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The Incoherent GOP and Its Only Savior

COLORADO — Sitting with four high-information primary voters yesterday, I was amazed to learn that none of them had decided whom to vote for in the gubernatorial race. When each would pull his or her SUV up to the drive-thru ballot stations here in Tancredo country (CO-6), the best decision wasn’t clear.

But it’s not necessary to psychoanalyze my family members here in public. They were confused for good reason: the Republican party as a national entity is incoherent. And its own voters know it.

The crack-up has been obvious for some time, but recent events have cast a spotlight on its most crucial fissures. To be sure, the party is mostly united on cutting taxes and restricting abortion rights. But beyond those two issues, the GOP seems inscrutable.

Increasingly, the three-legged stool that held up the Reagan coalition looks like it’s going to topple. One leg is firmly planted in the south: the social conservatives. Take Georgia, for example, where leading House candidate Jody Hice says Islam doesn’t deserve 1st-amendment protections and also is not sure whether a woman should run for office unless it’s “within the authority of her husband.”

Another leg is pitched across the western states: the libertarian-leaning types. While there are few true libertarians in the United States (like there are few true socialists), the west and its growing population emphasizes social and civil liberties alongside economic liberties. Think of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington as the recent case study.

The third leg is neoconservatives or, if you prefer, war hawks, whose regional identity seems to be confined to east coast think tanks. These are the Republicans who see no foreign conflict that cannot be improved by deployment of our military. The current “debate” about what to do in Iraq is not really a national debate, since it’s been generated and propagated mostly by a few megaphones in this one group. The southern and western states don’t want to send their young men and women back to Iraq, and the libertarian leg leans toward isolationism anyway.

I hasten to add that Republicans in the west are vastly more ecologically minded than the rest of the party, combining both free-market, entrepreneurial environmentalism with a reverence for our history of natural conservancy for the public good. And out here, there’s no patience for denial of anthropogenic climate change.

There is no national Republican party that can sustain this incoherence: a loosening of economic and social strictures plus an anti-feminist or anti-gay stance plus a near-constant support for militarized conflict. The fact that Ronald Reagan held even some of this together was a testament to his charismatic leadership and prudential selection of which battles to fight. The coalition was already fracturing with insurgencies against George H. W. Bush by both Pat Robertson (social issues) and Ross Perot (anti-war). And it seems that the wagon-circling of post-9/11 was what primarily sustained the party through the 2000’s.

To sum up: with the unprecedented rate of change in public opinion about the moral and legal status of homosexuality, the almost-as-surprising changes in attitudes toward marijuana use, the urbanization and suburbanization of Republican mores everywhere but the south, and the prudent, justifiable aversion to involvement in middle eastern wars, I do not see how the GOP as a national party makes any sense. Neither do its voters. The three-legged stool is breaking right before our eyes. 

If the party has any chance of not ending up on its butt, it needs to find a candidate who is libertarian-leaning on economics and some social issues, a defender of civil liberties, a critic of neoconservatives, and yet still authentically conversant with southern cultural conservatives.

Now if Sen. Rand Paul were to sprinkle some climate-change pragmatism and free-market environmentalism on top of that… well, the GOP might just have a chance of survival.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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MIchael - the common wisdom as of now is that later this year, the GOP will certainly hold, and might increase their majority in, the House, and stands a pretty fair chance (a number of analysts say, more likely than not) to take control of the Senate.  Maybe coherence is overrated?  

A presidential race between Paul and Clinton would be must-see TV.  But it also shows quite well that one could have written a similar blog post about similar fissures within the other party.

Clinton's candidacy is exhibit A. The default candidate of the left would give Bill Kristol a run for his money when it comes to hawkishness. And speaking of money, she is just as beholden to coporate (and Wall Street) money as any republican.

Are dovish, Occupy-friendly liberals really on the same team as Hilary Clinton?  

The coaliitions of diverse interest groups we somehow imagine to be "republicans" and "democrats" were created in the late 70s, early 80s  and were fragile even then. And especially as Hispanics and Millennials come into their rightly places of power in this country, they are now on their last legs. 

 Are dovish, Occupy-friendly liberals really on the same team as Hillary Clinton?

Oh, my goodness, is that a Bingo! But do the Democrats have anybody they are likely to nominate who is on the same team as the occupy-friendly liberals?

