Worse Problems than Trump

Why a Changing Society is Republicans’ Real Danger

The American election draws closer; the hype is heightening, the pundits are predicting, anxiety amongst those desperate to see La Donald get gone ratchets ever upwards —  ah yes, The American Silly Season is upon us. Of course, given the antics of the Pinocchio in the Oval Office, one might suggest that the Silly Season started in 2016 and never ended.

I think a plurality of Americans now know that DT will never be a real boy, will remain a wooden puppet carved from vanity, vindictiveness, and an astonishing lack of empathy. One has cause to be mildly optimistic about a Democratic victory in November. But let us leave prognostification aside for now and consider the future of the Republican party post-Trump, whether in 2020 or 2024.

A Demographic Shift

The fundamental question here is simply this: How is the Republican Party dealing with the fact that America is becoming ever more racially and culturally diverse, younger, more secular, more openly LGBTQ+? U.S. citizens are more often unmarried, more frequently live in households that cannot be defined as traditional with two parents and a male breadwinner, and continue to migrate to growing metropolitan areas. (Big city living tends to erode traditional values because of the extraordinary breadth of cultural experience and diversity of personal interaction that urban living offers.)  If members of the Tea Party see things favorable to their vision of America in this demographic shift, I commend them to the Mad Hatter.

And if you are wondering whether or not it is fair to identify the Republican Party with its Tea Party element, pollster Stanley Greenberg, in a recent NY Times piece Opinion | The Republican Party Is Doomed, makes the case that this is indeed fair. It tracks the fact that in one short year, from 2018 to 2019, the number of Republicans who self identify as moderates or secular conservatives has dropped from 41% to 30%. This trend leaves the Party increasingly in the hands of Tea Partiers, evangelicals, and conservative Catholics.

Suppose we look at the two youngest generations who are eligible to vote in the 2020 election — Millennials and older Gen Zedders. If we do, we see more worrisome trends for the Republican Party.  A recent study by the Pew Research Center Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues reveals that these two generations share a much more favorable attitude towards activist government. They believe that the world-spanning problems they care about, climate change, racial justice, income inequality and job insecurity require wide-ranging government involvement in the economy and social justice issues.  Both Republican and Democratic governments indeed intervene in the private sector all the time. However, Democrats do so as an article of faith, Republicans, still hobbled by their small government tropes, do so belatedly and inconsistently, waffling back and forth. Why should these two rising generations vote Republican, when their other choice more readily embraces how they see the world?

Even Gen Zedders who self-identify as Republicans differ substantially from their elders on the question of government intervention. Roughly half (52%) of Gen Z Republicans say they think the government should be doing more to solve problems, compared with 38% of Millennial Republicans and 29% of Gen Xers. About a quarter of Republican Baby Boomers (23%) and fewer GOP Silents (12%) believe the government should be doing more. Millennials and Gen Zedders are also better educated than their elders, have more cosmopolitan views, and are less likely to boast about America’s unparalleled greatness. Well educated and broad-minded, these groups will sit uncomfortably in a Republican tent that is getting smaller and has less room in it for divergent views.

Trump's Party Now

Seen in this context, COVID has been a disaster for Trump because he is an inept bumbler; but it becomes a more lasting problem for the Party because its residue is bound to be a strengthened faith in the need for an effective, active government. The market has no answer for what quite literally ails us now. This is not good news for the small-government, let the private sector handle it, coterie.

In 2018, Democrats succeeded by attacking Republicans for attempting to repeal Obamacare and failing to lower skyrocketing prescription drug costs. They proposed trillion-dollar investments in infrastructure. This approach pulled independents and middle-class and working-class women who voted for Trump in 2016 into the Democrats camp in sufficient numbers to give the House back to the Dems. I hate political prediction, but it is possible to envision a 2020 result that eviscerates the GOP electorally.  

The Republican Party has let itself become Trump’s Party, and over 70% of Gen Zedders and Millennials now disapprove of the job he is doing. Will they vote in unprecedented numbers? This is hard to know. But influencers from Taylor Swift to Billie Eilish to John Legend are working hard to register young voters and energize participation by blacks who stayed home when Hillary ran. Mr. Biden is no spring chicken, but Democratic Party strategists are focusing squarely on the issues and trends outlined here. It is no accident that Ms. Eilish, all of eighteen-years-old and the pre-eminent Gen ZED icon of the moment, is performing at the Convention this week. Someone has noticed the 33-million YouTube subscribers and 66-million Instagram followers, mostly young, who pay some attention to what she says and does. And what she will say is get out there and vote President Pinocchio back into Geppetto’s box.

