Will the Republican Party Evolve or Dissolve?

In the several months since the Republicans suffered a resounding defeat in the presidential election and lost seats in both the House and the Senate, there have been innumerable articles addressing why they lost and what they must do moving forward in order to avoid similar defeats in the future. Most of these articles emphasize the need for change by citing demographic statistics illustrating, quite convincingly, that trying to build the future of the GOP almost exclusively around the Caucasian portion of the electorate is not only a recipe for short-term failure, but a path towards irrelevancy and eventual extinction. Those whom the Republican Party has spent decades marginalizing –ethnic minorities, unmarried women, gays, secular whites and non-Christians — voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. These groups represent the majority of the electorate in the generations to come, as the percentage of voters they represent now and the percentage they will represent several decades from now is projected to increase substantially. Therefore, if the relationship between the GOP and many of these members of the national electorate is not repaired, the Republican Party as we know it will simply cease to exist.

A quick review of the demographic breakdown of voters in the 2012 election buttresses this viewpoint. Although 75% of the electorate was white in the recent election, by as early as 2040 whites are projected to be a minority. 88% of Romney’s voters were Caucasian; to put it another way, only 12% of the people who voted Republican in 2012 were non-whites, a stunning figure that reveals just how reliant the party has become upon the white vote. 71% of Hispanics voted Democrat; given that they account for roughly half of this country’s population growth rate, this is a dismal and alarming figure for Republicans. Asians, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, voted 73% Democrat. 63% of all unmarried women voted Democrat. Over 90% of all African-Americans voted Democrat. The Republicans did not just lose virtually every part of the electorate except for whites; they were absolutely obliterated within those voting segments. This is the long-term problem for the Republican Party.

A myriad of theories on how the Republican Party should change have been put forth. Some say that the substance of what the party alleges it stands for – fiscal conservatism, foreign policy pragmatism, small government and family values — should remain but that the tone used to tout those values, often angry and bitter, must change. Others say that the entire platform of the GOP must evolve, that the party should move away from social issues like gun control rights, abortion, immigration restrictions and opposition to gay rights. About the only thing Republicans seem to agree upon is that they stand upon a major crossroad in their history. Where they go from here and how they get there is entirely up for debate.

This debate, which began immediately upon Mitt Romney’s defeat, has become increasingly ugly as it appears more and more likely that the Republican party is on the verge of a civil war between the traditional Republican party, henceforth to be referred to as Establishment Republicans, and the Tea Party, the far right wing that clings to the same social issues that have done so much to alienate the same demographic and cultural groups the GOP must now start to win over if it has any hope of future relevancy. The fissures within the party, always apparent but never before this stark, began to grow during the Fiscal Cliff negotiations as Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Establishment Republican, attempted to push through a compromise on the tax hike proposed by President Obama, a compromise that would have raised taxes but only on those making over $1 million a year. The bill was never even put to a vote as members of his own caucus rebelled and refused to even consider such a compromise. In the end it was left to Republicans in the Senate, desperate to avoid the economic calamity the Fiscal Cliff represented, to cut a deal that favored heavily the proposals of Democrats - a deal which barely passed the House as the majority of Republicans voted against it.  151 Republicans, led by the nominal Tea Party head in Congress, Eric Cantor, were in opposition, while the Establishment wing, led by Speaker of the House Boehner, for the most part supported the measure. The lead up to the vote was highly contentious, with Tea Party House members on several occasions implying that the Senate must have been intoxicated when they passed this bill. Strange commentary indeed on a piece of legislation put together in no small part by one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Worse infighting was yet to come.

Lost amidst the heated and at times vicious, Fiscal Cliff debate, was the legislation necessary to approve billions of dollars of aid to Superstorm Sandy victims, located primarily in New Jersey and New York. The vote on the bill was cancelled at the last minute, apparently without explanation, leaving the few Republican legislators left in that region of the country absolutely livid. Representative Peter King, a senior New York Republican, said “This has been a betrayal of trust. We were told at every stage that [a vote] was definitely going on. It is inexcusable. It is wrong.”  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was even more blunt. “It was disgusting to watch,” he said. “One set of Republicans was trying to prove something to another set.”  His identification of different sets of Republicans was a reference to the refusal of Tea Partiers to vote on the bill as constituted without corresponding spending cuts in other areas of government being enacted in order to balance the disaster spending. Establishment Republicans were astonished at the willingness of the far right of their own party to delay or even cripple legislation normally deemed above partisanship in order to further their own political agenda, consequences be damned to those left homeless and destitute through no fault of their own by the storm.