The Republicans have serious problems. Their opponents are brain dead. And there we are.

This past spring, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote an article in National Interest entitled, "The Four Faces of the Republican Party".  It has generated quite a bit of interest and discussion (including, iirc, some here at dotCom).  I read it when it was first published, but it now seems to be behind a subscriber wall.  But this Dan Balz article in the Washington Post summarizes Olsen's analysis pretty well.  I suppose there are any number of ways to slice and dice a large and complex and mostly-voluntary agglomeration of people (which it seems is what a major American political party is).  Olsen's is one way.  I don't know if it all adds up to coherency, but it had me nodding, "Yeah, that does seem true."

Jim P:  The GOP might win the Senate and they most assuredly will maintain control of the House.  However, these will be short term victories, almost all because of gerrymandering.   I don't believe they can take the White House in 2016 and perhaps not even in 2020.  They do not appeal to the broad electorate- certainly not minorities, both ethnic and sexual, and not women.  Unless they go back to being the sober, responsible types who were the Republicans of the past, they will be outliers and marginalized.  Unless, of course, they are successful in voter suppression gimmicks and remain servants of the zillionaires.  That could work for them.  When I was growing up in Boston, the GOP were the environmentalists, the planned parenthood advocates, the supporters of civil rights.  Oh, my.  They have come a long way. Sadly, not.

Winifred, on gerrymandering:

I hate the zig-zag lines I see marking the electoral districts for the House of Representatives and for NY State, county, and town offices.  However, I must admit the persuasiveness of the article that appeared in the New York Times January 24, 2014, "Don't Blame the Maps."

Link: HERE.

Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden report studies of voting patterns.  Stated simply, the Democrats are too concentrated in certain congressional districts across the nation.  Because of their numbers, they can elect Democratic presidents on a national ticket.  And their numbers can add up in certain Senate races, which are state-wide.  However, in the congressional districts, the Democrats have difficulty winning outside of the districts in which they are so severely concentrated.  It's a bit like the tendancy to live where people like you live, magnified with the adherents of positions taken by Democrats.

Many thanks for your comment, and thanks for all the contributions above.

Jim - no, gerrymandering is underrated.  Democratic candidates for the House in 2012 received something like a million more votes than Republican candidates.  The GOP held its House majority strictly due to gerrymandering.  

Hi, Angela, I assume your comment directly above is in response to Joe McMahon rather than to me (I haven't commented about gerrymandering).  I would just note that House representation isn't a national election, it's a series of very local elections, and if Democrats had a cumulative million-vote margin in 2012, that suggests that Joe McMahon's comment may be correct: Democrats are highly concentrated in a relatively small number of districts.  Whether a winning House candidate receives 50.1% or 99% of the vote, she goes to Congress.  In my state, Illinois, there are certain districts that elect Democrats by 80% or more.  (There are other districts that are more competitive, a few of which changed over to Democrats in 2012 because of advantageous redistricting, or, as an Illinois Republican would call it, gerrymandering :-)).

I think gerrymandering is unavoidable, as the courts permit it, and the districts are drawn by incumbent politicians who understandably wish to make their own seats as safe as possible. Arguably, it benefits states that are deep-blue or deep-red, as it is incumbents who have been sent to Congress many times who rise to leadership positions in the House.  

I do agree that Republicans benefitted more from district alignments in 2012 than Democrats.  Presumably this is at least partly because 2010, the most recent census and redistricting year, was a "wave election" in which Republicans not only retook the House, but also captured or solidified their hold on a number of state legislatures, which are the bodies that determine districts.  

Winifred (it is nice to learn your name :-)): you may well be right about 2016 and 2020.  And even if Republicans manage to recapture the Senate later this year, it may be a short-lived triumph, as they will have a number of incumbent Senators who will need to run in 2016 in states in which President Obama did well.


Out of the Tea Party frying pan back into the Neocon fire? The Neocons are no doubt poised to seize the moments as the amateurs who have ruined their party fall to pieces

The rest of the world would prefer even the vilest Tea Party nutter to another bout of the Neocons.

Michael, are you kidding about Rand Paul? This isn't a trolling question, I genuinely can't tell.

Reason being, I think many conservatives hear in him a chimera, the same way many liberals heard a lefist in the Eisenhower-Republican Obama.

His public speech should be very carefully parsed. He has far too many VERY carefully managed ties to the fringe right wing to be a credible national politician, but he has managed to skirt much deep interrogation of his thought.

