There Are No Permanent Majorities

Democrats waiting for the Republican Party to destroy itself are bound to be disappointed.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

In theory, the Democratic Party is engaged in a debate about the merits of impeaching President Donald Trump right now. In practice, however, practically no high-profile Democrat is arguing that the president is undeserving of impeachment. Instead, many are arguing that impeachment is unwise.

The negative version of this case is that attempting to impeach Trump would backfire—the GOP-led Senate would never convict him and remove him from office anyway, and voters would view the whole procedure as a politically motivated waste of time. Critics see a couple of flaws in this negative case. First, Trump is already unpopular, and so unlikely to rally public support; second, the case is premised on the idea that hearings won’t sway anyone.

Joe Lockhart, who was President Bill Clinton’s press secretary during his impeachment, attempts a positive argument against impeachment in The New York Times Tuesday, and it’s baffling. Lockhart believes that the case against Trump is fairly strong, but doesn’t favor impeachment. Rather than contend that it would hurt Democrats to try impeachment, he says it would help them to abstain:

For Democrats, leaving Donald Trump in office is not only good politics — it is the best chance for fundamental realignment of American politics in more than a generation. Mr. Trump is three years into destroying what we know as the Republican Party. Another two years just might finish it off. Trumpism has become Republicanism, and that spells electoral doom for the party.

This is rather nihilist. The old maxim is that when your opponent is making a mistake, don’t interfere, but Democrats broadly agree that Trump is doing serious damage to the country at large. So Lockhart’s contention is that it’s okay to allow that damage to the country in the short term for the greater goal of finishing off the Republican Party in the long term.

Even if you accept the Leninist accelerationism inherent in this argument, Lockhart’s claim that Trump will destroy his party if given the chance is highly dubious. Call it Graham’s rule: Predictions of the collapse or permanent irrelevance of political parties are frequent and also invariably wrong. Not since the 1850s has a major American party gone extinct, and yet prophecies abound year after year.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority. Following the 2000 election, Karl Rove began floating the possibility that George W. Bush could go a step further, cementing a “permanent Republican majority.” When Republicans defied history and gained seats in the 2002 election, this idea gained credence.

But John Judis and Ruy Teixeira fired back, declaring first in The New Republic and then in a book that we were actually witnessing the emerging Democratic majority. Then came the 2006 midterms, in which Democrats took back both houses of Congress, and which Bush accurately termed a “thumpin’,” followed by Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Some Democrats concluded that the permanent Democratic majority had arrived, with a new coalition of voters, especially young and minority ones, guaranteeing progressive control of government for the foreseeable future.

This rush to judgment was only slowed down slightly by the crushing Republican victory in the 2010 midterms. This was just a fluke of turnout, the Democratic optimists said; midterm years saw older, whiter electorates, but they couldn’t lose in a presidential year. Indeed, they didn’t, in 2012. But in 2016, the Democratic coalition bled white working-class voters and saw turnout dip among other segments—and lost the White House.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, having decisively captured the House in 2010, had their own vision of the future. After the party made new pickups in the 2014 midterms, Representative Greg Walden, the head of GOP congressional efforts, said, “We’re back to a majority as big as any of us have seen in our lifetimes. It may be a hundred-year majority.” Other Republicans were more dour; they said that if the party didn’t take up immigration reform, it might as well close up shop.

Neither of these predictions turned out to be accurate. Instead of embracing immigration, the GOP nominated the most anti-immigrant presidential candidate in memory and won the White House. Meanwhile, the “hundred-year majority” in the House lasted precisely four years past Walden’s prediction, until Democrats’ big gains in the 2018 midterms.

Those recent Democratic victories were driven in part by picking up traditionally Republican voters and seats in suburban areas. But assuming that those changes will be permanent, or won’t be offset by further realignments elsewhere, requires ignoring historical judgment. The 2018 losses don’t prove that Trump is destroying the Republican Party from within; they mainly demonstrate that the president’s strategy of focusing on a minority of the electorate is a bad approach to midterm elections.

If anything, Trump’s short and eventful career in politics has demonstrated the durability of parties and of party identification. He has turned many of the core precepts of the Republican Party upside down. Where free trade used to be a core principle of the GOP, Trump has replaced it with protectionism. Where Russia was an adversary, Trump has sought friendly relations. Where immigration was a positive as long as it was controlled, Trump has tried to curtail even legal immigration. None of these stances has alienated Republican voters. Even as Trump’s overall approval rating hovers deep in the red, he has extremely high approval among Republicans.

None of this history offers much hope for the idea that Republicans will work themselves into obsolescence if only given a couple more years of Trump as president. The GOP of 2020 may look very different from the GOP of 2016, but it’s still likely to be a large and powerful party, and Democrats probably won’t like the new GOP any more than they like the current one. (They didn’t like the old one, either, but Trump has made even Mitt Romney an object of Democratic sympathy, if not affection.)

Despite so many predictions of party demise coming up short, otherwise smart observers keep making them. One notable exception is the senior senator from South Carolina, who seems appropriately in touch with Graham’s rule these days. Back in May 2016, Lindsey Graham warned, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.” But the GOP nominated Trump, he won the presidency, and the senator from South Carolina has changed his tune, becoming one of Trump’s most outspoken allies and calling for other Republicans to rally around him. This flip might be politically craven, but it also acknowledges the reality that parties simply don’t get destroyed like that—no matter how much their adherents fear it or their persecutors wish it.