The Republican Party Is Radicalizing Against Democracy
The GOP is moderating on policy questions, even as it grows more dangerous on core questions of democracy and the rule of law.
The Republican Party is radicalizing against democracy. This is the central political fact of our moment. Instead of organizing its coalition around shared policy goals, the GOP has chosen to emphasize hatred and fear of its political opponents, who—they warn—will destroy their supporters and the country. Those Manichaean stakes are used to justify every effort to retain power, and make keeping power the GOP’s highest purpose. We are living with a deadly example of just how far those efforts can go, and things are likely to get worse.
At the same time, the Republican Party is moderating on policy. On a host of issues, the left is winning. It’s not a rout—and ideological battles continue—but public opinion is trending left. Yesterday’s progressive heresy has become today’s unremarkable consensus. On top of that, Democrats have established a narrow but surprisingly durable electoral majority, holding control of the House, winning back the Senate, and taking the presidency by 7 million votes.
And so the Biden era of American politics is shaping up as a contest between the growing ideological hegemony of liberalism, and the intensifying opposition of a political minority that has proved willing to engage in violence in order to hold on to power. This fight isn’t ultimately about policy, where the gaps are narrowing. It’s about whether the United States will live up to the promise of democracy—and on that crucial question, we’ve rarely been so divided.
Big waves of reform and reconstruction in America have generally required massive political majorities. Congressional Reconstruction—which marked a second founding of the nation and the first attempt to create a multiracial democracy—relied on supermajorities in both houses, indeed the most radical supermajority in American history. The New Deal and the Great Society also harnessed congressional supermajorities to achieve enormous, lasting legislative change.
In 2020, some hoped that the colossal failures of the Trump administration and the shocking catastrophe of the coronavirus would usher in a similar landslide, but those hopes were disappointed. If COVID-19 and Donald Trump didn’t manage to produce a decisive result, it is hard to imagine what would. With structural polarization and high levels of party competition, blowout electoral victories are no longer a realistic path to achieving change. Instead, political movements win by making the controversial things they’re pushing part of the consensus.
Back in 2004, marriage equality and the Iraq War were two of the most contentious and salient political issues. President George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the conservative media were wholly invested in the propositions that the Iraq War was good and just and must be continued, and that marriage between gay people was an unprecedented assault on one of the oldest human institutions and must be opposed at all costs.
Not only were both of these issues at the center of the 2004 election; they were defining issues for the culture-war politics of the time. Everywhere you looked, the message from conservatives was that good, red-blooded, God-fearing, patriotic Americans in Red America understood the grave need for war and sacrifice to defend the nation, and opposed the new-fangled sexual politics that coastal urban liberals were trying to foist on Middle America.
But soon after the election, which Bush narrowly won, the Iraq War became an enormous political albatross for Republicans. Democrats swept to power in the House in 2006. Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, in no small part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. By 2016, Trump, who had once supported the Iraq War, was lying about his previous support and attacking everyone else for theirs. Ted Cruz told me on a podcast in 2019 that as a young conservative lawyer in Texas, he had opposed the Iraq War—which, if true, would make him a political unicorn. By 2020, Tucker Carlson, who had vocally supported the Iraq War and browbeat liberal opponents for their opposition, was railing against warmongers and endless wars. In fact, ending endless wars became a kind of right-wing rallying cry.
And this shift has had real policy consequences. Any time Trump moved toward starting another war, he faced genuine pushback from his political base. When Trump made the reckless decision to kill the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Qassem Soleimani, politicians and the American public, across the ideological and political spectrum, quickly made clear that they had no tolerance for yet another war in the Middle East.
Now, this only goes so far: The War on Terror continues, as does the war in Afghanistan, and air and drone strikes expanded under Trump, as did civilian casualties in the places we continue to bomb. We’ve not reached some wonderful new era of hegemonic peace. But the politics of the Iraq War inverted, helping the U.S. avoid another calamity of that magnitude.
And while some conservatives have redoubled their efforts to use the courts to secure religious exemptions from nondiscrimination law, and while conservatives continue to wage political battles against transgender Americans, the central issue of marriage equality has largely been rendered moot. The GOP has more or less given up. Broadsides against marriage equality or lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals have largely disappeared from the Republican Party’s mainstream political messaging.
No political victory, of course, is ever truly total or final. But liberals won, resoundingly, two of the most contentious battles of the 2004 election, even though it was the only recent presidential election in which they lost the majority of the vote. And, indeed, as the Republican Party has changed its views on the wisdom of the Iraq War, and on the fundamental equality of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, it has taken a potent political weapon away from its Democratic opponents.
The result is that voters have more or less forgotten and forgiven Republicans’ awful rhetoric and policies on Iraq and marriage equality, because voters’ memories are short. I’m personally furious that, to this day, no one involved in those activities has ever truly paid an appropriate long-term reputational price. Nevertheless, we now enjoy a kind of broad consensus that is better and more progressive than what prevailed before.
But if Democrats are winning the big policy fights, why are our elections still so close, and the nation so bitterly divided?
