Five Structural Reasons for Lasting Republican Power
Why Republicans will be in power even after Democratic Party voting gains.
- Trump’s central building block has been court packing. That greatly alters the political balance in the judicial apparatus.
- The Republican Party, both demographically and socio-economically, is a structural minority party. Therefore it has a laser-like focus on massaging who gets to vote.
- The US constitutional system and its vaunted checks-and-balances are heavily weighted toward blocking, stopping and reversing forward progress.
- Trump’s presidency is a dream for the US plutocratic class. Since the days of the Founding Fathers, rich Americans have been afraid that their feudalist dream would be curtailed by the common people.
- Grover Norquist wants to shrink down the US federal government until it is small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.
#1: Court packing
Trump’s central building block has been court packing. In addition to appointing hardline conservative Supreme Court justices, Trump entered office with more than 100 federal judge vacancies, with more to come over the rest of his term.
That greatly alters the political balance in the judicial apparatus. And, of course, as with the Supreme Court, federal judges face no term limits or mandatory retirement age.
Plus, Republicans act smartly. They have been studying how best to take over the courts for half a century. They generally tend to appoint people still in the earlier parts of their careers, thus benefitting judicially to maximum effect from expected long life spans.
However, the judicial branch is just one core building block of why Trump’s current tenure in the Oval Office will likely have a “40-Year Shadow.”
#2: Who gets to vote?
The Republican Party, both demographically and socio-economically, is a structural minority party, as proven by the fact that it has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven U.S. presidential elections.
To keep up as best it can under those precarious circumstances, Republicans have a laser-like focus on massaging who gets to vote.
Already before Trump’s arrival, states in the American South, virtually all in Republican hands, eagerly pursued the collapse of the Voting Rights Act, with its potentially drastic effects. (African-Americans, for example, might find themselves purged from the lists of eligible voters by the thousands.)
Once again, there is profound method to the madness. In view of the rise of rampant voting suppression by state governments, the appointment of Jeff Sessions, an archconservative and the former Senator from Alabama, to the post of U.S. Attorney General was no accident.
To put the ardent voting right opponent into that office was a key policy move. Given that Sessions is officially tasked with voter protection(!) enforcement, his appointment was literally akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
#3: Minority party protections
The third building block explaining why Trump will cast such a long shadow even long after he has disappeared from center stage is related to the voting structures in the U.S. Congress itself.
Specifically, the baked-in minority party protections in the U.S. Senate make it very difficult to correct any of Trump’s extremist acts even long after he has departed from office. These include the arcane anti-majoritarian rules such as unbalanced composition relative to population distribution. Or consider the senate, granting individual senators, via the absurd “secret hold” system, the right to block legislation.
The latter gives small rural states (often in Republican hands) the same voting power as large states (often in Democratic hands).
All this flies in the face of the carefully created image of a “dynamic” United States. In reality, the U.S. constitutional system and its vaunted checks-and-balances are heavily weighted toward blocking, stopping and reversing forward progress.
It is not suited to rapid movement forward, no matter how urgent. Consequently, the U.S. political system is also not suited to easily undoing damage already inflicted.
This is very different in EU parliamentary democracies where a change in the governing party can re-establish previous political preferences rather effectively.
How to move forward again?
Progress, or even preventing abuses of power such as those currently under way in the case of the United States, depends far more heavily on broad consensus among different sets of personalities in power than it does on party control of specific offices.
To make the deliberately rickety U.S. political system function at all, the system relies on so-called supermajorities to avoid filibusters, vetoes, etc. or to secure treaties and confirmations. However, it is very hard to implement constructive actions or to halt destructive actions.
But, no surprise here, it is very hard, if not often practically impossible, to establish such super-majorities who would that agree on what to do next.
Even worse, once fundamental legislative goals of Trump and his zealous Republicans have been implemented, it is very hard to reverse those changes. This most specifically concerns gutting the federal budget, the EPA and environmental regulations, the State Department and untold other vital civil service functions.
In the conservatism-favoring logic of the U.S. federal political system, once a budget cut or tax reduction has been made, that becomes the new normal. Republicans have quickly done this in Trump’s first year.
Any future increases in spending, no matter how crucial an investment may be, will have to be offset by other spending cuts elsewhere. (Perish the thought of raising revenues.) Even the self-imposed Congressional rules of budgeting rules heavily favor cuts over increases.
That is why Trump’s accidental presidency has been such a dream for the U.S. plutocratic class. Ever since the days of the Founding Fathers, rich Americans have been gravely worried that their feudalist dream in the “new world” would be curtailed by the aspirations and demands of the common people, those pesky “hoi polloi” demanding their fair share.
To prevent the lowly classes from having an effective political voice, the U.S. Senate was established, very much like a House of Lords in the UK, as having the upper hand over the House of “Representatives.”
Keeping too much “popular” rule from happening also explains the ardent gerrymandering efforts designed at the state level for the U.S. House of Representatives.
What Republicans try to achieve here is ultimately to prolong their feudalist hold on political power for as long as possible.
They do so by artfully designing Congressional election districts that have nothing to do with administrative districts. Instead, they look like wild patchworks of winding streets and parts of neighborhoods in one leectoral district. The goal is to pack as many liberal, progressive and poor voters into one district, so that they do not matter as a voting factor in other districts. (The latter are designed to create Republican winners.)
That this distortion act tends to be a gross violation of the equal rights clause of the constitution, one which the Supreme Court should have long ago stopped, is yet another matter. But with the firm Republican majority on the Court, proper reform is becoming ever more unlikely.
The court ultimately sees itself as a key enforcement tool in the arsenal of Republican politics. That trend first manifested itself when the Supreme Court effectively elected George W. Bush as President in 2000.
Drowning the federal democracy in a bathtub
In the U.S. case, every additional agency staff hire or new federal project to fix the mess Trump will leave behind will have to be dealt with in a zero-sum manner. That means additional spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Trump also makes no secret of the fact that the benefit of the retirement wave that is underway in the U.S. federal bureaucracy allows him to remake the political structure of the country. He is closing down or defunding key government functions, including the vital collection of climate data. He pretends that this is done to improve the efficiency of the public sector. In reality, he wants to kill any notion of even-handedness at the federal level.
Grover Norquist, the skillful agitator who acts as President of “Americans for Tax Reform” has long had a dream that he must now feel to be in hand. He wants to shrink down the U.S. federal government until it is small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.