In the wake of November’s elections, Republicans seemed to be in a commanding position. Looking across the country, their control of political offices at the state and federal levels was as strong as at any point since 1928. There were obvious tensions between the president-elect and congressional Republicans, and yet many people believed that there were enough issues uniting the GOP to keep those differences out of sight for a long while.
A month-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, however, the tensions are looking more overwhelming than manageable. Internecine fights between Republicans, about both the party’s biggest priorities and the president’s unprecedented persona, erupt into headlines daily. And so we find ourselves wondering: could the GOP coalition be impossible to hold together? Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a serious partisan realignment, perhaps even the end of the long era of Democrats vs. Republicans in federal politics?
In a new Brookings paper, I analyze this question in light of a neglected chapter in American history: the downfall of the Whig Party from 1848, when its political outsider candidate surprisingly won the presidency and gave it control over government, to 1856, by which time it had effectively ceased to exist. That period featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, and a striking number of rhymes with our current political moment. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place.
Our contemporary trends are much deeper than the particular personalities and news stories of the day. As I discuss in the paper, the turn away from the issues of Reagan-era conservatism and toward populist issues has been evident for a number of years. But recent headlines give an awful lot of fodder for thinking about GOP disintegration.
Just yesterday, we learned that four Republican Senators (Capito, Gardner, Murkowski, and Portman) are ready to oppose the much-anticipated Obamacare overhaul just introduced in the House because its repeal of the Medicaid expansion would leave many vulnerable people uninsured. Obamacare repeal has been portrayed as a unifying first priority for Republicans, but, as responsibility forces a confrontation with concrete details, we find that it is hard to propose anything that will bring together the Freedom Caucus, relative moderates, and everyone in between. As for the president himself, his health care vision remains murky, leading many to believe that the future of “Trumpcare” is to be a rebranded version of the previous administration’s compromises, with only marginal changes. It’s not clear, though, that such a package could garner the support of a majority of Republicans.
As Robert VerBruggen explains, a similar story is unfolding around tax reform, another area thought to bring Republicans together. The attempt to wed the president’s interest in trade reform with congressional interests in corporate tax relief in the form of a border adjustment is piling up opponents on the right. Businesses and organizers who have traditionally been key Republican supporters are out in force against this attempt to unite the GOP, including ads from the National Retail Federation and Americans for Prosperity. Fiscal matters more generally seem like they may pose a real problem for the GOP coalition, which no longer seems united by a vision of a pared down federal government. Even issues that seem like slam-dunks to unify Republicans, like regulatory reform, have the potential to cause serious rifts.
Beyond policy issues, President Trump’s disposition and his orientation toward the existing party apparatus also give rise to serious problems. From the outset, Trump has not looked eager to cooperate with his copartisans as equal partners, leaving many Republicans feeling locked out of crucial decisions. Republicans who find themselves asked to defend Trump’s preoccupations, from inaugural crowd size to this past weekend’s accusations of illegal Obama wiretapping, hardly seem like a united phalanx in defense of their leader. (For those who think the lack of widespread vocal condemnations argues otherwise, see Matt Glassman’s recent discussion.) And that’s hardly surprising, given the president’s apparent ambition—echoing Zachary Taylor’s way back in 1848—to reshape his adopted party in his own image. Taylor’s divisive leadership helped widen rifts in the Whig Party that would ultimately tear it apart, and it is conceivable that Trump’s could do the same.
Although the GOP’s troubles are more vivid just now, Democrats are in some ways in just as serious a predicament. Insurgent populists and establishment neoliberals are deeply suspicious of each other and divided on where the party’s future lies, as was made apparent by the bitter fight over the DNC chairmanship. As Lee Drutman argues, some see great opportunities in casting themselves as a “party of multicultural cosmopolitanism,” but others see that as a political dead-end in which Democrats become a narrowly regional party unable to compete in America’s electoral system even if they can sometimes muster majorities of voters.
Getting from this point of unstable-looking coalitions to actual partisan reconfiguration is far from a sure thing; indeed, I’m not sure I’d bet on it. As I explain in the paper, our long tradition of political duopoly and restrictive ballot access laws make it very difficult for third parties to gain traction and disrupt the status quo today, as the Free Soil Party and Know Nothing movement successfully did in the 1850s. That said, the last couple years of American politics have made a habit of upending our most settled assumptions, and anyone assuming that competition between Democrats and Republicans must necessarily go on forever should contemplate just how fast a reconfiguration can happen when conditions are ripe.