Imagine for a moment that you’re in a room with 100 other people. This is in the before times, so no masks! Everyone’s socializing, maybe drinking and laughing and talking. It just so happens that 52 of the people in the room are wearing sweatshirts and 48 have T-shirts on. You step outside for a moment to take a call, and when you come back, four people have gotten a little warm and taken off their sweatshirts. There are now 52 people with T-shirts on and 48 with sweatshirts.
Would you be tempted to write a big think piece about “Why This Is a T-Shirt Room Now”? Would you find yourself seized with a horrified vertigo because you don’t recognize the room anymore? Or would you even notice?
Welcome to contemporary American politics. In 2020, Georgia swung more than any other swing state and moved about five points. In politics, five points in four years is an enormous change, but again, that’s just a few people in the room switching their shirts.
Much of American political history after the Civil War was dominated by fairly durable majority coalitions in national politics. While the presidency swapped back and forth, congressional majorities endured—but no longer. In her book Insecure Majorities, the political scientist Frances Lee argues persuasively that the rapid switches in legislative control we’re seeing now between the two major parties are actually rather anomalous. Democrats and Republicans have traded control of Congress over the past few decades more frequently than at any other time since the end of Reconstruction and the dawn of the Gilded Age.
Somewhat remarkably, the country does have a narrow but improbably durable progressive majority: For the first time in American history, one party, the Democrats, has won the popular vote in seven of eight presidential elections.
But that edge is neither large nor guaranteed. The average margin of those Democratic wins is narrow, about 2.5 percent, and the growing gap between the Electoral College tipping-point state and the popular vote means the Democratic coalition is becoming increasingly inefficient. The Constitution puts a wind at the backs of Republicans and makes them more competitive than they would be otherwise. And the political coalitions aren’t fixed; the Democratic and Republican Parties are in flux.
To a degree that has little precedent, place—as opposed to region—has become a strong predictor of voting patterns. Democrats are winning fewer and fewer counties while still winning national majorities, and Republicans are winning wipe-out margins in the large majority of rural counties across the country while hemorrhaging votes in major metro areas. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 80 of the 100 counties that had the highest density of college graduates, but in 2020, Joe Biden won 84 of them.
Rural voters are moving to the right, and suburban voters to the left, in nearly equal proportion. What’s more remarkable about this density divide is that it reinscribes itself fractally. If you zoom in on precinct-level data, you’ll find that even in very rural areas, the precincts closest to the center of town are reliably Democratic, or at the very least reliably less Republican.
Other demographic cleavages are also reshaping the electorate. For much of the history of modern democracies, men and women, as groups, have not significantly diverged in their voting behavior. In recent decades, though, women have begun tipping to the left and men to the right, not just in the United States, but across OECD countries. And race remains one of our most significant dividing lines. Somewhat counterintuitively, the electorate has grown less racially polarized in recent elections; from 2016 to 2020, exit polls and precinct-level voting data suggest that Trump improved his performance among Black and Latino voters while losing ground with white voters. But that was at the margins. In the aggregate, Republicans still won majorities of white voters and Democrats won majorities of nonwhite voters.
The durability of these divisions—place, education, gender, and race—their imperviousness to events, is probably the single most salient lesson of the past year. Donald Trump’s approval rating fluctuated less than that of any other recent president. In fact, his approval rating in October 2020 was close to what it had been in February 2017. Think of everything that happened last year: A president was impeached for only the third time in American history, a contentious Democratic primary took place, and then a once-in-a-century calamity led to tens of millions of people losing their jobs and 350,000 people dying and daily life being suspended for about two months, followed by months of painful adjustments. And the result—politically—was that practically no minds were changed.
Almost every ad you see, article you read, snip of marketing copy you encounter, and sports-league promo you watch was produced by a person who has a college degree and lives in a large metro area. Nearly the entirety of mainstream American culture is produced by a cohort—urban, well-educated, increasingly diverse—that trends strongly liberal. The resentments of the right are hardly baseless; the commanding heights of American culture are largely occupied by their ideological foes.
There are, of course, real exceptions. The universe of evangelical cultural production—films, books, podcasts—is both extremely successful and widely consumed. And just because most American culture is produced by people with college degrees in metro areas doesn’t mean that it necessarily advances left-wing views. Fox News draws on urban, college-educated professionals to produce its work, but is geared toward right-wing views and viewers. Facebook is produced by the same urban, college-educated cohort but, to a great degree, acts as a funnel for right-wing information. Lots of popular media is reactionary—take television’s many cop shows, for example—or in the service of capital. Economic power in the United States is still in the hands of a ruthlessly amoral set of actors with outsize influence and little sentimental attachment to either political coalition.
All of that said, though, the people who show up to MAGA rallies aren’t wrong when they look out at most of American culture and conclude that the people producing it don’t share their worldview and values.
Which is why I think MAGAism is best understood as being about not any particular agenda so much as the question of who gets to rule. If you understand the hydraulics of polarization and resentment in these terms, you can recognize that although, at the margin, big policy disputes probably do move some voters enough to affect election outcomes—witness the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act—on the whole, what’s motivating and mobilizing the Republican coalition is a set of resentments (often intensely gendered and racialized) about who will run the country.
