Republicans are in a strong position. The party has the White House and Senate, and a majority on the Supreme Court. No sitting president has been denied a second term for more than 30 years. Despite a recent cool down, the economy is humming. Polls suggest partisans are buoyant. Sixty-nine percent believe the country’s “best days are ahead of us,” according to a recent Gallup poll. A survey from the same company earlier this year showed 89 percent of Republicans were “satisfied” with “the overall quality of life” in the U.S.
It’s at times like these political parties should be planning for the future and using the luxury of governing to sharpen the expression of core values, hone ideas on important policies, cultivate bright minds, invest in a deep bench of talented candidates, and strengthen their institutions.
Worryingly, the GOP is not doing much of this.
The inaction is somewhat attributable to an internal tug-of-war over the party’s ideological direction. Behind the scenes, Donald Trump’s populism and the establishment’s traditional conservatism struggle for ascendency.
Still, parties fight, and doctrinal squabbles are often the sign of a growing one. The GOP’s lack of forethought is more troubling. It doesn’t seem committed to the long game of American politics and the success that brings about significant and durable public policy.
An ephemeral “cult of personality” often grips the party of the president. The Democrats’ were so star struck by Barack Obama they forwent a great deal of institution building. Trump takes it to another level, however. He’s disinterested in anything but personal success in 2020. His re–election campaign has subsumed the Republican National Committee in an unprecedented attempt to focus the party on returning him to office — at the expense of a broader strategy to win back the House and protect the Senate majority. The RNC is raising money at a historic clip, and Trump was willing to let it give to congressional candidates when he was not on the ballot in 2018. Now it’s everyman for himself, and the president has tight control of fundraising and disbursement.
Trump has also fashioned a GOP coalition for the short term. It is whiter than it has ever been. It is older than it has been for decades. Most of its sub-groups are shrinking as a proportion of the American population. Demography is not destiny, but the current polarization and rigidity of our politics makes it difficult for parties and candidates to peel off groups of voters from the other side. The situation predates Trump, but he’s hardly the kind of leader who can broaden and diversify the Republican coalition under such conditions.
Other Republican politicians don’t look to the horizon, either. Until recently, most Republican candidates, even at the federal level, had vocations outside of politics, particularly in business. They brought real-world knowledge and motivation to solve real-world problems. Drawn to politics by ideas or commitment to service, they developed a deep affinity for a party that nurtured them. The spoils of electoral victory were the chance to make policy, a purposive effort to mold the country’s future in the shape of their experiences and aspirations. They cared for their political progeny, tending to candidates and ideas knowing the party’s — and indeed country’s — success depended upon their guardianship.
Now, these spoils are distinctly personal. They are the office itself or, for the party’s middle tier, personal financial security for a few years — an appointment or secure flow of clients for a consulting or lobbying business.
Today, a sizeable proportion of Republican office holders and activists are professional politicians with backgrounds as political aides, consultants, or in the media. They’re attracted to the field to make a living. Tribalism motivates them but they are, with livelihoods on the line, paradoxically for themselves. The goal has always been to defeat the other side. But, in the past, this followed electoral combat fought over ideas, not an obsession to see your opponent vanquished. And victory was marked by modesty; it was not an occasion for obnoxious celebration and juvenile name-calling.
The party is also not the receptacle for intellectual ferment it once was. Think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Cato, and Heritage still churn out interesting stuff. Intelligent debate and analysis of conservative ideas still fill the pages of the National Review and other, deeper, publications like American Affairs and National Affairs, which, in some ways, are having a kind of renaissance. Committed conservative donors and foundations see the importance of investing in ideas. But this is demanding work with little immediate pay-off. It doesn’t seem to have much of a Republican audience in the era of Trump and ‘politainment;’ a time when its partisans mimic the words of a Sean Hannity rather than digest the thoughts of a Bill Buckley.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.