How the Republican Party Rules a Nation That Hates It
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.
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.
5. Trump Is Not a Traditional Republican
A fifth factor and one that is distinctive to the 2016 election is that Trump didn’t run as a traditional Republican. He roiled the Republican establishment. He denounced free trade, criticized the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, rejected regime change as good foreign policy, and cozied up to Vladimir Putin. He mocked more traditional pro-business Republicans like Jeb “Low Energy” Bush and “Little Marco” Rubio and claimed to speak for working-class “forgotten Americans” abandoned by big globalist corporations. Trump’s “protectionist” and “isolationist” “populism” is part of how he won as a Republican in a country that disapproves of the “free trade” and imperial Republican Party.
6. Devaluation of Policy
A sixth factor is the mass media’s elevation of candidate personality over policy substance. Most Americans are left-leaning progressives on the big policy issues of our time. If elections were fought primarily over policy issues and the U.S. elections system set up to enable third- and fourth-party participation (quite the opposite being the case), parties to the left of the Democrats would do very well. Even in a binary system like the one that prevails, in long-standing violation of most Americans’ sense that the two dominant political organizations do not represent the real spectrum of public opinion, elections fought over policy would not be won by the farthest right of the two major parties.
But U.S. elections are giant marketing contests pitting one brand of candidate “character” against another. These highly personalized and superficial contests push policy to the margins. The mass media obsesses over the most minute matters of candidate personality and history, neglecting critical matters like, say, the imminence of ecosystem collapse. During the three corporate media-staged presidential debates, not a single moderator asked a question about global warming.
7. The Electoral College
A seventh factor is the antidemocratic atrocity known as the U.S. Electoral College—an explicitly authoritarian overhang from the late 18th century. For the fifth time in American history and the second time this century (the most recent previous example being George W. Bush versus Al Gore in 2000), the U.S. presidency will be handed to a politician who did not win the popular vote — the final tally is likely to show that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2 million. It is an open violation of the democratic principle of one person, one vote. In the current political context, the Electoral College functions on behalf of the Republican Party since, like the structure of the U.S. Senate, it confers over-representation to the majority vote in smaller, whiter and more rural states that tend to be aligned with the most racist, nativist and right-wing of the two reigning parties. For what it’s worth, a significant majority of Americans think this institution should be dumped.
8. Vote Fraud and Suppression
The Electoral College is only one of multiple ways in which we don’t enjoy “one person, one vote” and majority rule in a nation that has long proclaimed itself the homeland and headquarters of popular and democratic self-rule. An eighth factor behind Trump’s win is the right-leaning fraudulence of American elections in the 21st century. It is quite possible that Hillary Clinton got enough votes to have prevailed, even under the Electoral College, in the absence of systematic vote fraud in contested states.
As in previous presidential elections, the officially tabulated contested-state vote this year contradicted exit polls at a level that defies basic statistical law. In another country, the State Department would call an election with such disparities invalid if a candidate Washington didn’t want in power had won. In the U.S., right-wing private corporations tied to the neocon establishment are in preposterous charge of proprietary vote-tabulating software — used in the past to subvert elections in the Third World — and voting machines. Along with racist voter suppression, this technological bias may have helped Trump to overcome actual voter preferences in key battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. Trump was right to warn about a rigged election but wrong to say it would be rigged against him. The opposite was the case.
Fault still lies with the Al Gore (2000), John F. Kerry (2004) and Hillary Clinton (2016) campaigns for letting the elections be close enough for horrid, widely hated Republicans like George W. Bush and Donald Trump to come out on top. With the big voter margins that any half-progressive Democratic campaign (e.g., Bernie Sanders’) would achieve over the Republican’s in a center-left nation, the gaps between exit polls and voter machine outcomes would simply be too glaring to allow stealing.
It would be better to outlaw elections altogether, as the American anarchist Emma Goldman said elites would do “if voting made any difference,” than to hold rigged elections that people think are real.