Policy—even good, popular policy—plays a limited role in moving the electorate. Critics of the Democratic Party, particularly those on the left, will often point out that ballot initiatives for progressive policies outperform Democratic candidates. In Florida, more than 60 percent of voters backed a minimum-wage hike, while Biden and down-ballot Democrats got rinsed.
Left-wing critics argue that if Democrats would throw themselves behind popular, populist economic messaging—things like the minimum wage—they’d have more success with some of the voters drawn to Trump. There’s a lot to that! But Biden actually supported a minimum-wage increase, and he spent some time discussing it in the second presidential debate.
What if those kinds of policy fights offer only limited returns? What if we are conflating two different issues? What if the overwhelming number of Trump supporters simply won’t vote to give control to the Democratic Party, even if the party is pushing agenda items they like? What if the driving imperative for the large majority of voters—but particularly for those on the aggrieved right—is that they want their people in control?
The contemporary GOP is on a strange trajectory. Republicans are growing more radical, extreme, and dangerous on core questions of democracy, the rule of law, and corruption, while simultaneously moderating on policy in some crucial ways.
The Republican Party is a fusion of two distinct elements with very different desires. The first is the donor class, a combination of self-serving plutocrats and genuine ideologues who are also very rich and who possess extensive and granular policy aims. Their main goals are tax cuts, deregulation, and resistance to redistribution of any kind. These goals account for the two main domestic-policy pushes during the Trump administration’s first two years, when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House: repeal of the ACA and massive corporate tax cuts. But after failing to accomplish the first and succeeding at the second, the GOP made little further effort to legislate. The donor class is more focused on the courts, where it can achieve a huge part of its objectives; the Senate spent much of its energy over the next two years confirming conservative judges.
As for the party’s base, what policy issues are MAGA rally-goers wound up about? Not the deficit or taxes, and not the ACA. In the past, those issues gave expression to their underlying grievances, but no longer. After the election, one GOP polling firm asked Republicans about their biggest concerns for a post-Trump Republican Party. Forty-four percent wanted a party that would “fight like Donald Trump,” while only 19 percent worried that a post-Trump GOP would “abandon Donald Trump’s policies.”
And what were Trump’s policies, exactly? In a few places, he deviated from GOP orthodoxy, particularly on trade and, to some extent, immigration. Polling showed that his views on these issues were quite popular among his target audience even before he took office, so in that crucial respect, Trump did move the GOP toward its voters. But I think the lesson is larger here: As long as a Trumpist GOP is sticking it to the libs, standing up for its heritage and identity, and, crucially, using every possible tactic—including flatly antidemocratic ones—to battle for power, the modern base of the GOP is willing to accommodate, or even heartily support, all kinds of wild deviations from conservative orthodoxy. If Trump had come out strongly for a $15 minimum wage, the party’s base would have backed him.
The Republican Party has already moved toward the center on some key economic issues. Paul Ryanism, as an ideology and a message, is dead; it has no real constituency. Trump pledged to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, violated that pledge by trying to slash Medicaid in the 2017 attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and generated the lowest stretch of approval ratings of his presidency. After that, the GOP under Trump largely abandoned attempts to cut the social safety net and instead became a party of reactionary Keynesianism, complete with $1,200 relief checks signed by the president.
The plutocrats and corporations that control the policy apparatus of the GOP aren’t going anywhere, and will do their best to resist the party’s ongoing move in this direction. But the utter disintegration of free-market conservatism as a coherent ideology has led to a more mercenary division of labor, in which the GOP’s moneyed interests do what they can behind closed doors and in the courts, while in public the politicians spend their time “owning the libs.”
Even so, the party is realigning. The MAGA base has come to view some parts of the economic establishment as the enemy, targets for its leaders to destroy. The Federal Trade Commission’s actions against Facebook are supported by most state attorneys general across the country, from the most liberal to the most right-wing—yet some of those same right-wing AGs were also part of the insane, seditious Texas lawsuit to throw out the votes from four other states. The common thread is that they are fighting for control. Sometimes, that produces stances that are antidemocratic and quasi-authoritarian, and sometimes—as with taking on Facebook—it yields progressive assaults on economic concentration.
That’s the strange paradox of this moment. On many policy issues, the gap between the parties is narrowing. Republican votes may well support tougher antitrust enforcement against Big Tech, for example, or provide direct cash assistance to struggling families. But at the same time, any attempt to reform the political system to make it more responsive to the will of voters—abolishing the filibuster, granting statehood to Washington, D.C., or enacting the democracy reforms included in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—is bound to provoke ferocious and implacable opposition.
Yet the fight to democratize political power is precisely what is most necessary. Any progress toward that goal, any effort to push back against minoritarian control, will lead to bitter conflict. But there is no way to avoid that fight if we’re to defeat the growing faction that seeks to destroy majority rule. No substantive victories can endure unless democracy is refortified against its foes. That task comes first.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.