The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown

16 November 2008

There was a new issue of The Economist in yesterday’s mail, and the Lexington column this week was a perceptive analysis of the position in which the Republicans find themselves today. Their analysis of the situation at the GOP is similar to what I hinted at in my The Difference Four Years Can Make, though in stronger terms. The columnist for The Economist suggested that the GOP is in danger of becoming the party of “white-trash pride” and that the anti-intellectualism of the party was threatening its future viability as a major American political institution. I agree, mostly. It would be worthwhile to engage in a detailed analysis of this column, as both its assumptions and its failure to make assumptions, both its inclusions and its omissions, were telling and interesting. But beyond the intrinsic interest of this piece in The Economist, there is a yet more interesting issue in the offing.
The GOP elephant in happier times.

The GOP elephant in happier times.

Beyond the immediate political interest in the GOP’s problems, there is an important strategic question here: what would be the long-term strategic consequences of the collapse of the GOP as a political party capable of fielding viable candidates for the presidency? There is no question that the Republican Party remains a force to be reckoned with regionally, and large swathes of the United States remain “red states”. This will remain true for many years to come, indeed for many decades to come. Even a complete collapse of the GOP as a party with national power would not change this. However, the regional strength of the GOP would not, in and of itself, guarantee the national strength of the party, by which I mean its ability to present an electable candidate for the presidency. Even a crippled GOP would continue to field a candidate for president (possibly several candidates, but see below), but many minor parties field candidates with no chance of winning a national election.

The GOP's venerable elephant is no longer in flight.

The GOP's venerable elephant mascot is no longer in flight.

What would a “collapse” of the GOP look like? One obvious scenario would be a bifurcation of the party into two entities, on the one hand the so-called “social conservatives” most interested in the agenda of the crackpot right, and, on the other hand, the “country club”/small government/national defense conservatives. If such a split came about, the familiar red states would bifurcate, with some going to the social conservatives and others going to the country club Republicans. It would be safe to guess that the Bible-belt states of the south and mid-west would go in the direction of social conservatives, while the remaining red states would likely go in the other direction. The evolution of the Republican party would then experience the equivalent of allopatric speciation, in which a geographical obstacle results in separated populations growing apart. However, if one of the resulting species of Republicanism were to become extinct in the long term by following an evolutionary dead end, the surviving species of the genus could re-colonize regions of the country once inhabited by its allopatric cousins. This could mean the long term restoration and revitalization of the party. But an evolutionary cycle of speciation and extinction on this scale would take maybe a century to fully play out. In the meantime, the Democrats would be experiencing a “unipolar moment” and would seek to make hay while the sun shines.

allopatric speciation

Growing apart - allopatric speciation

The peculiar structure of the two-party system has been a foundation of American political institutions even before the representatives of these two parties contesting power were the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republicans and the Democrats are cogs in the machine of the two party system – they are widgets, and everyone knows that widgets are replaceable. The founding fathers condemned “factionalism” but that did not prevent the early emergence of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party. Since that time, American politics has been dominated by two political parties, although the parties entering into the political equation have changed over time. The fact that two parties have dominated American political life from the inception of the latter has shaped American political life. In other words, governmental institutions and party institutions have been co-evolving throughout the life of the republic. Political parties do no exist in a vacuum. A major change in a major political party is eventually felt throughout the wider political system, including purely governmental institutions, and, vice versa, a major change in a purely governmental institution will eventually be reflected within party institutions. That being said, some entities effect change while others suffer change. It is the difference between acting and being acted upon. A robust and vigorous political party with a message to spread can make its influence felt throughout a government, while an activist government and shape, reform, or eliminate political parties.

Stability and continuity are legacies of the two party system.

Stability and continuity are legacies of the two party system.

There is another model of such a dyadic structure (i.e., the US two party system) creating institutions and shaping history: the Cold War was dominated by the two powers of the US and the Soviet Union. The stability of this dyadic structure had much to do with the perpetuation of the Cold War, much as the stability of the two-party system in the US accounted for much of its stability and continuity. Moreover, we can benefit from the hindsight of the unraveling of the Cold War. We know now what happens when a highly stable dyad dissolves into regionalism and Balkanization. What happens is complexity. The complexity of the Cold War legacy has not yet been sorted out, and will not be sorted out for another century, if even by then. Similarly, the longer running stability of the US political system (i.e., longer than the dyad that shaped the Cold War) would face two possible directions: the restoration of two party stability by way of the constitution of a viable new party that could replace the Republican opposition to the Democratic Party, or the dissolution of American politics into the sort of regionalism we find in the former Soviet periphery. Either development could be temporary or permanent.

the end of the Cold War provides a model for the end of the Republican Party

Red nation-states and blue nation-states: the end of the Cold War provides a model for the end of the Republican Party

It is ironic, in a sense, that the GOP is now in danger from its vociferous anti-intellectual elements, as Lexington maintains (and I agree), since in the very recent past the Republicans had real intellectual heft on their side. The so-called “neo-cons” (a subset of which met in an informal group called “the Vulcans”, to give a sense of their reputation) included serious scholars like Francis Fukuyama and intelligent columnists like David Brooks. If the GOP fails to address the growing anti-intellectualism of the party and is marginalized or split as a consequence, the party might consider changing its mascot from an elephant to an ostrich.
an ostrich with its head firmly planted in the ground.

An appropriate mascot for a marginalized or split GOP: an ostrich with its head firmly planted in the ground.

If the Republican Party does split into regional factions, there are those who will mourn the loss of national power, but there will also be those – and many of them – who will be energized by the idea of purging ideologically unacceptable members of the party and creating a party that better exemplifies the ideal to which they aspire. The ostrich faction will think that transforming the GOP from an elephant into an ostrich is definitely a good thing. They will even delude themselves into thinking that, once the party has been purged and purified, and everyone in it is a pure ostrich, there will be a popular groundswell in their favor, and people will spontaneously come over to their side. Success, after all, breeds success, does it not? This puts me in mind of a wonderful passage from Malthus, from his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, sometimes cited as an intellectual antecedent of contemporary conservatism:

A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to shew that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating, that the lips have grown harder and more prominent, that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape, and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers. And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shewn, it is surely lost time and lost eloquence to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state; to describe his powers, both of running and flying, to paint him in a condition where all narrow luxuries would be contemned, where he would be employed only in collecting the necessaries of life, and where, consequently, each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample.”

This would now seem to constitute an apt epitaph for the Republican Party.

Thomas Robert Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus

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Note: Since the above was written I have expanded on some similar points in More on Republican Disarray and Of Weeds and Flowers.

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2 Responses to “The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown”

  1. geopolicraticus said

    I have updated my reflections on the future of the Republican Party at

  2. […] few days I have been reflecting further on my diverse assessments of two institutions in crisis. In The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown and in More on Republican Disarray, I suggested that the Republican Party is faced with a crisis […]

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