Establishment Republicans and even some associated with the Tea Party, such as Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal, clearly recognize that the Republican Party must evolve. Unfortunately the base of their party is entirely oblivious to this reality. They have not only refused to soften their often harsh and angry rhetoric or rethink policy issues, they have doubled down on the very same tactics and agendas that led to their defeat at the polls in November. The conventional wisdom is that demographics, changes in the composition of our national population over the next several decades, will reduce the Republican Party to impotency in the long term unless the party changes dramatically. This analysis is entirely plausible with one caveat: it assumes that the Republican Party as currently constituted will continue to exist, albeit in an increasingly smaller form representing an increasingly narrow portion of the electorate. Given the intransigence of the Tea Party since the re-election of President Obama, and how quickly they turned their fury upon members of their own caucus, the possibility of an entirely different outcome for the Republican Party in the near term is beginning to emerge. Demographics may get the GOP, but karma might just get them first as the party appears to be tearing itself apart. Could it be that we will see for the first time since the 1850s the emergence of a legitimate third party in the United States?  Could the Tea Party, up to now merely a wing of the Republican party and not an independent entity, actually break completely with Establishment Republicans and form a third party? As the anger of the far right, never far from the surface and anything but insignificant even prior to the November drubbing, grows exponentially with each political setback, the possibility of the United States having a third party system emerge from the chaos over the next few years is a scenario that needs to be given serious consideration. It cannot be viewed as anything less than significant that Establishment Republicans, when faced with the choice of siding with their own base and wrecking the economy or siding with the Democrats by passing a bill that avoided a fiscal catastrophe, chose to side with the Democrats. The Establishment Republicans, implausibly, have become the moderate, centrist voice in the current political environment. These are strange days indeed.

The two party system functions best when there are two parties participating. Currently there are only one and half parties involving themselves in the process of governing; the Democrats and the Establishment Republicans.  Perhaps a permanent splintering of the GOP would represent progress, as the Tea Party would no longer be a liability to the Republicans, but instead would be a party unto itself. Republicans could broker deals with the Tea Party when such a deal would best represent their interests, or alternatively side with the Democrats to push through legislation that they supported.  The GOP could become the dealmaker party, the centrist, moneyed establishment party that would work with one side or another, depending on what it sought to achieve, in order to create legislation. Perhaps, however, that’s an overly optimistic projection of a hypothetical scenario and the loss of the Tea Party members from the GOP caucus would instead cripple both, rendering them each so ineffective as to leave the Democrats the only legitimate national party. Such an outcome could be potentially catastrophic, far worse than the gridlock that now snarls every move politicians attempt to make, as a significant, if steadily shrinking segment of the American population would feel unrepresented in the democratic process. One can only imagine the anger and paranoia that such an outcome would engender in people already prone to such emotions.

One thing is fairly certain; if the Republican were to split into an Establishment Republican Party and a Tea Party, the lifespan of the latter would be short. Reference the demographics outlined earlier; a Tea Party stripped down to an entity even more reliant on the white vote, even more conservative and religiously oriented would likely have an existence even more transient than a united Republican party as currently constituted would. As fanatical as many Tea Partiers often appear to be it is improbable that a split from the GOP would represent anything but self-immolation within a generation.

There are many political battles looming in the near future with the decision on how to cut spending and whether to raise the debt ceiling chief among them. Such fights are far more likely to unite the GOP than divide them, at least in the short term. The Tea Party will likely remain, in the foreseeable future, a powerful faction within the Republican Party and not split off to form its own separate political entity. However, the demographics that are straining the fiber of the Republican Party combined with the unwillingness of members of its far right base to even consider compromise of any kind could easily render asunder the party in dramatic fashion, and not leave it to die the long, slow death many are predicting.

If the Tea Party is to remain as a faction of the Republican Party it must learn to accept that which the other players in the political process have long ago accepted as reality; no one gets everything that they want and compromise is absolutely crucial to accomplish anything.  If the Tea Party can make this adjustment, even grudgingly, the GOP will survive intact, at least for now. Such a shift in approach on the part of the far right only resolves their short term issues as there remains the longer term conundrum of demographic projections that will lead the party into irrelevance unless it can also adjust its approach to encompass inclusion and leave the emphasis on exclusivity of race and religion in its past.