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Will the GOP Break Up?

Alienated, right-wing Republican populists and mainstream establishment conservatives cannot be reconciled.

December 22, 2015

Alienated, right-wing Republican populists and mainstream establishment conservatives cannot be reconciled.

It’s time for a serious talk about what’s driving the race for the GOP nomination. Despite the emergence of Donald Trump, it’s not just about personality.

The strong resonance with which the party’s base has responded to the extreme attacks on immigrants, Muslims, the mainstream rights of women, climate science and even the very idea of government, raises questions about where the Republican Party is headed.

Donald Trump has spear-headed those attacks, but most of the other candidates have followed suit.

As is often the case, one reason these messages resonate so powerfully among GOP voters lies in the economy, especially what’s happened to their incomes.

As documented in my report for the Brookings Institution, the recent persistent income losses as people aged are unprecedented in modern America.

Households headed by people aged 35 to 39 in 1981 and without college degrees saw income gains averaging 2.3% per year under Ronald Reagan. The median incomes of comparable households in the 1990s increased 2.8% per-year under Bill Clinton. (An infographic version of the report can be found here.)

In sharp contrast, households headed by people without college degrees who were 35 to 39 years old in 2001 fell about 1% per-year from 2002 to 2013.

The politics of economic alienation

White males without college degrees make up a major share of the GOP’s base. It is therefore unsurprising that many of them blame their hard times on competition from immigrants and women.

And they see this threat to their economic and social status abetted by what they perceive as indifference to their plight under governments by both parties.

It is also not unreasonable for people who already feel vulnerable economically to be very sensitive to the specter of a new physical threat, including terrorism.

The underlying economic and social insecurity of these voters is so pronounced at the current stage that they are open to ostracizing anyone who shares the faith of the small group of terrorists in Paris and the isolated couple in San Bernardino.

Judging by the most recent TV debate of the Republican presidential candidates, most of the candidates (all but Trump and Rand Paul) also expect their base voters to welcome America addressing terrorism by going to war again in the Middle East.

Divisive fights inside the GOP between mainstream conservatives and right-wing populists are not new. In fact, they were features of the 2008 and 2012 nomination races.

However, in the past, the Republican establishment was able to paper over the split by acknowledging the noisy complaints of the right-wing populists.

John McCain did so by naming Sarah Palin to his ticket in 2008, and Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race called for anti-immigrant policies so onerous that 11 million undocumented Hispanics would “self-deport.”

Dilemma for Republican office holders

This time, it’s different. The party’s right wing is poised to claim the top of the ticket, intensifying the candidates’ competition for hyper-conservative voters.

The race has not only pushed Trump, Cruz and their anti-establishment confederates further to the right, it has also forced more traditional candidates such as Marco Rubio and even Jeb Bush to fall in line on most matters.

So, come the GOP’s presidential nominating convention next July in Cleveland, the party will almost certainly present itself as a vessel for an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-science and anti-government agenda.

These developments present a serious dilemma for the majority of Republican office holders in Congress and around the nation who still identify with mainstream conservatism.

Across the Midwest, parts of the South and most mountain and southwestern states, Republican candidates will have to choose between angering their party’s radicalized base and turning off millions of moderately conservative suburban women and millennials, on top of nearly all Hispanics and Asians.

Whatever choice these GOP candidates make, many may not survive 2016. On the day after the elections, the Republican Party will still face its Hobson’s choice.

The hard political truth is that no one can reconcile alienated, right-wing populists and mainstream establishment conservatives.

Unless the economic grounds for these radicalizing developments disappear — and strong, broad income progress returns — one side or the other may well be forced to look beyond the GOP.

Democrats to profit?

All of this sounds like good news for the Democrats. If they can enact policies and programs that sustain broad income progress, the Democrats could become the nation’s default governing party.

If not, the Democratic Party may find itself by 2020 in a bind similar to the Republicans — driven by an ideological battle between angry left-wing populists and the party’s establishment.


Economically vulnerable people are especially more sensitive to a physical threat like terrorism.

Divisive fights inside the GOP between mainstream conservatives and right-wing populists are not new.

GOP will be a vessel for an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women and anti-science agenda.

Candidates will have to choose between GOP’s radicalized base and millions of conservative voters.

If the Democrats sustain broad income progress, they could become US’s default governing party.