Monday, January 23, 2023

Is It Possible for a Believing Latter-day Saint to Be a Republican? Part 15


Political Dysfunction

Last week, Ezra Klein had a fascinating column in the New York Times titled “Three Reasons the Republican Party Keeps Coming Apart at the Seams.” After a brief introduction and a comparison of the state of the two major parties at the present moment, he says, “So why has the Republican Party repeatedly turned on itself in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t? There’s no one explanation, so here are three.” I found his three explanations rather insightful into the question of why the GOP has become such a politically dysfunctional mess.

His first reason is that Republicans are caught between money and the media. As Klein puts it, “For decades, the Republican Party has been an awkward alliance between a donor class that wants deregulation and corporate tax breaks and entitlement cuts and guest workers and an ethnonationalist grass roots that resents the way the country is diversifying, urbanizing, liberalizing, and secularizing.” This split can be seen in the ongoing GOP effort to cut taxes, deregulate corporate misbehavior, and decrease Medicare and Social Security benefits while at the same time stoking racism and attempting to drastically curtail immigration. It succeeded at this balancing act for many years, but since Trump’s arrival on the political scene (and maybe before), this strategy has not worked. As Theda Skopol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, puts it, “Elected Republicans were following agendas that just weren’t popular, not even with their own voters.”

The GOP is a senior-heavy party, especially seniors who are less wealthy, and these voters certainly do not want politicians messing with their Social Security checks or Medicare coverage. Voters are also not supportive of losing jobs to low-wage countries, something GOP free-trade policies hastened. And nobody except the wealthy like to see tax cuts that benefit primarily the top 10 percent of households. But the corporate-dictated GOP policy agenda also alienated the grass roots, who were influenced by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators who pushed a white-nationalist, white-grievance message.

So, as Klein summarizes his first explanation for what has happened to the GOP, “It’s caught between a powerful business wing that drives its agenda and an antagonistic media that speaks for its ethnonationalist base, and it can’t reconcile the two.”

The second explanation is that we have the illusion that in each era, the GOP is composed of the same people, but it’s not. It is the same party, but with different voters. “A few decades ago, the anti-institutional strain in American politics was more mixed between the parties. Democrats generally trusted government and universities and scientists and social workers, Republicans had more faith in corporations and the military and churches. But now you’ll find Fox News attacking the ‘extremely woke’ military and the American Conservative Union insisting that any Republican seeking a congressional leadership post sign onto ‘a new shared strategy to reprimand corporations that have gone woke.’”

Republicans have turned against institutions, including their own party, which is an institution, or at least used to be. Republicans also increasingly do not have college degrees. According to author Matt Continetti, “When Mitt Romney got the nomination in 2012, the G.O.P. was basically split between college and non-college whites. That’s gone. The Republicans have just lost a huge chunk of professional, college-educated voters.” As the GOP becomes more anti-establishment, it loses voters who trust institutions and gains voters who mistrust them. What this also means is that Republicans are losing voters in the suburbs, the real heart of America, and are becoming a largely rural, non-college-educated party. This can be seen in the voting patterns of recent elections. But what kind of government can a party that is against institutions provide. As we’ve seen recently, it is a patently dysfunctional government.

And this brings us to Klein’s third explanation: Republicans need an enemy. The GOP does not really have an identity of its own anymore. As President Biden put it, What are they for? A party that has no platform is simply rudderless. Klein says, “When I asked Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review, what the modern Republican Party was, he replied, ‘it’s not the Democratic Party.’ His point was that not much unites the various factions of the Republican coalition, save opposition to the Democratic Party.” But even this is not quite right. As I’ve explained before on this blog, the Republicans have gone from being the anti-Democratic party to being the anti-democratic party. Their anti-institutional bent has turned them against democracy, as we can see in both their embrace of a corrupt, authoritarian leader (Trump) and their refusal to condemn the insurrection of January 6, 2021, that he stoked.

Sam Rosenfeld, author of The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, described the difference between the two parties as follows: “The anchor of Democratic Party politics is an orientation toward certain public policy goals. The conservative movement is oriented more around anti-liberalism than positive goals, and so the issues and fights they choose to pursue are more plastic. What that ends up doing is it gives them permission to open their movement to extremist influences and makes it very difficult to police boundaries.”

Says Klein, “There is an irresolvable contradiction between a party organized around opposition to government and Democrats and being a party that has to run the government in cooperation with Democrats.” This reminds me of P. J. O’Rourke’s quip that is more pertinent today than it was in 1991 when he wrote it: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”

Klein concludes his analysis with this assessment Kevin McCarthy, who needed 15 votes to finally win the House Speaker’s gavel: “He apparently agreed to spending caps and budgetary guarantees that will commit House Republicans to the kinds of brutal cuts and dangerous showdowns that make them look like a party of arsonists, not legislators.” The next couple of months should be particularly ugly, and maybe devastating to the country, the global financial system, and the GOP base.

Many Latter-day Saints are died-in-the-wool Republicans, but they don’t realize what their party has become. It is the definition of dysfunction, and this did not start with Donald Trump, although he certainly hastened it. The GOP has internal conflicts that it simply cannot resolve. Unfortunately, it is moving in the direction of chaos, extremism, anti-institutionalism, anti-education, racism, nationalism, and white grievance. This is not a party any Latter-day Saint should embrace.