Chimera is perhaps the wrong mythological creature, though it's in keeping with the "three legged stool." What I mean to say is that they see in Rand Paul something that is not there.

Jim and Joe and Angela: you all have some of the truth.  Democratic districts are concentrated, but in many states (the two that I have the longest lasting affiliation with), the state has used gerrymandering in ways to significantly exacerbate this trend. 

These two states are Pennsylvania and Virginia.  I will not drill down, but give one example: Frank Wolf, of Fairfax County, Virginia, and retiring this year, has seen his district be redrawn several times so that it draws in more and more people further to the west (Shenandoah), while those increasingly, now overwhelmingly, democratic areas that he used to represent are split apart and moved into two or three already heavily Democratic districts.  The same thing has happened to whoever represents the district that includes Charlottesville, to keep that overwhelmingly Democratic population from being represented by a Democrat in Congress. 

Eventually, probably in the next go round of redistricting, they will run out of ways to keep doing this, because it's the concentrated blue parts of Virignia that keep growing and adding voters, while the reddest of our red jurisdictions are actually losing population, not to mention the increasing tendency of exurban voters to resemble the closer in suburbs and cities that they migrated from.  But you can keep chasing this trend for long enough to accrue real power, (20 years or more for Wofl's entire career, basically).  There is almost no chance that whoever replaces Wolf will be a Republican. 


Chimera is perhaps the wrong mythological creature, though it's in keeping with the "three legged stool." What I mean to say is that they see in Rand Paul something that is not there.

​An eidolon, like Helen of Troy.

I hasten to add that Republicans in the west are vastly more ecologically minded than the rest of the party, combining both free-market, entrepreneurial environmentalism with a reverence for our history of natural conservancy for the public good. And out here, there’s no patience for denial of anthropogenic climate change.

Michael: this is something we hear a lot, yet it doesn't seem accompanied by articulation of policy or even mobilization among Republican voters in the west. I understand George Schultz has put solar panels on the roof of his California house, drives a Leaf, and with Hank Paulson is pushing for a carbon tax, among other measures. And I've read business-page interviews of right-leaning entrepreneurs who invoke Theodore Roosevelt and extoll the beauty of the region. Do you get a sense of any political movement arising from these sectors?

Charles: Have to disagree that a similar blog post could be written about the other side. What's happening in the Democratic party that resembles the primary runoff between Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel in Mississippi? Cantor's loss to Brat in Virginia? Open antagonism of backbenchers toward GOP leadership? Certain left-of-center Democrats will struggle to reconcile within themselves the feelings about Hillary Clinton that trouble them, but when presented with a Perry or a Paul or a Cruz or even a Jeb Bush, I believe they will in the end rally around her, no matter how fervently they would have wished for Elizabeth Warren. As to those "old" coalitions, they seem on the Democratic side to have held firmly enough in place in support of their presidential candidates through many election cycles now.

Abe, yes, perfect! :)

I'm wondering if the Western Republican environmentalists are somewhat analogous to the black people in Mississippi who just helped re-elect Cochran.  To many people outside the South Southern black people are seen as raving liberals because of their very, very solid support of liberal Democratic politicians.  But the Southern black folks I have known over a lifetime (including teaching in a black college) have tended, in non-civil rights matters, to be as conservative as Southern white ones.  They are ofen pro-military, anti-wasting government money, and quite conservative in social policies.  So it was no surprise to me to see many black people voting for Cochran when his agenda was more akin to their own than his opponent's was.

The same thing might be true of the Republican environmentalists.  While they might be otherwise quite conservative they have strong reasons for bucking the party on environmental matters.  And as the global warming problem gets critical, we can expect more of that.  You might say that, like the Southern black Democrats, they're political hybrids.




I agree with your main point—that the GOP is incoherent and becoming more so—but your description of the party's fault lines doesn't seem quite right to me. The biggest hawks on Capitol Hill are a senator from a western state, John McCain, and one from the south, Lindsey Graham. And I strongly suspect that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more popular among Republicans in the Bible Belt than among those on the east coast. There may be some libertarian environmentalists out west, but there are also some Cliven Bundy types who resent the fact that the federal government owns so much land in the western United States (see this map). And I don't think any region in the country is immune from climate-change denial, though the south may be especially susceptible to it.


