Republicans Can Agree to Disagree Over Democracy

The post-Trump GOP is far more likely to put its differences aside than to split.

An illustration of elephants
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Hans Noel is an associate professor of government at Georgetown University. He is the co-author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before And After Reform.

Less than six hours after rioters forced legislators to stop their debate over certifying the electors from Arizona on January 6, senators were back on the floor again. The insurrection failed to stop Congress from playing its constitutional role in certifying Joe Biden as the next president.

That may be a metaphor for the resilience of American institutions under assault, but the Senate’s quick return to business also shows that the antidemocratic attitudes of the protesters were nothing new to the chamber. Indeed, the debate over whether to accept the outcome of a presidential election was only happening at the Capitol because a faction of the Republican Party had already embraced the same grievances as the rioters.

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols dubbed this faction of lawmakers the “sedition caucus.” It lost on January 6, but its members are not going away. The question is what form their persistence will take. Are they the Republican Party’s future, or will they have to find a new home—perhaps in the Patriot Party or MAGA Party that Donald Trump reportedly wants to found?

Because the sedition caucus is embedded within the GOP, other Republicans are the only ones in a position to rein the group in. So far, many who opposed the election challenge and want to hold their party together are making an effort to restore constitutional norms. Others are still trying to play both sides. The reason so many are worried about the divisiveness of impeachment is not that it will divide the country, but that it will divide the Republican Party. It will force Republicans to go on record opposing some of their own. As the former GOP strategist Stephen Schmidt writes, that could lead today’s Republican Party down the path the Whig Party took two centuries ago, when it fractured over slavery.

As a political scientist who studies political parties and ideological divisions, I’ve heard two scenarios that end with a fracturing of the Republican coalition. In one, the Trump faction abandons the GOP, perhaps for a Patriot Party. After all, it has been Republican state election officials and Trump-appointed judges and Supreme Court justices who have been finding no evidence of voter fraud. To believe the conspiracy means believing that even many Republicans are complicit.

The other scenario has Constitution-respecting conservatives abandoning the GOP to the pro-Trump faction. How could they tolerate remaining in a party that continues to enable sedition and insurrection?

Political handicappers have been predicting breakups like this for a long time. But under the rules of our system, the incentives for parties to hold together are strong. To win elections in America means coming in first. Therefore, voters and politicians both have strong motivation to join one of the two largest parties. If one of those parties splits into two smaller ones, the schism pretty much guarantees that the remaining large party will win a lot more elections.

In multiparty parliamentary democracies, extremist factions are typically isolated in their own minor parties. In those countries, a governing coalition can be built from multiple parties after an election, so a mainstream party doesn’t need to win an outright majority. In the United States, however, the path to victory is in forming the largest party during the election itself. Neither the mainstream Republicans nor the pro-Trump Republicans can outnumber the Democrats on their own.

The Democrats and Republicans both get to a majority by being broad coalitions. The Democratic coalition includes those who want economic redistribution and those who want racial equality. The Republican coalition includes libertarians and religious traditionalists. Both parties include ideological extremists and moderates. Both parties manage their internal disagreements in order to present a united front and win elections.

Managing disagreement with the sedition caucus would work the same way. Disagreement over commitment to democracy is a big disagreement, but it is now the price for Republican unity. And most Republicans may prove willing to pay it.

All factions, even small ones, are complex. Not everyone who believes that widespread voter fraud occurred in 2020 is a white supremacist. But observe the Confederate flags and Nazi symbolism at the riot—hear the rhetoric of “real America,” of “us” and “them”—and notice the way cities with large Black populations are central to the allegations of fraud in the states that Trump lost.

Most of American political history can be seen through the lens of battles over enfranchisement, waged by a waxing and waning faction that wants to keep what it views as un-American outsiders from having too much influence. This faction was part of the appeal of the “birther” movement that claimed Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States—the movement that brought Trump to prominence. This faction was also behind the revision of North Carolina’s electoral rules that was plainly aimed at reducing Black voter turnout, almost immediately after the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling set aside the requirement that the state get the Justice Department’s permission before making such changes.

