Is the Republican party coalition crumbling before our very eyes?

I’ve tried to write a post on the American election several times in recent months, but the zigs and zags of the campaign have made it hard to find a vantage point for offering anything more than a reaction to the absurdity du jour or an update on the horse race—a role which many other blogs are much better suited to provide (e.g. see FiveThirtyEight, Monkey CageSabato’s Crystal Ball, or Vox).

However, yesterday marked just four weeks until Election Day. If I have anything useful or interesting to say about this political circus—other than the overly philosophical take in last week’s post—it’s now or never.

Unstable electoral coalitions

The major lens through which I’ve been viewing this election is the maintenance and stability of electoral coalitions. Party politics is all about bringing multiple interest groups together under a big tent. Different electoral systems shape this process in different ways, but America’s preference for winner-take-all elections tends to encourage two major parties (a phenomenon known as Duverger’s law).

Given the multitude of issues and opinions that are part of the political discourse, any grouping under two tents will inevitably cram together actors who don’t agree on much of anything. In contrast, a proportional system makes electoral success possible for smaller parties with more focused agendas, relieving the party of the need to manage internal contradictions; those conflicts play out in parliament instead.

Through this lens, one clear fact of this election is the fracturing of the Republican coalition. It might not lead to the complete destruction that some commentators are gleefully predicting, but it is definitely a re-alignment.

Understanding this story means starting at least as far back as the 1960s, with Nixon’s “southern strategy“—a successful effort to bring the solidly Democratic southern states into the Republican fold by appealing to racism against African Americans. It marked the beginning of an alliance between business/fiscal conservatives and hardline social conservatives.

Countless books and opinion columns have sought ways to explain this coalition between two groups that agreed on very little in policy terms. From the left, it looked like conservative values voters were being duped into voting against their economic interests. From the right, there were appeals to fundamental values like freedom that are supposedly shared across the coalition.

I take the more pragmatic view that everyone votes for their own interests as they themselves see those interests, even if others might not recognize them as such. Some people’s rational self-interest may be in voting to support policies that maintain their own dominance in the social hierarchy and slow the cultural changes that they have trouble understanding, even if those social policies are paired with economic policies that hit them in the wallet.

That sort of contradiction is exactly what politics is about. It’s a productive tension that allows two groups to both fulfill their highest priority goals. Some people may not even see this as a compromise. The human tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance through re-interpretation leads us to accept the creative explanations offered by media outlets and pundits whose own interests lie in the promotion of this coalition. Fictions like “tax cuts for the job creators” and “trickle down economics” reduce the dissonance.

Cracks starting to show

The tension between the two stayed in balance for decades, but nothing lasts forever. The business side has done quite well out of the coalition, of course, as public policies from tax to trade to social services have done much less to mitigate widening inequality than they could. The benefits of economic growth (and the recent recovery) accrue to the wealthiest.

The social conservative wing has fared worse in the deal: the arc of history is moving against many of the issues they hold most dear. To get “values voters” to the polls, the Republican establishment has long stoked their worst instincts: xenophobia (anti-immigrant and anti-muslim efforts), racism (the birther conspiracy), homophobia (anti-gay marriage efforts), transphobia (NC’s “bathroom bill”), misogyny (nearly everything they’ve ever said about Hillary Clinton), anti-government hysteria (gun rights), and so on. These aren’t the only values held by social conservatives, but their very divisiveness makes them more politically useful.

Social conservatives have sensed that they’re losing the cultural and political debate on most of these issues. What’s worse, the business side of the coalition has grown increasingly uneasy with the values espoused by its partners—an inevitable outcome given that social exclusion is bad for business.

The strains have wrenched the coalition since the late 2000s saw the rise of the Tea Party, but their revolt was mainly directed at the coalition’s brokers: the Republican party establishment itself, which has also done quite well in the deal. Off-cycle voter turnout has meant more control of the House (18 of the last 25 years) and Senate (12 of the last 25), and even more so at the state level: currently Republicans hold both legislative majorities and the governorship in 23 states, while Democrats hold the trifecta in only 7 (the other 20 states are split). The Tea Party tried to seize control of that power structure, but have proved themselves to be more obstructionist than anything else.

