For the past several weeks, I've been simultaneously consumed with two things: How well the Biden administration seems to have learned the lessons of the Obama administration, and the disintegration of the Republican Party playing out in real time.
And while I've been reveling in the first, the second phenomenon has been simply mesmerizing. In fact, it reminds me of watching the GOP meltdown in advance of the Georgia runoffs and thinking, could this really be happening? Yes, in fact, it was real in Georgia, and now I find myself similarly contemplating the idea that the Republican Party might actually be imploding too.
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The supposition has both tangible and theoretical underpinnings, and the tangibles have been presenting for several weeks. The GOP's tarnished image among Americans, an accelerated rate of GOP defections in party affiliation, and a growing discomfort among corporate donors all seem to make recent talks by former GOP officials of forming an alternative conservative party an actual possibility, rather than just the escape fantasy it was in 2016.
In some very concrete ways, this political moment may actually provide fertile ground for the makings of a third party: Exiled leaders who know both the electoral and governance sides of politics, a host of wealthy donors who are ready to pony up for a new venture, and a fresh crop of disillusioned voters who are newly looking for a home.
But a healthy part of my fascination with the prospect of a budding competitor to the GOP stems from how totally oblivious Republican Party leaders are to the potential threat. In fact, the formation of a third party wouldn't even be conceivable but for the fact that Republican lawmakers have so quickly fumbled the potential for a post-Trump reboot. A narrow window had opened—between the Jan. 6 riot and Joe Biden's inauguration—in which it seemed the GOP might finally break with Donald Trump just enough to remain palatable to a swath of disaffected conservative voters. But without getting into all those particulars (or the numerous preceding missed opportunities by the GOP), what is clear as day now is that Senate Republicans seem poised to acquit Trump yet again of impeachment charges after House Democrats explicitly warned them last year that, short of conviction, Trump would surely betray the country again.
"We must say enough—enough!" implored lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff of California on Feb. 3, 2020. "He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again."
Naturally, Senate Republicans immediately hit snooze on that prescient warning so they could get back to business as usual. This time around, the same caucus is planning to acquit Trump on charges that are eminently more comprehensible and that some 33 million Americans witnessed with their very own eyes on Jan. 6. The video evidence presented by House managers was both riveting and searing, and Trump’s defense team withered in the harsh light of the indefensible.
All of those factors make the posture of Republicans, whatever they might tell themselves, just so blatantly bogus. In fact, even they are arguing House managers presented such a compelling case that Trump would never be electable again. But somehow those same GOP lawmakers stopped short of making the logical leap that acquitting Trump of such a manifest betrayal might also turn them into political pariahs among a meaningful portion of the electorate (which notably in today’s terms could comprise a very small slice of voters). On the one hand, Trump's transgressions were so egregious that he has been rendered unelectable, they say; on the other, they deem themselves magically immune to any consequences from kowtowing to Trump at the expense of the country.
So there's a stab at the tangibles that suggest rough sledding ahead for the GOP—an evident fall from grace across sectors accompanied by an impenetrable cognitive dissonance. It seems promising, particularly because Republican lawmakers have proven either too thick or too flat-footed to adjust to the combustible environment in which they exist. Then again, we've been here before, right? Remember all those Obama-era predictions that the GOP was getting ready to fall off a demographic cliff? Any number of D.C. pundits prematurely declared the party dead unless it retooled top-to-bottom. But within a handful of years, Republicans regained control of both congressional chambers. Then along came Trump in 2016, doubling down on the party's most despicable brand of white identity politics to win the GOP nomination, the election, and make a decent but ultimately unsuccessful stab at securing reelection.
The doomsday arguments pundits were making a decade ago leaned heavily on the numbers game—demographics as destiny—and whether the GOP could find enough voters to get to 50+1 in any given election. But another way of dissecting the fortunes of the Republican Party is through the lens of our political system’s organizing structure in which white identity is rapidly losing dominance as an organizing principle. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and I discussed this with political historian Kathleen Frydl on The Brief this week (podcast/YouTube). Frydl recently wrote for The American Prospect, "As the white share of the electorate falls, so too does the reach and relevance of a party dedicated to structural racism." Frydl argues that the U.S. is entering uncharted territory in the sense that, since the nation's founding, at least one of its organized political factions has always been "dedicated to preserving institutionalized racism," whether that meant flat-out slavery or its many descendants over the centuries. "Most important is the fact that the standard historical pattern—that some entity exists ready to accommodate the politics of white privilege without risking majority status itself—no longer applies," she writes.
This proposition—that one party in our two-party system can no longer count on an appeal to white identity alone without risking political irrelevance—has been turning over in my mind. It’s both theoretically compelling and materially intriguing at a moment when the Republican Party has continually proven incapable of reaching out to new demographics even as it undergoes an unusual exodus of voters in critical states across the country. The truth is, many of those voters likely don't want to become Democrats, but they have simply been forced to the exits by the stench and toxicity of Republicanism. In all likelihood, those voters would jump at the chance to vote for a conservative third-party candidate.
So while I have remained skeptical over the last decade that the nation's demographic shifts would yield anything but a realignment along the left-right continuum in American politics, I now wonder if we are seeing the political precursors that portend a third party on the horizon. How long that third party might exist and whether it could potentially reshape American politics as we know it altogether are different questions entirely. Historically, Frydl notes, third parties such as the “Dixiecrats” of the late ‘40s or Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party of 1912 kicked off a roughly 20-year transition period before one of the nation’s two dominant parties subsumes that movement and consolidates power. But predicting the longevity of a third-party movement is beyond my present-day concerns and certainly the scope of this piece. In the very near-term—as in 2022 and 2024—the initiation of such a movement would be a complete calamity for the GOP.