwell offers more enlightenment in that single paragraph than Cobb in his nearly 6,000 word essay. The Democratic Party has become the party of the American oligarchy, and this will continue to generate powerful political counter-forces in the future. The Republican Party is likely to provide dialectical coherence and political energy to these opposing forces.
Which brings us to Cobb’s suggestion that the GOP might go the way of the Whig Party, which succumbed to the overwhelming force of the slave debate after the presidential election of 1856. He writes that the Federalists died out because they failed to expand their demographic appeal, while the Whigs faded due to internal incoherence about what they stood for in a time of strong political passions. “One of the more noticeable dynamics of the G.O.P. era in the Trump era is the extent to which you are affected by these two flaws,” he writes. He collects a variety of vote stats and demographic data to support his case, generally following the work of Atlantic Media political analyst Ron Brownstein and his investigation into what he calls the “Coalition of the Ascendant”.
Perhaps Cobb and Brownstein are right in predicting the impending GOP demise. But great political battles are raging in America these days: nationalism versus liberalism; Immigration restriction versus open borders; foreign policy restraint against American hegemony; Government cut versus government expansion; Black Lives Matter vs. Law and Order; Identity politics against the color blind society; and the fiery passions aroused by the question of political correctness. It is difficult to imagine the death of the Republican Party while these problems are upsetting America.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington The Congressional Quarterly correspondent and CEO is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy, including the most recent President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).
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