Another way in which the U.S. doesn’t practice “one person, one vote” is my ninth factor: gerrymandering. Because of gerrymandering—the lucrative business of drawing legislative districts to ensure that one’s party stays in power—the Democrats would have to win the popular vote by more than 7 points to take back the House of Representatives. At both the national and state levels, the nation’s malleable electoral districts are drawn in response to the decennial U.S. Census in such a way that the Democrats must do far better than 50.1 percent to hold power in the nation’s legislative branches. Control of state governments is critical here, for both U.S. House and state legislative districts are drawn by the party in power at the state level.
10. The Politics of Fear
Lesser-evil voting (LEV) is reason No. 10. “Pragmatic”-left advocates of LEV love to blame left-wing, third-party candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein for Republican victories in presidential elections. But the minuscule vote turned out by these “spoiler” candidates makes them a minor factor (Stein barely got 1 percent of the popular vote and did not tip things to Trump in a single state). A bigger factor is the habitual counsel of portside leaders who tell lefties every four years to hold their noses and vote for the hopelessly corporate, corrupt and imperial Democrats as the lesser evil. It’s hard to expect the Dismal Dollar Dems to be less disastrously corporate, neoliberal and imperial when top Democrats know that top progressive luminaries will always have their electoral back (in the name of LEV). This happens no matter how consistently the Democratic Party’s honchos are shown to hold their party’s progressive wing in sheer elitist contempt. WikiLeaks has revealed quite a bit about that contempt in the current election cycle.
It’s all part of a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy wherein—as Jill Stein told me in April—“the politics of fear delivers everything we are afraid of … the lesser evil paves the way for the greater evil.” LEV contributes to the vacuum of progressive voices for the legitimate rage and resentment felt by the nation’s working-class majority. The vacuum is filled by the right wing in dangerous ways. It’s an old story.
An 11th and related factor contributing to that lethal void and to the neoliberal nothingness of the Democrats is candidate-centered electoral politics itself. The American version of democracy focuses on elections and candidates. As the venerable left intellectual Noam Chomsky observed in June, “Citizenship means every four years you put a mark somewhere and you go home and let other guys run the world. It’s a very destructive ideology … a way of making people passive, submissive objects.” Chomsky added that we “ought to teach kids that elections take place, but that’s not [all of] politics.” There’s also the more urgent and serious politics of popular social movements and direct action beneath and beyond the election cycle. Chomsky wrote something similar 12 years ago:
Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. … The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction—often in close conformity to majority opinion—is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years. … So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.
The “election madness” (Howard Zinn) that defines many Americans’ sense of what constitutes politics is part of what makes the Democrats so miserably conservative and hence vulnerable to defeat by a party that most Americans dislike even more. There’s not enough of Chomsky’s “serious political action” from the bottom up to push them left.
A final factor is the supreme ignorance that the nation’s dominant ideological and cultural authorities and institutions have bred in much of the U.S. populace. Independent and critical thinking skills, and honest information and reporting, are under constant assault in the reigning corporate mass media. The double-whammy of infantilizing, unreal media and fading public education generates millions of dumbed-down people who know little about basic things like why the planet is warming, what fascism is (historical literacy being dangerously low) or even the names of the world’s continents. An open demagogue like Trump helps such Americans feel better about themselves. He channels their resentment of those who know about things such as why the Arctic ice cover is melting.
“We celebrate ignorance,” Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges notes. “We have replaced political discourse, news, culture and intellectual inquiry with celebrity worship and spectacle.”
So Why Did We Bet on Hillary?
Given all these factors, why did so many of us — this writer included — pick Hillary Clinton to win the election? We believed the “expert” pollsters. (I’ll never repeat that error.) And we could not fathom that someone as atrocious and noxious—sexist, racist, nativist, police-statist, climate-change denying, authoritarian, selfish, vicious, anti-abortion, juvenile, petty, Twitter-addicted and maybe even fascist—as the reality television bully Donald Trump could clear all the establishment hurdles and ascend to the most powerful office in the world. It was just too surreal, too dystopian, too appalling to wrap one’s mind around. We thought that in the special and awful case of Trump, the normal patterns favoring a Republican victory in the presidential election would not apply.
We were wrong. Now we are staring into the face of a coming presidency that promises to be catastrophic, something that is going to take heroic and dedicated mass activism to survive.