Strange Bedfellows

No essay this time, just a quick thought and some links. In case you missed it, Nicholas Confessore published a piece in the Times a few days ago exploring the impact and significance of Trump on, and to, the GOP. “How the GOP Elite Lost its Voters to Donald Trump” is a good companion piece to David Frum’s Atlantic essay of a few months ago, “The Great Republican Revolt.” Both cast Trump as harbinger and agent of a great undoing in the GOP, and both put blame squarely on the party itself. Frum writes that “The GOP planned a dynastic restoration in 2016. Instead, it triggered an internal class war.” Confessore lays out a revolt against “a party elite that abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade as the party’s donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered.” In so doing, he says, the GOP “paved the way for a Trump-like figure to steal its base, as it lost touch with less affluent voters and misunderstood their growing anguish.”

These overviews invite reflection on the nature of political parties. In multiparty democracies, where governments are formed via coalitions, parties can thrive by representing narrow slices of the electorate. That kind of system makes for tricky post-election maneuvering. It can also allow parties to proliferate until democracy itself represents a danger to governance through sheer factionalization. In the thirteen years of the Weimar Republic, more than 40 political parties were represented in the German Reichstag – from the Bavarian Peasants League to the National Association of Deserters -- creating chaos, cynicism and the deepening desire for authoritarian Ordnung.

In our kind of democracy, where two huge mainstream parties have a de facto monopoly on government, both parties will necessarily be patchwork jobs that cobble together interest and demographic groups that might seem to have relatively little in common. In this setup the art of politics is to discover and cultivate latent commonalities among strange bedfellows. And that works for a while, and really works for a while, and then coasts along on momentum (with adverse energies building below the surface), and then, finally -- ka-boom! Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

It's clearly the ka-boom! moment for the GOP, with Trump serving as fuse. The fuel was already there, in the form of the disaffection that Frum and Confessore describe so well.

Here, at any rate, and by my offhand reckoning, is the strange bedfellowship that the GOP has based itself on for the last thirty years: country-club conservatives (the old WASPocracy); social conservatives and evangelicals; libertarians and starve-the-beast anti-govt types; free-market idealists; neoconservative foreign-policy hawks; isolationist America-Firsters; small-business Main Street heartland Americans; Wall Street power brokers and the corporate donor class generally; racially hostile whites, especially in the South; and disaffected working-class ex-Democrats.

Is it any wonder that such a party might not cohere? Probably more miraculous that it held together this long.

Of course, the Democratic Party has its own strange bedfellowship, which goes something like this: labor (or what’s left of it) and most of the working class; feminists and assorted protest-minded legatees of the 1960s; African-Americans; socially liberal but economically centrist Clinton New Democrats, including wealthy metropolitans; left-libertarians (small but interesting group); high-tech/venture-capital young titans; environmentalists; students (well, some of them); and intellectuals, academics and the commentariat generally.   

That seems like a motley crew (did I forget anyone?), but less motley, less inherently unstable -- at least at the current moment -- than the GOP.

Marc Horger, an Ohio State University professor who is a friend of a friend of mine, offers this informative overview of the history of our political parties, titled “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: America’s Love Affair with the Two-Party System.”


PS/ I have to add a link – it came out after I posted this – to Thomas B. Edsall’s lengthy Times column detailing the ferocity of the split in the GOP. “[T]he conflict today between the privileged establishment and the hard pressed rank and file of the overwhelmingly white Republican Party,” Edsall writes, is “a conflict between haves and have-nots that is taking the Republican Party to a place it has never been.” The contempt heaped on the latter by some of the former is pretty stunning.  RRC


Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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