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How the Republican Party Rules a Nation That Hates It

Posted on Nov 25, 2016

By Paul Street

theilr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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The white nationalist and arch-regressive Republican Party is an unpopular political organization in the United States. Thanks to the chasm between its militantly pro-big business and right-wing record and agenda on one hand and the progressive sentiments of most Americans on the other, the Republican Party is viewed unfavorably by 62 percent of the nation’s populace. Just a third of the citizenry holds a favorable view of the “Grand Old Party” (GOP).

And guess what? The Republicans are about to assume control of all three branches of the federal government. They won the U.S. presidency (the executive branch) and retained control of both chambers of Congress (the legislative branch). Donald Trump’s presidential victory means the Supreme Court (the top of the judicial branch) will be tilted to a right-wing 5-4 majority sometime next year, with disastrous consequences.

Republicans—leaders of a party viewed with disapproval by nearly two-thirds of the population—have control of 34 of the nation’s 50 state governor positions, the GOP’s best gubernatorial showing since the 1920s. The Democrats have lost 939 state legislative seats under President Obama. They will control both the governor’s office and legislature in just five states (California, Oregon, Hawaii, Connecticut and Rhode Island). By contrast, the Republicans now hold both the executive and the legislative branch in 25 states.

How do we explain this seeming anomaly? Below I discuss 12 interrelated and overlapping factors behind the strange political dominance of the Republicans in a country that rejects their party. 

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1. Dismal “Dollar Democrats”

A first and obvious factor is the nature of the Democrats, once described by Kevin Phillips as “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.” It’s not just the Republicans who have moved to the right of majority public opinion under the pressure of big corporate and financial donors in a new Gilded America. The dismal, demobilizing “Dollar Democrats” walked out long ago on their onetime imperfect but still not insignificant connection to the majority working class, the poor and civil rights. This stark neoliberal abandonment and related drift further right toward national and transnational capital (the real deep-state power atop the Democrats since at least the early 20th century Progressive Era) dates from the 1970s.

The neo-Dickensian Democrats have tried to cloak their cold, neoliberal (hypercapitalist) agenda in the fake-progressive veneer of multicultural identity politics—in a commitment to “diversity” meant to veil their allegiance to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. But the material reality and harsh experience of low and stagnant incomes for the many are not so easily escaped. A party perceived (for good reason) as not delivering the goods because of its captivity to a financial sector that has been actively dismantling American industry and development for decades will pay a price at the polls, opening the door to the other party claiming to stand for “change.” It will lose votes to the other party and to apathy and nonvoting. At the same time, liberal Democrats’ often over-the-top commitment to an almost childish and openly manipulative degree of racial and gender identity politics often becomes a sure-fire way to alienate people in the nation’s white working-class majority.

2. Change Rotation

A second factor is a matter of timing. Before 2003, home field advantage in the Major League Baseball World Series was formally switched each year between the winner of the American League and the winner of the National League. If your team won the American League in a year your league happened to have the home-field nod, then that was your fortuitous advantage. An analogous sort of logic works for the political party not in presidential power. After one or more terms out of office in a global neoliberal era, major-party presidents are bound to disappoint the citizenry because they lack the power to significantly reduce economic inequality, insecurity and poverty—even if they sincerely want to. In 2008, after eight years of neoliberal misery under Republican rule marked by a disastrous foreign policy (the invasion of Iraq) and culminating in the onset of the Great Recession, it was the Democrats’ moment to seize the binarily switched mantle of “hope” and “change” (also Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992)—just as they had done to defeat another George Bush 16 years earlier. It helped that Obama was perceived, somewhat incorrectly, as an “outsider” from beyond the widely and justifiably hated, dollar-drenched Washington establishment. In 2016, it was the Republican candidate’s turn. Trump garnered a “change” dividend not just from running under the banner of the party out of presidential power but also from being outside the political class—and from being distinctly non-wooden and “authentic,” if viciously toxic, in style.

3. Bad Candidates

A third factor is the wooden nature of the candidates the Democrats tend to put up for the presidency. It takes a special telegenic charisma to bring the Democrats across as a “party of the people” when it is really a party of big transnational capital. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had a good measure of that “X factor.” Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who also was saddled with the stigma of being corrupt) did not. The 2016 Clinton campaign, with Hillary’s yard signs pointing to the right, was stuck with the unenviable task of trying to rally millions of voters to an unpopular, excessively conservative contender on the grounds that she was less awful than her Republican opponent. That’s always a tough sell.

4. Low Turnout

A fourth factor is the large number of nonvoters in U.S. elections. Trump won the 2016 presidential election with votes from just a little more than a quarter of the nation’s electorate. The United States has long been plagued by low voter turnout—something that should be less than surprising when we consider that both reigning U.S. parties stand well to the right of the populace and that a solid majority of Americans have long told pollsters that the two dominant political organizations do not adequately represent the real spectrum of opinion in the country.

Fully 42 percent of the nation’s eligible voters sat out this year’s election, one of the most bitterly fought presidential contests in American history. Turnout is always lowest among poor and minority voters, on whom the Democrats depend. Low turnout by poor and nonwhite people, fed by the Democrats’ abandonment of its onetime connection to the bread-and-butter issues of the nation’s working-class majority and its many millions of poor people, is a big problem.


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