You write, "I think gerrymandering is unavoidable, as the courts permit it, and the districts are drawn by incumbent politicians who understandably wish to make their own seats as safe as possible." This makes more sense if you replace "as" with "as long as." The courts can revisit the issue, and there's no reason why voting districts should continue to be drawn by elected officials, who will naturally try to lock in their political advantage. There are other ways to do it. The districts could be drawn by independent commissions. You could replace single-member districts with multimember districts with proportional representation. That would reduce the gap between the number of total votes each party gets and the number of congressional seats it wins.


There may be nothing comparable to the Tea Party in the Democratic Party, but that doesn't mean the Democratic coalition is any less incoherent; it just means the left still has less clout in today's Democratic Party than the rightwingers do in today's Republican Party. Yes, most lefties will vote for whatever centrist the party ends up nominating as its presidential candidate, for the same reason black Democrats in Mississippi voted for Thad Cochran. But then, most Tea Party types and even some real libertarians voted for Mitt Romney, no matter how fervently they might have preferred someone like Rand Paul. In general, presidential elections tend to conceal rather than reveal the kind of ideological incoherence Michael is describing, and the most recent exception to this rule was provided by the left, not the right. You write, "As to those 'old' coalitions, they seem on the Democratic side to have held firmly enough in place in support of their presidential candidates through many election cycles now." I guess it depends what you mean by "many," but in 2000 the Democratic coalition did not hold. Alas.

It held well enough for Gore to win the popular vote!

In some ways the Republican incoherence (along whatever fault lines) might be worse if they are in control of Congress in 2014--and especially if they win the Presidency in 2016.  Then the various strands of the party, now held together by their detestation of Obama and liberalism, might start to come apart as all factions push to enact their vision of the Republican agenda.  Not sure one can forever pursue a muscular foreign policy, invading as many countries as annoy us, while contantly cutting taxes.  At some point empires get expensive and have to be paid for.

Just speculation on my part of course, and I really hope not to see this speculation tested.


When considering how ecologically-minded Republicans (or people generally) are in the West, it is important to understand - as Wallace Stegner wrote decades ago - that there is no single West.  The verdant Pacifiic Northwest (west of the Cascade Divide) - the Intermountain West  - the Rockies - the Colorao Plateau - the desert Southwest - the High Plains.   Sure you have sensibilities associated with Seattle, but also with Yakima and Boise and Casper.  There is Santa Fe, but also Lordsburg.   San Francisco, but also Riverside.  Denver (or Aspen!), but also Pueblo

The "Teddy Roosevelt" Republicans exist, but I think you wll fnd they correlate strongly with class in the West - much more likely to be found in Napa County or around Malibu than amongst oilfield workers in Bakersfield or miners in Gila County AZ.

Inviidual Repub,lics - chultzorPaulsen - can be fine envrbnmentaists, toughtful and gemnerous to te Eth   The Republian Party in Idaho r Nebraska or Arzona - not so much.

[CA resident, with decade or more stays in New Mexico and Colorado; work over 40 years in every state west of te100th Meridian]

Mark L

Here is one of the best studies of gerrymandering (it corrects some of the comments above that really don't reflect reality or facts on the ground)

Scroll down and study the US map - you can click on any district to get details.

Note the study's point - based upon the 2010 census and the reality that Republicans had control of most state legislatures, districts were redrawn to ensure that more Republicans would be elected and that, in some cases, that meant gerrymandering some districts so that a Democrat would win overwhelmingly (but, then that took more Democratic votes away from neighboring districts and allowed more Republicans to win districts).

Not the worst states - Pennsyslvania, North Carolina, Texas, Maryland.  Example - Pennsylvana went for Obama in 2012 but has an overwhelming number of Republican districts.  How did this happen - via gerrymandering, you have a few overwhelmingly Democratic districts and this decreased the possible Democratic votes in other districts and allowed more Republicans to be winners.

Thus, when you look to November, 2014, the reality is that we are having to deal with these gerrymandered districts and this means that Republicans can continue to win in most districts and those that happen to be up for bid this November (when, in reality, the general public is majority against those very Republican candidates).  No amount of money, campaigning, etc. can outweigh this initial bias.


Regarding the incoherence of the Reagan coalition: this piece by Pete Spiliakos, "Give Reagan a rest", may be of interest.  A strong critique from a conservative of conservative tax policy.


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