After the 2002 midterm elections, in which Republicans defied history and added to their House majority, excited GOP figures began speaking of a “permanent majority,” or at least one that would last a generation. George W. Bush’s reelection victory two years later affirmed that Democrats were in disarray: The era of big government was over, Bill Clinton had left a vacuum behind, and Republicans were ascendant. The 2006 elections could cement the GOP’s hold, the pundit Hugh Hewitt wrote in a book, dubbing the midterms “the fight to create a permanent Republican majority.”
Instead, the GOP took what President Bush called a “thumping,” as Democrats swept back into power on Capitol Hill. Two years later, Barack Obama thrashed John McCain in the presidential race. Bush was historically unpopular, and voters rejected Republican dogma on both the economy and foreign policy. The GOP might be finished permanently, liberal pundits hoped—especially since they expected the imminent arrival of an “emerging Democratic majority” that would deprive Republicans of voting majorities for the foreseeable future.
However—have you spotted a pattern?—this didn’t pan out either. Republicans routed Democrats in 2010 (Obama’s term for this was a shellacking), and while Obama held the White House in 2012, the GOP kept the House, and captured the Senate in 2014. Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s nomination for the presidency in 2016 elicited new, confident declarations of the death or impending death of the GOP, from liberals, nonpartisan observers, and even future Trump toadies.
The Democratic sweep in 2020, after the successful 2018 midterms, means more claims of GOPerdämmerung, but these predictions, just like the older ones, are probably not worth the 2020 Republican Party platforms they’re printed on. This is a bleak era in American politics, but it has been a golden age for scholars of the Federalists and the Whigs, whose knowledge of party collapse is suddenly in demand with pundits and reporters. The problem with these historical analogies is that they don’t account for the radically different character of party politics in contemporary America.
As Jelani Cobb noted in a thoughtful New Yorker examination of party collapse this week, the Whigs, Federalists, and old Democratic-Republicans are only the largest and most successful American political parties to go extinct. “What we refer to as the two-party system has collapsed twice before,” he writes. “The Democratic and the Republican Parties have endured as long as they have because they have significantly altered their identities to remain viable; in a sense, each has come to represent what it once reviled.”
The Federalists relegated themselves to electoral obsolescence, handing one-party rule to the Democratic-Republicans, but the American system—first-past-the-post elections and (predominantly, and later statutorily) single-member districts—more or less demands two parties. The Democratic-Republicans split, producing a new two-party system, with Democrats and Whigs. Then the Whigs fractured over slavery, with some of them creating the Republican Party. Since Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860, the Democratic and Republican duopoly has been only fitfully and weakly challenged.
Jamelle Bouie, in The New York Times, introduces some reasons to be skeptical that the collapse of either the Federalists or the Whigs is an apt comparison, parsing the specific historical context for each collapse. But the best reason to doubt a Republican collapse comes from looking not at the past but at the present. Previous party collapses have occurred when parties have splintered, and there’s no sign that that’s happening in today’s GOP, because modern political parties are much harder to break apart than their historical antecedents were.
Trump’s Republican critics have not produced any significant movement toward a Republican Party schism, in part because there are so few of them. In 2016, Never Trumpers sought to run a candidate who better represented the GOP establishment. They settled on Evan McMullin, who came in fifth, behind the Green and Libertarian candidates, with just over 700,000 votes; Trump won almost 63 million.
McMullin has discussed forming a new party in 2021, but the Republican resistance to Trump has mostly fallen into three camps. Some, such as former Senator Jeff Flake and former Representative Justin Amash, have left politics altogether. Others, such as Senator Mitt Romney, Representative Liz Cheney, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, have clung to the GOP even while bluntly criticizing the former president. A third group, encompassing pundits and public figures such as Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol, has become de facto conservative Democrats, supporting the Biden presidency.
One reason there is less schism is that the parties have fundamentally changed in nature. Parties today are nationalized, ideologically uniform, and financially wealthy, bolstered by internal and external infrastructure that manages to hold the parties together no matter what forces push them apart. The centralized nature of the parties made Trump’s takeover of the GOP possible and almost inevitable, but also decreased the chances of a split afterward.
Republicans may be struggling in, say, California, but they’re present everywhere—winning local races even where they’re shut out of statewide office. The Federalists found themselves relegated to regional-party status, and while the Republican Party is an endangered species in some parts of the country, it has structural advantages afforded by the design of the Senate, the Electoral College, and even the House. Democratic voters are highly concentrated in certain states and, more generally, in cities.
As the two parties have sorted geographically, they have also become more ideologically uniform. Each party used to have liberal and conservative wings, but they are now solidly a liberal and a conservative party. That’s one reason Romney, despite his fierce criticism of some of Trump’s actions, still voted with the former president 75 percent of the time. Even with the bracing shifts that Trump managed to force on the GOP—on issues from free trade to diplomacy—the party is still more unified on big ideological questions than it has been historically. A contemporary Republican in Texas is likely to share more with a contemporary Republican in Massachusetts than their GOP-supporting great-grandmothers did, and factors such as negative partisanship mean that one’s political party is an ever more salient social identity.
Beyond matters of policy and ideology, politics has become an industry unto itself. Enormous sums of money flow through both party apparatuses and outside groups, and politicians and operatives gather under the same banners. The Republican Governors Association includes everyone from Hogan to the devoted Trump disciple Kristi Noem of South Dakota. The National Republican Congressional Committee backs both Jamie Herrera Beutler, who spoke out in favor of impeaching Trump, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is Marjorie Taylor Greene. GOP politicians hire the same strategists and pollsters, read the same outlets, and attend the same events at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and CPAC.
This structure doesn’t make parties static; it just makes them less likely to splinter and more likely to transform themselves in order to remain electorally viable. That’s how the Democratic Party of segregation and the Solid South became the Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It also points to some of the possibilities for the Republican Party. As Cobb writes, the GOP could continue to use voter-suppression laws, combined with its structural advantages, to remain a powerful party even without the ability to win majority national support. The Democratic analyst David Shor worries that Republicans could continue to peel off the votes of ideologically conservative minority voters, a process that would be very detrimental to Democrats. The GOP could also continue to strike the dubious populist pose—more cultural than material—that Trump did.
Any of these approaches (or some combination of them) would produce a Republican Party in a generation or even a decade different from the one we know now. Fifteen years ago, Hugh Hewitt was forecasting permanent Republican dominance. Now, perhaps wised-up from that misfire, he writes, “In American politics, renewal and comebacks are never far away.” Luckily for him, that applies as much to the pundits who keep telling us a party is on the verge of obsolescence as it does to the parties themselves.