There is another factor here that deserves mention. I will call this the ‘Divisiveness Boomerang effect.’ When Donald Trump was elected, there was some hope among the faithful that he would bang all those politicians’ heads together and get government to work again — that the Outsider could cut through the Gordian knot of partisan gridlock. Instead, he turned even the most mundane aspects of governing into political blood sport. I maintain that the appetite for effective governance, for government that gets things done, has never been higher, that Trump’s oily vindictive partisanship has whetted this appetite as never before.  I also think there is a growing perception, perhaps somewhat implicit, but there all the same, that the only way this can happen is to slam one party down so low that they can no longer obstruct the party in power. In terms of useful legislation passed into law and implemented, the most fruitful period in recent American history was 1964-68, when Lynden Johnson enjoyed massive majorities in both houses of Congress.

California is an Omen for the GOP

Before we summarize the main problems the Republicans face nationally, let’s take a look at their current irrelevance in that leading indicator state, California. Republicans were riding high in California as recently as the early nineties.  The State’s voters went heavily for Ronald Reagan and controlled three successive governorships. By the early nineties, Democratic registration in California, once close to 60%, had dropped to below 50%. The GOP’s share had climbed to nearly 40%, and leading Democrats were openly worried about becoming the state’s minority party. (non-Americans may not know that, the Democrats have been the majority party among registered voters in the U.S. since the Great Depression and the rise of FDR.)

The roll continued. Republican governor Pete Wilson won re-election in 1994, his party captured several other statewide offices and Republicans won a one-seat majority in the state Assembly. Then the bottom dropped out.

The end of the Cold War hurt the GOP badly in several ways. The Party had become the choice of most Americans who wanted a tough anti-communist stance and aggressive defense spending. That arrow disappeared from the GOP’s persuasive quiver. Concern about little wars in remote places was no substitute. In California itself, employment in defense industries cratered. The State’s economic driver is now the Tech boom, and the people who work in Silicon Valley are younger, highly educated, and much more liberal than the defense workers they replaced.

Latino in-migration continues to change the State’s demographic composition, and Latinos were energized politically by CGOP support for proposition 187. This proposition would have denied benefits to all the illegal migrant workers whom California’s agricultural elites were openly complicit in inviting in-state to pick their avocados.  P187 was struck down in the courts, and its story is a complex one; but the ultimate result was a more politically conscious Latino voting group, most of whom now choose the Democrats.

Here is where Republicans now stand politically in California. Republicans now claim fewer than 24% of the state’s registered voters, are frozen out of every statewide office, hold just 7 of the state’s 53 congressional districts, have seen Democrats capture three-quarters of the Legislature’s seats, and have lost every state presidential election since 1998. They are comfortably outnumbered by non-affiliated voters who tend to vote Democratic on partisan issues.

Some of California’s political patterns are unique to itself, but the demographic and psychographic shifts are not. Let’s summarize what we can plausibly infer for the future of the GOP nationally.

  • The Party is losing moderate and secular conservative members — becoming narrower in appeal ideologically.
  • It has lost one of its major points of positive appeal with the end of the Cold War. And the memory of 9/11 is fading.
  • The tough on crime issue, another area where Republicans used to have an advantage, is a shrinking concern among younger voters. (It does not help that the so-called war on drugs is an epic fail and the U.S. already incarcerates so many people they are going to run out of room for prison cells.)
  • The Democratic Party is the natural home for those who believe an active, interventionist governance is necessary.  This group is growing fast. The Pandemic is a reason, but there are longer-term, more enduring explanations for the fact that the neo-liberal belief in private-sector solutions is dying. First among these is the issue of income inequality. In 2016, Trump actually benefited from the frustration and anger of blue-collar workers who saw their jobs disappear, and their incomes stagnate. But, he has no idea how to fix the problem, hasn’t fixed it, and is losing support even within this segment of voters.
  • Demographic trends ultimately rule.  Issues come and go, but life experience and value clusters are persistent, and inexorable shifts here do not favor the GOP. The U.S is skewing younger, more liberal, more multi-ethnic, better-educated, more urban, (which tends to also mean more cosmopolitan in world-view.) California is a revealing indicator on this front.
  • Republican support is weakest among Millennials and Gen Zedders. When the up and coming generational cohorts fall out of love with you, your problems develop a sad inevitability — perhaps the term epic implosion is not too strong a prediction here.
  • The Party’s current standard-bearer is a disaster, and not enough Republicans have distanced themselves. Republican senators and members of the House have let their myopic concern with their re-electability and a perverse sense that Party solidarity is all that matters obscure their moral judgment. Most of these people know that DT is a walking, talking exemplar of moral turpitude, and have shown that they just don’t care. They should pay the price for this, and I think they will.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is an Oncoming Train

I may dislike prediction, but I’m going to make one anyway. Within this decade, the Democrats will slam the Republican Party into inconsequence as a national political factor. The Dems will then spend massive sums of tax money on everything in sight, including I hope, a universal basic income program. Eventually, of course, they will overspend and over-intervene, allowing some version of an effective opposition to reconstitute itself. This new opposition will look nothing like the current GOP, whose once broad tent has become an ideological teepee. 

Politics is inherently cyclical — I see a new cycle coming ‘round fast like a freight train with no brakes on a steep downhill stretch. The GOP is tied to the tracks, and no one is coming to loosen the knots.