There’s been (and I know this will kind of surprise you, but it’s true) a lot of analysis of the ways that the historical arc of the Republican Party has finally led us to a living elevator fart loudly arguing that we just shouldn’t bother holding the election because he wants to be President. People have talked about economic insecurity, racial animus, anti-Washington sentiment, sexism, misogyny, and a party apparatus that seemed bizarrely happy to bend to a knife at their own throats. But one of the things that I think hasn’t received enough attention is the way that the Republican victories of 2000 and 2002 paved the way for their eventual disarray and internal strife.
If you go back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you’ll no doubt remember a country that was pretty solidly united behind President George W. Bush. The 2002 elections gave the Republicans control of the House and Senate, as well as many state legislatures and governorships. Karl Rove, who was at that time tremendously influential in the party apparatus, decided to use this control as part of an ambitious scheme to give the Republicans a “permanent majority”, using detailed demographic information to redraw the political map in a way that made many districts so safe that any Republican could win them. (This scheme was furthered in 2010, by an additional round of redistricting, but it began in 2002.) At the time, this seemed like a plan to consolidate Republican control for generations to come…but I’d argue that it was, in outcome, a plan to permanently destroy the Republican Party. And we’re only now beginning to see how devastating it was.
Because the Republicans of the 90s, for all that they were already beginning to stoke the politics of racial resentment and mindless opposition to the Democrats on any issue, were also ferociously disciplined in getting their members to fall in line for a unified party agenda. Newt Gingrich…look, I can’t stand the man. I’m not saying I wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire, but I will say that I probably would if he weren’t. But he was a very effective Speaker of the House, and he even managed to work with Democrats from time to time on genuinely bipartisan bills. The Republicans were not, as they are now, in constant danger of throwing coups against their own leadership for being insufficiently batshit fucking crazy.
What changed? Simple. Back in those days, the Republican Party had leverage over its own members. Republican representatives had to go back to their home districts every two years and campaign, and those campaigns required them both to be reasonably responsive to the needs of their constituents and to stay in the good graces of their party. Competitive campaigns cost money, usually more than a representative could raise on their own, and the Republican Party tended to remember at election time when someone was off on their own criticizing their party leaders and who was a good soldier. That party discipline was frustrating at times, because it meant that Democrats couldn’t appeal to the conscience of individual members to peel away their votes on key issues, but it also meant that the party couldn’t be hijacked by rogue factions.
Rove changed all that. By making safe districts in which Republicans no longer needed to worry about re-election, he ensured that the party apparatus had no control over its members. Republicans no longer had to care about whether the RNC would support them through a tough campaign, because there were no tough campaigns anymore. Instead, Republicans now had to deal with competitive primaries, where they faced challengers not from the left but from the right. This was a huge problem, because they’d spent the best part of two decades motivating the base to vote with increasingly paranoid and racist rhetoric in the sure and certain knowledge that they would be selecting the candidates that the base voted for.
Instead, the base is selecting their own candidates. Those candidates are now running in non-competitive seats, and frequently campaigning and voting against the very idea of the party establishment. They believe the rhetoric that was once cynically deployed in service of keeping the legislature in safe hands, and the Republicans are increasingly finding that they have no levers to pull to keep them in line. And now that Republican extremists are in power, they have more authority and a bigger spotlight from which to promote their positions. This leads to more extremist candidates standing for election, all the way up the ladder to the national Presidential race. Trump’s defeat of the GOP establishment can be directly traced back to this decision to make a “safe space” for right-wingers. The moderates, in the hopes of removing their obstacles to power, may have removed themselves as an obstacle to others instead.
Ironically, it may be Obama who winds up saving the Republican Party from their own worst elements. He’s already announced that his post-Presidential goals are to challenge the Republican drawn maps as gerrymandering and force them to create more representative districts once more. Perhaps when the ultra-right wingers are forced to contend with actual voters, we’ll see at least a moderate amount of sanity return to the Republican Party. Until then, the redistricting plan seems to be going down in history as a classic example of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for…because you just might get it.”