The video below is the single best analysis of the GOP, where it is at and where it is going, that I have yet heard. It is from FiveThirtyEight and it is probably so good because it involves a panel of three conservatives giving frank, honest and quality party-reflection. Galen Druke speaks with pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson and writers Ramesh Ponnuru and Henry Olsen about the future of the GOP and what the party needs to do to address the extremists and conspiracy theorists within its ranks.
I will summarise most of the main points of the video for those who cannot watch it, but I really do implore that you watch it all.
First, what is the basic motivating factor for Republican voters?
- “He fights”. Trump was seen as a “fighter”, being early to realise that the left-right axis didn’t matter, but that the strong/weak axis did. “I will be the one who fights for you”. This is how he governed for four years. Trumpism will arguably be shortlived as a policy agenda. Trump is also not the kingmaker people think he is. He endorsed a number of people who lost, including candidates who ran against QAnon candidates. People want someone who fights, and the details get filled in later.
- Fight about what? A working- and middle-class segment, that has been expanded, has felt alienated, threatened and afraid. He has co-opted their fear, and the fight is on their behalf. This conservative-populist alliance includes fighting for a preservation of American ideals, of the free market (but not eh pure free market), religious worries (can they practise their faith freely and publicly?), culture and so on. A 2024 winner is someone who can do this fighting without all the toxic elements. Such a person will need to just build on this to add a per cent or two to gain power.
- To add to these: What holds the GOP together and animates it is opposition to and hostility to the Democrats – their leadership and coalition. This works the other way, too. it’s not purely tribal; originally, this was about social issues like sexual morality, the right to life and other religiously-based ideals, but it has exploded and taken on a life of its own (remember those “I’d rather vote for a Russkie than a Democrat” Republican T-shirt wearers). Your typical Republican voter didn’t care about entitlement spending or free-market issues, but they wouldn’t budge on guns and abortion.
This forms a bedrock for further points:
- Republicans are actually a lot more heterodox on a variety of issues outside of the bedrock ideals.
- Anderson: the QAnon extremist segment isn’t as big a segment as the attention it gets. Polls have shown that people think power is a zero-sum game, so Republicans think that male, white, evangelical Christians will lose power as a result of women, blacks, LGBT people gaining power. Republicans are twice as likely to say that they are in an existential fight for the country. This feeds back into the idea that Trump is a fighter and this is what he is fighting for.
- Olsen: there is a parallel with how UK’s Boris Johnson got into power after the rise of the racist BNP and subsequent UKIP. The working-class discontent built up to support this toxic politics and then they abandoned radicalism to support the Tory Party; the Tories harnessed this, through Johnson, in being a relatively sane and rational person seen to fight for them. A desire to see “somebody actually win on their behalf” is there for the having if the Republican Party want to embrace a conservative-populist coalition.
- Ponnuru conceded that, though he doesn’t think your typical GOP voter or Trump supporter is a racist white-supremacist, he has underestimated how much racism and bigotry there was in the Republican coalition how much tolerance there was for it. Some of the big incidences in Trump’s career, like Charlottesville, his figures took a drop but they were not deal-breakers. This surprised him.
Taking this on board, how does this work going forward, in looking to survive and win votes, building a durable coalition?
- Ponnuru doesn’t think it’s a case of excising these extremes. They won’t disappear. What elements of these mixed views do you cater to, and who do you choose as your leader? You move to marginalise some fo these more extreme voices, but they will still be part of the electorate.
- Anderson: The GOP got it right on Steve King but they didn’t get it right with Greene. Following the King precedent should have been the obvious route out.
- Anderson: she is pessimistic that the control room is empty – there is no one left to pick up the reins, including Trump himself (as in, he wouldn’t be able to steer them back to power). The reaction from the rank and file against Pence – “How could you pos with him, he’s a traitor?” during a photoshoot – when Pence is a diehard, very loyal (to Trump!) conservative Republican, has been staggering. This is an “unbelievable” portion of the GOP base. She can’t imagine one messenger who could unify such a base.
- Olsen: What unifies the base is the belief that things that people value about America is under threat and people want to fight to achieve those things. The base wants someone to say that “You won’t be alienated” in the same way that Johnson unified those alienated people under a populist banner to win the last UK election. The Presidential nominee in the last 6 elections did not properly represent the “base” including Trump (Olsen saw Cruz as more representing the base) since Trump reassembled the majority including a lot of moderates in 2016. The job is not to be the candidate of the angry base but to be the candidate of the “responsible middle”, which includes fighting for these values but not going so far over that you are unelectable. There is some sweet spot.
- Ponnuru: initially, Trump was most popular with moderates and more popular with moderates, which is traditionally the sort of candidate who wins, but this changed over time. Those who want to copy Trump’s success don’t get this as they try to assemble support from the extreme right of the party – they won’t win. Trump was a celebrity, seen as a successful businessman, and though he got a bit of birther conspiracy support, he was actually more about the moderate bulk.
