This post is a follow-up to the discussion here.
The modern Republican party has taken positions on both social and economic issues that are at variance with the median American voter. For some time, the GOP was capable of wracking up legislative majorities despite that fact. This feat was due to three factors, in reverse of order of (IMHO) importance: (1) the memory of the Reagan years, when the GOP's conservatism did, in fact, reflect a change in the preferences of the median American voter, (2) the impact of 9-11 and the Bush Administration's skillful use of fear and war fever, and (3) the GOP's impressive internal discipline. A great book on the latter topic is Off Center, although the authors turned out to be wrong about the durability of the GOP's majority.
Today the GOP appears to be sliding towards regional irrelevance. Laissez-faire economics has become less popular, for obvious reasons. In addition, the low-marginal-tax doctrine has also become rather less popular ... and will, in fact, become unsustainable once the economy recovers. Similarly, the declining quality of private health care has produced a groundswell for reform. Finally, the GOP is falling behind the curve on “social issues.” Why the scare quotes? Simply because said issues are increasingly becoming non-issues, much as they were in 1960. The society's mores have changed, and electoral preferences are changing with them. Once that generational shift is complete, a party that hold the GOP's current stances will be SOL.
I don't want to ask whether the GOP can, in theory, offer a modernized conservatism with long-term appeal. The answer to that question is yes. Frex, a modern conservative party could, in theory, be constructed around gender-neutral pro-natalism, mandatory national service, free trade, “non-financial defined contribution” pension schemes, German-style health care, re-privatization of the financial system, and other things, some of which are laid out in insufficient but intriguing detail here.
No, I want to ask if we, as patriotic Americans (or non-Americans who would like the United States to be well-governed, for whatever reason) should care whether the GOP can reform itself. What would happen if the GOP became unelectable? The answer is less obvious that it might appear.
My friend Doug Muir is worried that there is a risk that America's opposition party will become unelectable. More importantly, he is also worried that an impotent and unelectable Republican Party will be bad for America. The worry, I presume, is the Democrats will eventually become fat and corrupt and lead the country into a ditch. Without a credible alternative waiting in the wings, the country could drive further into that ditch than otherwise.
Such a fear isn't at all crazy. But is it reasonable?
Three things make me rather sanguine about the potential decline of the GOP.
First, it probably won't happen. A modernized GOP will still be recognizably conservative. And its conservative base will want to win elections. Lose enough elections and the most likely outcomes will be that the base demonstrably modernizes or loses control of the party organization. If that happens, then the Republicans will once again become competitive.
Second, even if the Republicans go into long-term decline, it might not be bad for the country. The Democratic Party is not very centralized. The DNC lacks the ability to credibly threaten obstreperous members with primary challenges, also unlike its Republican counterpart. In fact, with the entrance of relatively conservative new members who enjoy their own fundraising base, the Democratic leadership's ability to discipline its members appears to be declining.
For a few years, it may seem that the Democrats are centralized. (1) The new President-elect is popular and very skilled at navigating legislative bodies. (2) There is a large groundswell of opinion that wants to modernize American social insurance, business regulation, and efforts to keep the planet fit for human civilization. (3) There is a depression to head off. Those three things, however, do not change the fact that the Democratic Party is inherently fractious. (Frex my opinion that the leadership's opinion of Chris Matthews has f@#k-all to do with whether he will run or whether he will win.)
Once the current progressive agenda finds its way into law, then the party will start to fragment once again. A national opposition party might not be necessary, given the Democrats' long-standing ability to oppose themselves. As Will Rogers said, “I'm not a member of any organized political party, I'm a Democrat.” Politics in a dominant-party America would look rather different from what we are used to, but I am not that it would be bad.
Finally, even should the Democrats become corrupt and unresponsive, and the Republican remain nationally unpalatable (an unlikely combination) the American political system appears quite open to the rapid emergence of a new national opposition party. There are few of the structural problems that bedevil Japan. (The Liberal Democrats of Japan have not won a majority of the popular vote since 1963. Representation in the U.S. Congress is screwed-up, but not that screwed up.)
In short, in the unlikely event that the Republican Party refuses to modernize despite a few more electoral wallopings, American democracy could function just fine under a decentralized Democratic hegemony. And in the equally unlikely event that a hegemonic Democratic Party should become centralized and therefore resistant to primary challenges, a new opposition party would emerge rather quickly.
In fact, the Democrats only just regained power in the 2006 and 2008 elections, after some time in the wilderness. And the Democratic Party remains remarkably decentralized. I cannot see why a speedy revitalization of the GOP is necessary for the health of the Republic. Yes, a non-crazified GOP would make it easier for the president-elect to make necessary changes ... but so would a 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate. It's a lot less risky to support a 60-seat majority with votes and money than it is to support moderate Republicans in the hope that they'll undercut their own leadership from within.
But I could be wrong. Thoughts?