What Happens When the GOP Catches the Car?
When minority rule and unpopular policies collide
Written by George Dillard and published in Medium.com 5/5/2022
My dog hates UPS trucks (and Amazon trucks, and motorcycles, and mail trucks). We’ll be walking on a sidewalk when the hated delivery guy drives by, and she’ll mightily lunge and strain to get at him. But, of course, she’s leashed, so (hopefully) we’ll never find out what would happen if my dog had a climactic showdown with the UPS truck.
The Republican Party is like my dog (in this regard only — my dog is far more kind, dignified, and lovable than most of the current GOP). They’ve been straining toward objectives that seemed unreachable, but have been restrained from reaching them. But they’ve also been gnawing on the leash that holds them back. The leash seems about to break, and we’ll see what happens when the Republican Party gets exactly what they’ve wanted for so long.
What does the GOP want? A set of staggeringly unpopular policies. The modern GOP stands for (as far as I can tell; the party no longer has an official platform):
- Fewer restrictions on guns
- More restrictions on abortion
- Tax cuts for the wealthy
- Making it harder to vote
- Undermining the legitimacy of our democracy
- Inaction on climate change
All of these policy initiatives are unpopular, some of them staggeringly so:
- American support stricter gun control by a 52%-35% margin.
- 54% support Roe v. Wade, while 28% want it overturned.
- Tax cuts for the wealthy have a 27% approval rating and 58% disapproval.
- Making it harder to vote is unpopular by a margin of 24%-57%.
- 75% of Americans think the 2020 election was fair, and that Joe Biden clearly won.
- And 65% of Americans think the government is doing too little on climate change.
Republican politicians have spent the last decade or so — especially since Donald Trump took control of the party — performatively promising more and more radical action, especially on culture-war issues like abortion and guns, to their base. The hard-core partisans love it and have rewarded politicians who have taken the most extreme positions on these issues.
In my state of Ohio, the recent Republican Senate primary was a good example of this. It became a contest between several candidates, some of whom used to seem to be reasonable, to see who could chuck the reddest meat to the base. They kissed Trump’s ring (despite most of them having opposed him in 2016), glorified guns, burned facemasks, and lied about the election in a disgusting race to the bottom.
The modern GOP has had a great time chasing these particular cars. They’ve raised millions of dollars and won low-turnout primaries by promising to implement extreme policies that the broad majority of Americans oppose. They’ve created a whole outrage industry on cable news and the internet that encourages their base to pressure politicians in more extreme directions.
But, at the same time as their policies have become less popular, the Republicans have been gaining more actual power in government. They’ve spent the last few decades systematically taking over school boards, gerrymandering state legislatures, filling the federal judiciary with right-wingers, and using the pro-rural biases of the Senate and Electoral College to gain more power than their popular support merits. Now the GOP controls most state legislatures and the federal judiciary. After the midterms, they’ll likely control both houses of Congress. They very well may win the White House in 2024. They’re homing in on that UPS truck.
The obvious test case here is abortion. Let’s imagine that the Supreme Court goes through with its apparent desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. For many on the right, this is the summit of their political mountain. They can make good on decades of promises and hard work (including breaking many of the norms surrounding Supreme Court justice nominations — remember Merrick Garland?) by… doing something that a very consistent majority of Americans (the number has varied between 52%-66% since 1989) definitely don’t want to see.
We’re about to find out what happens when two of the big political trends of the last several decades — the increasingly unpopular extremism of the Republican Party combined with its increasing ability to exert power over all three branches of government due to demographic and structural advantages — collide.
Of course, these two trends are related. One reason that the GOP has been able to become extreme (exemplified by the Ohio Senate seat that will likely pass from “reasonable moderate” Rob Portman to “shameless Trump sycophant/culture warrior” J.D. Vance) is its structural advantage. The party knows that, through gerrymandering and hardball tactics, they can wield power despite the fact that they are in the minority most of the time. Look at the conduct of many Republican-controlled statehouses — many representatives in safe seats feel emboldened to pursue truly extreme policies.
Need I remind you that the GOP has only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since 2000 while winning the Electoral College in three of the six elections in that period? It’s not just the presidency — according to FiveThirtyEight, “the House map has had a Republican bias since at least 1968,” while the Senate has leaned toward the GOP since the 1940s. These structural advantages mean that the GOP gets more say over non-elected parts of the government, too — remember that Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, likely three-fifths of the coalition that will eviscerate Roe, would not be Supreme Court justices if the popular vote decided presidential elections (Samuel Alito, who wrote the draft abortion opinion, would likely not be on the court either, had Al Gore become president by popular vote in 2000).
We’ve been living in a country that, while not explicitly ruled by a political minority, has been veering in that direction for a while. The political minority has been doing unpopular things, all the while subverting our democratic order. It’s likely to soon do some even more unpopular things that will make it even more of a minority.
The big question is — what happens after that? It’s possible that the GOP enacts its agenda, and then becomes toxic enough that it decisively loses a few elections, causing it to moderate its positions. It’s also possible that the GOP enacts its unpopular agenda and becomes even more unpopular, but continues to win its fair share of elections due to its structural advantages.
What would happen if, despite losing the popular vote far more often than not, a minority party inflicted its agenda on an unwilling public? Would our system hold, or would a situation like this unleash unpredictable forces?
I hope we don’t have to find out.