- Anderson/Olsen: building on this, people don’t understand what he “base” of the Democrat or Republicans are. In the same way that the Democratic base was what got Biden voted in and not Bernie Sanders, the Republican base includes the “somewhat conservative” group, not the same as people who listen to talk radio all day and raise funds. There is a big difference between the activist class and the regular base. Becoming the candidate of the activist class (for Dems, the young progressives) is distasteful for the core base. You need to build out from the centre. Someone who still fights but is not angry and ideological to the extreme.
- Anderson: You can’t fake being a Trump effectively – it has to genuine and organic. With Trump supporters, you often get “He sometimes says things I disagree with, but at least he fights for us!” What part of Trump will be replicable and appealing to the larger base?
Extreme vs moderate, how does the GOP cope going forward:
- Ponnuru: Trump is a moderate; he doesn’t get out of bed wondering how to make the government smaller etc. He is someone who represents these views, but is not one. Also, the GOP will need to do structural reform. There is a problem with winning a primary merely on a plurality that can favour fringe candidates squeaking by.
- Olsen: Republicans like winner takes all, Dems prefer proportional representation. Trump could get all delegates by winning a slim plurality.
- Anderson: She is less sanguine about process changes since this is a demand-side problem. Conventions are seen by some candidates as a way the establishment can crackdown on the more extreme sorts.
- Olsen followed the “whack-a-doodle” campaign of Greene; she was never challenged on her crazier views by the other GOP candidates, but was given a free pass. They appear to be afraid of doing so. So the voters never actually heard these crazy views because Greene didn’t formally sound them in her campaign but kept them to Facebook etc. She would have appeared to many as a strong conservative alone.
- Ponnuru: It does make sense to a certain degree to say, “If the liberals hate this person this much, then this is the person I want to go for!” There is a sweet spot of rejecting experts or intellectuals in the GOP; “with Reagan, we got a leader who was willing to say ‘Shucks Professor, I think you’re wrong.” But there has to be a limit with this (aliens aren’t controlling the establishment, baloney about voting machines, etc.).
What is the policy platform of the GOP, going forward?
- Anderson: Opposition campaigning is primarily negative, rather than providing a positive vision with policies etc. It’s the path of least resistance.
- Olsen/Anderson: Probably better to have some policy, if not an 18-point manifesto. Once you get into power, you can then put together more of a policy agenda. [This reminds me of the last UK election, when the Labour Party had a huge manifesto, very detailed (and good!), and the Tory Party merely had “Get Brexit Done!”. The Tories won.]
- Ponnuru: There are limits to a pure oppositionism. The Problem is once you get power, you have no idea what to do with it, and don’t have buy-in from the electorate or lawmakers. So you need some policy, and this is a GOP-wide problem. 2018, no faction of the party bothered with creating any meaningful policy. There was nothing. When Ponnuru started, he thought they had an old-school conservative agenda problem; it turns out that they had a problem of having no policy agenda at all.
- Anderson: Yes, policy still matters, and they have to include policies that make people’s lives better, and that might not be the same as it was ten years ago. However, it needs to be simplistic and based around the willingness to fight harder. What is the throughline between all such policies they might choose, and what’s the line beyond just “he fights”? The problem is, at the moment, the desires around the Republican base are less able to coalesce around a simple agenda and more about an emotional position and worldview about fighting harder. So now there will be an entrenchment in the base of the party that all they need to do is fight harder.
- Ponnuru: If the economy and Democratic candidate is bad enough in 2024, the GOP can run a sub-optimal campaign. 80-88% of the electorate’s voting habit is baked in.
- Anderson: If the GOP came up with a clean energy bill, they would have a great chance of winning because Biden isn’t popular right now in and of himself as a leader.
- Ponnuru: More Republicans are afraid of Trump than Biden (and his popularity). Rather than being reactionary on policy point for point, it should be “What are the conservative answers to the top 5 policy problems?”. It shouldn’t be “This is what the Dems are doing, so we should do this.”
- Olsen: The moral instincts of the policies should embrace help and a limited government way of dealing with the problems.
- Anderson questioned Pnonuru on whether, if you asked some of the base as to what was a bigger problem, their economic prospect or cancel culture, that you would probably get the latter. Ponnuru admitted that Republicans can get too far down their rabbit holes in concerning themselves with stuff, as Trump has changed to doing, that just aren’t relevant: moving from worrying about the opioid crisis and manufacturing, to the persecution of Mike Flynn and the Deep State. Anderson admits that things like cancel culture has a much greater emotional valence. For example, DeSantis realises there is demand for this so is campaigning about fining big tech platforms $100,000 who deplatform a candidate for office. It’s a signal with emotional valence.
- Ponnuru: Smaller government is for the right what equality is for the left.
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