The cracks started to really show when the presidential primary added new pressures. The Donald is a unique candidate, no doubt, but he’s been exploiting conflicts that have existed in the party for decades. He’s fanned the same reactionary conservative flames that the party establishment long stoked, without any of the inconvenient decorum that kept the fringe hardliners wondering whether the party was truly committed to the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that it had merely hinted at for years. That fringe heard Trump’s call.

He drew them further out of the woodwork with an appeal to trade protectionism as his campaign’s core economic issue. Trade isn’t the only factor behind the job losses and inequality that have the public in such an anti-establishment/anti-elites mood; but unlike technological change or business concentration, opposing trade dovetails nicely with the xenophobia of being anti-immigrant and globally aggressive. His economic policies add fuel to the fire.

However, trade protectionism also defies the Republican orthodoxy and the so-called “free market” principles that are necessary for keeping the other half of the coalition in place. That suited Trump just fine for the primaries, as he could campaign with a combination of personal wealth (probably less than he claims, but still not insubstantial) as well as the free media generated by celebrity status and over-the-top behavior. In a divided field of candidates appealing for party member votes, he only needed to convince a small fraction of the country to support him.

In the past week or so, it’s become clear that this combination will not be enough to get him through the general election to the White House: the forecasts and prediction markets are swinging hard against him. His lack of personal discipline and unwillingness to listen to political professionals (say what you want about the establishment, but they know how to run a national campaign) have put him on the path to defeat. Even the recent leaks on Trump’s taxes and sexual assaults are only the triggers and excuses for the Republican establishment figures to distance themselves; the deeper cause lies in their desire to not crash and burn along with his campaign.

Collapse or re-alignment?

The GOP post-mortem analysis on this election can almost be written already. It will be a fitting sequel to their 2012 autopsy, which included the finding that the party needed to widen its base, especially by reaching out to minorities. The party utterly failed to accomplish that, and in the process they’ve discovered that years of thinly (or not so thinly) veiled rhetoric against immigrants, minorities, women, etc. have left their social conservative base extremely unhappy with the idea of accommodating those groups in any way. So unhappy that they want to throw the whole establishment under the bus.

There are lot of jokes being made that this election will be the last for the Republican party. They certainly won’t do well, but even a rout doesn’t translate into the dissolution of a party. Party elders and supporting institutions (lobbyists, think tanks, media, etc.) are maneuvering to keep the coalition together. There are voters who straddle the two wings of the party, or who have loyalty to the party for other reasons.

What will result is a shuffling of the coalition. The election is like a loud, public re-negotiation of roles and responsibilities. The fact that the establishment largely lined up behind Trump for a while suggests that there’s little reason to believe it will reject his supporters. The new Trump coalition will continue to be part of the party, but not its core. It isn’t large enough to win a national election, though it can still be successful in particular jurisdictions and loud enough across the country to influence the terms of debate. Business interests will continue to support the more palatable candidates in the coalition. At the end of the day, money cares most about its own influence and interests.

The Republican coalition’s new footing will depend a lot on what happens across the aisle. The Democratic coalition is not without long-standing tensions, e.g. between labor and environmental interests. There is even a parallel tension to the one straining the Republican party, with centrist Democrats in the Clinton mold drawing more corporate money into a party whose grassroots activists view the private sector with skepticism at best, and antagonism at worst.

In fact, as the Republic coalition will need an election cycle or two before it returns to full strength, I would expect an increase in business money seeking other channels for influence and strengthening the hand of centrist Democrats. Meanwhile, the reduced competition from Republicans will reduce the need for Democrats to accommodate others within their own party. This could actually increase the chance of a schism within the party, with the Sanders/Warren wing on the rise. They kept the conflicts from boiling over in the primary, in part due to the more conciliatory personalities involved and in part due to the fear of Trump. But never discount the possibility of tensions resurfacing in unexpected ways.