Monday, January 25, 2021

Why the Republican Party will be hard to save

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It was a Republican Vice President Mike Pence who exercised the most crowds in the United States Capitol last week. It was another, Senator Lindsey Graham, who found himself surrounded and mocked at a local airport. Either man’s smooth four-year service to Donald Trump didn’t count for much once they chose to keep his presidential election electoral loss last November. For this lack of purity they will now be hunted down, to quote one walker, “forever”.

A hallmark of extremism is the relish with which it attacks its own camp. The skeptic and the schismatic incur more anger than the outright non-believer. And so traditional republicans are in a vicious and open struggle with the wildest edges of their own accord. If only the Grand Old Party was on the line, the nation could abandon them. But no democracy can prosper for long without two responsible parties. It has existential importance in the United States (and in the helps to anchor) that moderate Republicans prevail.

So it’s tragic that they probably won’t. Their first problem is the depth and age of the internal rot. Republicans must undo decades of flirting with paranoid elements, not just five years. That we dations the mid-term election to the 1994 Congress, or Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for the White House in 1964, or the McCarthyites of the 1950s, the party did not right flank for a long time. Republican portrayal of government as inherently malignant is hardly new. Neither is the cheapness with which the American Revolution is relied (Richard Nixon and the elder Congress leader Newt Gingrich did). Challenging the legitimacy of opponents did not start with President-elect Joe Biden this winter.

Few Republicans who were complicit in this style of politics expected it to turn out of control. But they also don’t have to pretend it’s a recent aberration, and that includes Never misleading. The rich sort of commentary on whether there will be Trumpism after Mr. Trump tends to gloss over Trumpism before Mr. Trump.

In addition to this weight of history, moderate Republicans are faced with the structural vagaries of American policy. The counter-majority characteristics of the system allow the party to remain competitive and powerful without appealing far from its base. Having won the popular vote only once since 1988, Republicans have held the White House as often as not then. The 600,000 inhabitants of Wyoming overrule California’s 40 million in the Senate. Nothing here is inappropriate. The constitution was never designed to prioritize gross tonnage of votes. But that means Republicans don’t face the same motivation – moderate or perish – which keeps parties honest in some other democracies. To get anywhere, Reform Republicans must petition the conscience of their colleagues, not their interests. Even to write this sentence is to sigh at the despair of the race.

Even though they came at an election cost, the strident Conservatives have a lavish safety net under them. What distinguishes American law from, say, French or Australian law is that it is an industry, not just a political proposition. A candidate can push back the vast mass of voters and still find lucrative work cable news or the book circuit. After missing the 2008 election as a proto-populist running mate, Sarah palin wrote memoirs that exceeded Stephen King sales. No other democracy has a media market large enough to support anything like this ecosystem. Even outgoing members of Congress are urged to stay on good terms with the angry base.

At every turn, therefore, the Republicans who wish to temper this rebel party encounter difficulties. And they have already tried. A little over ten years ago there was a renewed interest in change. Big new party, written by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, sketched a new manifesto. Governor of Indiana at the time Mitch daniels stood out as a plausible messenger. What followed instead was the Tea Party and, in time, Mr. Trump.

The circumstances of the revival are even less promising today. It looks like few Republican senators will vote for condemn the president if the House of Representatives removed him this week. Mr Pence is unlikely to trigger the 25th Amendment. In an act of unsurpassable cruelty, a former Trump aide is lamenting the loss social media followers. Those who wish to save Lincoln and Eisenhower’s party from this sort of thing must face the logic of path addiction. It is possible that an institution is too compromised, for too long, to possibly be saved. If only the implications could be confined to the party, if not to the United States.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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