Before that, the progenitors of today’s sedition caucus were behind poll taxes and literacy tests. They were behind the “white primary” in several southern states in the early 1900s, a tool used by the Democratic Party to limit electoral participation to white people. Because Democrats dominated in those states, winning primaries amounted to winning general elections. All of these rules were deliberately put in place as a scheme to get around the Fifteenth Amendment, which had given Black Americans the vote.

This faction was behind the chaos surrounding the 1876 presidential election, the last significant dispute in Congress over presidential electors. On January 6, Senator Ted Cruz proposed the creation of an electoral commission modeled on the one Congress had created in 1877—as if that commission had been a typical mechanism for resolving a typical political disagreement. In fact, that election was disputed after it was marred by violence from Democratic Party–aligned paramilitary groups that sought to intimidate Black voters. The commission decided the election in favor of the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. The South accepted this result in exchange for the end of Reconstruction, which enabled the disenfranchisement that followed.

Until the mid-to-late 20th century, most of the work done by the antidemocratic faction in American politics was done on behalf of the Democratic Party. Because American parties are coalitions, the groups in one coalition can and do shift to the other, especially as the groups themselves evolve and change.

Today, the seditionist faction is in the Republican Party, and it will be hard to evict. Coalitions tend to include people who disagree with one another, but they set aside those disagreements in an effort to achieve their common goals.

The sedition faction is Republican because it is closer to the Republicans’ core conservative ideology. Party coalitions can be fluid, but they are not random. The sedition faction left the Democratic Party in the 1960s and ’70s, as civil-rights liberals became more influential in that party. Meanwhile, the modern conservative movement bound together a pro-business, anti-regulation economic position with a cultural, religious, and populist position that tends to oppose policies aimed at addressing racial inequality. This coalition benefits when Black voters, overwhelmingly Democratic, vote less. Principled Republicans may prefer not to give in to the antidemocracy faction’s worst impulses, but the two groups agree on more than they disagree on.

In the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, Republicans outside the sedition faction may be willing to see Democrats win a few elections in the short term if it means saving democracy. But Republicans won’t make that sacrifice for long.

Longer-term change would require an overhaul of American political institutions, but the reforms now under discussion—including popular versions of ranked-choice-voting—are modest. They are unlikely to radically change the incentive to form a large party coalition. Certainly not before the next elections.

Instead, what is likely is continued conflict within the Republican Party among its factions, with the sedition caucus emboldened by the attack on the Capitol but also chastened by the reaction to it.

The prizes of the Republican Party—a presidential nomination, its cherished name—are too valuable for anyone to back down. The lesson of the Tea Party is instructive. The Tea Party was also a faction within the Republican Party—indeed, it was the precursor to the Trump faction. As the political scientist Rachel Blum argues, the Tea Party also didn’t trust the establishment and felt betrayed by it. But this faction didn’t form its own party; it stayed and fought for influence within the party. In the near term, mainstream Republicans will fight back against the sedition caucus—but not at the expense of dismantling the party forever.

Neither party’s institutions are well equipped to prevent factions from invading. Party leaders do have ways of managing conflict and avoiding nominees out of step with their values, but now that the antidemocratic faction of the GOP is has representatives among the party brass—the House minority leader and minority whip both voted to contest the electoral tallies in two states—it cannot simply be shut out. It has to be bargained with.

Perhaps the prodemocracy Republicans’ best bet is to tell their seditionist fellow party members the truth about the 2020 election. Republican voters will not listen if Democrats tell them that the vote was not fraudulent. But they may listen to an intraparty debate in which Republicans vigorously defend the right to vote, even if it means losing elections.

Or perhaps they won’t listen. But the party has to have that debate.