Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama’s Republican primary last week puts him in position to become the state’s next junior senator and also a major embarrassment to the GOP. Moore, after all, is considered too far right even by Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association, both of whom joined the party establishment in backing Moore’s opponent, outgoing Senator Luther Strange. Moore believes “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” that former President Barack Obama isn’t a natural-born citizen (yes, still), and that Muslims such as Congressman Keith Ellison shouldn’t be allowed to hold public office. If he defeats Democrat Doug Jones, as expected, Moore will be the most extreme conservative in the U.S. Senate.
Even worse for the Republicans, Moore is likely not to be alone in his extremism, but rather the crest of a new wave of candidates who are more Trumpist than Trump himself and motivated by a deep hatred of establishment Republicans like Senate Majority Mitch McConnell. At least that’s the hope of former White House adviser Steve Bannon and his political allies, who backed Moore toward a larger goal of unseating the Republican leadership moving the party in a more nationalist direction. As The New York Times reports, “Republicans are confronting an insurrection on the right that is angry enough to imperil their grip on Congress, and senior party strategists have concluded that the conservative base now loathes its leaders in Washington the same way it detested President Barack Obama.”
All this talk of insurrection within the GOP is leading some pundits to predict the demise of the Republican Party. Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes worried that, per the title of his recent Time column, “Roy Moore signals the end of the Republican Party.” The GOP “is locked in an endless feedback loop as it tries with diminishing success to placate its most bombastic voices,” Sykes wrote. “The most obvious consequence is their inability (so far) to legislate. But in the longer term, we are seeing the crack-up of one of the nation’s two major political parties.” Trygve Olson, a former adviser to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, told The Atlantic there could be a “fracturing” of the Republican coalition, arguing that “if this eruption is about differences in core values, which I believe is the case, it becomes hard for coalition members that don’t share any underlying values to stay together.” And liberal columnist Heather Digby Parton echoed these sentiments, although in a more positive spirit, speculating that the GOP was “headed for the long-awaited crack-up.”
These predictions of Republican doom have a certain superficial plausibility. It’s hard to imagine how the GOP can remain a viable national party if it embraces figures like Moore even as the American public becomes much more socially liberal. While Moore might win in red-state redoubts like Alabama, surely his virulent homophobia will make the GOP as a whole toxic in most of America? Such speculation make sense in theory, but isn’t borne out by recent political experience. The Republican Party isn’t cracking up under the stress of increased extremism; in fact, it seems to be getting only stronger.
There’s a reason why Parton described the expected Republican crack-up as “long-awaited.” There is a long history of analysts predicting the demise of one of the two major parties. In recent memory, the Tea Party wave of 2010 was allegedly making the GOP unelectable, and Trump’s extremism in 2016, especially on racial issues, was supposed to doom his presidential hopes. But like Samuel Beckett’s Godot, the Republican crack-up is always due to arrive, but never does.
Not only does the party stay together, it flourishes. The Tea Party helped the Republicans capture the House of Representatives. GOP extremism didn’t stop the party from winning the Senate in 2014. And Trump ran the most openly racist national campaign in decades, but won a commanding electoral college victory. If the Republican Party is on the verge of a crack-up, it’s a very strange one indeed that sees them gaining a stranglehold on all three branches of government.
There are very good reasons to suspect that the Republican Party will survive whatever problems the rise of Moore-style extremism will create. Ever since the North defeated the South in the Civil War, America’s two-party system, fostered by a first-past-the-post voting system and the need to build electoral coalitions, has been remarkably stable. Despite the efforts of a myriad of third parties, most American voters think in binary terms, as if the only option is Republicans or Democrats. This means that voters are quick to look past flaws and keep voting for their side: The Republican Party has survived the Great Depression, Watergate, the Iraq war and the Great Recession of 2008 because, at the end of the day, they have enough voters who prefer even a flawed GOP to the Democrats.
Especially in recent decades, the two-party system has been strengthened by negative partisanship. Trump had massive flaws as a candidate and was widely disliked or distrusted even by Republicans. But Trump was able to keep the Republican coalition together because GOP voters hated “Crooked Hillary” even more, for a host of reasons good and bad. Just so, it’s easy to imagine Republicans who might blanch at Moore’s homophobia or Islamophobia who will still vote Republican because they hate an array of left-wing bogeymen like Antifa, Colin Kaepernick, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Negative partisanship enables the GOP to move as far to the right as they want without suffering measurable electoral penalty.
Moreover, a Moore-style GOP can remain an electoral force in the same way that the current GOP does: with a combination of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the Senate and Electoral College’s overrepresentation of small, rural, overwhelmingly white states—their bias toward conservative voters, in other words. While such a Republican Party eventually might have a harder time winning national elections, it can do well enough in Congress to block Democratic legislation.
Writing in The Atlantic, McCay Coppins accurately sees Moore’s insurgency as part of a larger pattern of populist revolt within the GOP:
Over the past quarter-century, Republican politics have routinely been upended by angry populist outbursts of this sort—from the rise of Ross Perot to the revolt of the religious right, from the Tea Party wave to the Trump insurgency. Inevitably, these episodes set off a stampede of opportunistic politicians, pollsters, and policy wonks rushing to co-opt the phenomenon and use it to advance some ideological agenda. In just the past few years, politicians as varied as House Speaker Paul Ryan, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Trump, and Moore have tried to lay claim to the conservative movement—with each arguing that their vision is the one that mad-as-hell voters are crying out for.
What’s striking is that this so-called war between the establishment and the populists always ends in the same way: with the establishment absorbing elements of the populist agenda to win elections. Seen in this light, these so-called insurgencies or civil wars never really hurt the Republican Party. Rather, they give it more energy by riling up the base. The gamble that Bannon is making is that religious extremism will create a more powerful GOP. Alas, there’s no reason to think Bannon is wrong.