This is the Republican Party today. In the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, trying to corral a fractious majority, has ordered an impeachment inquiry into President Biden over his son’s financial entanglements, even as elements in his caucus push to shut down the government unless there are drastic cuts in spending. In the Senate, Mitt Romney announced his plan to retire, having declared to his biographer that “a very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”
In Wisconsin and North Carolina, G.O.P. legislators push the envelope of hardball tactics to remove or disempower Democrats in other branches of government. And in the presidential campaign, Republican contenders struggle to make the case for a non-Trump candidacy without antagonizing Donald Trump’s many supporters, and often avoid major spheres of public policy.
Together these depict a party that is preoccupied with antics that crash into the guardrails of American political life and conspicuously lacks a coherent, forward-looking vision for governing. A modern political party has devolved into a racket.
The country needs a right-of-center party. But today, as the G.O.P. has lost a collective commitment to solving the nation’s problems and become purposeless, the line separating party politics from political conspiracy has frayed. Mr. Trump, in this way, is the product more than the author of that collective party failure.
The Georgia election case against Mr. Trump and 18 others makes for a particularly powerful X-ray of the party. The sheer array and specific identities of those indicted in the case highlights how easily a conspiracist approach to political life, unconstrained by a party now incapable of policing boundaries or channeling passions into a larger purpose beyond raw hardball, can justify and compel illicit machinations.
The defendants in the Georgia case represent every major component of what scholars term a modern “party network”: formal party organizations at the state and local level (like the former Georgia party chairman David Shafer), informal activist and interest groups (like John Eastman of the Claremont Institute) and candidate-centered operations (like Harrison Floyd of Black Voices for Trump).
Beyond those indicted, the broader party work of evasion and deflection contributes to the conspiracy. The posture’s stock-in-trade is an “anti-anti” discourse, which focuses on excoriating foes rather than making explicit defenses of behavior or positive arguments about plans for the country. As Senator Romney described the dynamic among his colleagues, “These guys have got to justify their silence, at least to themselves.” A conservative media ecosystem, including Fox News, helps enable a politics of performative antics and profits handsomely from it.
The Trump-focused personalism that has defined Republican politics since 2015 is more a symptom than the cause of the party’s pathology. Indeed, the combined conspiracy of insider electoral malfeasance and outsider “anti-anti” attacks says less about how spellbound the party is by Mr. Trump than about how aimless it has become beyond the struggle for power and the demonization of its enemies.
Conspiracism has a long provenance on the American right, reaching back to McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. So does a ruthlessly mercenary view of political parties. A speaker at the second Conservative Political Action Conference in 1975 deemed parties “no more than instruments, temporary and disposable.” Such activists soon occupied the party’s commanding heights.
Along with that activism came the constriction of the party’s vision for the public good. Starting in the 1970s, Republicans won elections by marrying a regressive economic agenda with us-versus-them populist appeals. At moments like the “Reagan revolution,” Jack Kemp’s work to broaden conservatism’s appeal to more working-class voters or George W. Bush and Karl Rove’s ambition to build an enduring Republican majority around an “opportunity society,” the party’s collective effort could take on a confident and expansive cast.
But the programmatic side of the party, under the leadership of figures like Paul Ryan (a Kemp protégé), came eventually to alienate even the party’s own base with an unpopular agenda more and more tailored to the affluent.
By 2016, as a demagogue unleashed a hostile takeover of a hollowed and delegitimized party, the conspiracism and the transactional view of political institutions had fully joined. Conspiracismbrought about active conspiracy.
But conspiracy and party have an even longer history, one that stretches back to the frenzied and unbounded politics of the early Republic. In the 1790s, the emergent parties of Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans fell into personalized strife, but possessed neither the legitimacy nor the machinery to channel and stabilize the conflict. The organizers of new party activity on both sides were, to a one, avowedly antiparty politicians, and so they conceived of their efforts as a temporary expediency — emergency measures necessary to combat the nefarious conspiracies threatening to undermine the Constitution.
In an era in which personal reputation was still inextricable from conflict over public matters, politicians refused to accept their opponents as legitimate, let alone as constituting a loyal opposition.
For example, the vitriol and paranoia that attended the election of 1800, pitting the incumbent John Adams against Thomas Jefferson, underscored the danger that a politics unfettered by strong parties poses to the Republic. The election featured not merely epic bouts of mudslinging but credible threats of collective violence and secession from both sides.
The construction of mass political parties in subsequent generations — organizations with huge electoral bases and institutions like nominating conventions for party decision-making — channeled individual ambition into collective public purposes. At times, to be sure, as when Democratic pioneers of the mass party of the 19th century aimed for a cross-sectional politics that would sideline the divisive slavery question, the stability achieved through party politics actually suppressed conflict necessary to providing genuine political alternatives.
But with mass parties came a shared understanding that the erosion of collective party principle could threaten a reversion to the 18th century’s politics-as-cabal. As the early political scientist Francis Lieber put it in 1839, “all parties are exposed to the danger of passing over into factions, which, if carried still farther, may become conspiracies.”
The Republican Party of the 21st century has succumbed to that danger, and so revived something of the brittle and unstable quality of politics in the Republic’s early years. This leaves the Republic itself, now as then, vulnerable.
Parties organize political conflict — what the political theorists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum term “the discipline of regulated rivalry” — but they also offer projects with visions, however blinkered and partial, for how societies should handle their challenges and build their futures.
Without that commitment to solve problems, the tendencies to conspiracism and ultimately conspiracy prove harder to resist. Barring the sort of fundamental course correction that typically comes only from the defeats of many political actors in multiple elections, those tendencies inside the Republican Party will endure long after, and regardless of how, Mr. Trump departs from the scene.
This is not to impugn every Republican. As confirmed by both the federal and Georgia election-related indictments, many Republican officials, like the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, resisted intense pressure to interfere with the election and did their duty. And for all their defenses of Mr. Trump against his several indictments, his Republican presidential rivals have generally shied away from taking the critical step of saying they would have acted differently from Mike Pence when the Electoral College votes were counted at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But these responsible individual actions simply cannot substitute for a conspicuously missing party project.
Might that project emerge from Republican governors? Lacking the option of substituting antics for governance, they have forged viable approaches in power. Indeed, many of the country’s most popular governors are Republicans.
But our polarized political system is also a nationalized one, where state-level success as a problem solver too often obstructs rather than clears a path to national influence within the Republican Party. And we have no illusions that behavior dangerous to democracy will lead to long-lasting punishment at the polls.
To see the personalism around Mr. Trump in the context of the entire party is to see past the breathless statements about his magnetic appeal and to observe a party more bent on destroying its enemies than on the tough work of solving hard problems.
As long as that remains so, the impulse to conspiracy will remain, and democracy will depend on keeping it in check.
Sam Rosenfeld, an associate professor of political science at Colgate, and Daniel Schlozman, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, are the authors of the forthcoming “The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics.”
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