Behind the Republican Party Crack-up

The Republican Party’s boosters, and even many of its critics, attribute the party’s rightwards radicalization to an increasingly working-class base. Unsupported by the evidence, this view neglects the deeper roots of the party’s evolution in the uniquely American context of institutionally enfeebled political parties and a disorganized but still dominant employer class.

Has the GOP become a working-class party? On its face, the question is absurd. Whatever the modern Republican Party is, its historical analogues are not the parties of the working class. The party has virtually nothing in common with the SPD (Social Democratic Party) of prewar Germany, the SAP (Swedish Social Democratic Party) of the Meidner Plan, or Lula’s PT (Workers’ Party). Even the decrepit Socialist International, which once counted among its member parties Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, would surely balk at extending admission to the Republican Party.

Yet many Republicans themselves are convinced that their party has indeed made a turn to the working class. The night of the 2020 election, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri tweeted, “We are a working-class party now. That’s the future.”1 A few months later, Representative Jim Banks, chair of the influential Republican Study Committee, wrote a memo to House minority leader Kevin McCarthy making this case in more detail. Banks argued that the two parties were undergoing “coalitional transformations,” with the GOP becoming a party of the working class, and the Democratic Party becoming a party of professionals and the rich. The result was a historic opportunity for the Republicans to redefine themselves, and, in so doing, secure the “permanent Republican majority” the party has been chasing for the past two decades.2

Liberals have also expressed worry over this prospect. Since at least the 1990s, liberal writers have sounded the alarm about the defections of white workers from the Democratic coalition. At different moments, liberal analysts have pointed to different causes for their alleged abandonment by the white working class. In the 1990s, Thomas and Mary Edsall identified the backlash to the party’s embrace of civil rights.3 In the early 2000s, Thomas Frank highlighted Christianity and cultural conservatism.4 More recently, Thomas Piketty has argued that the Democrats are but one example of a broader phenomenon across the advanced capitalist world, in which educational polarization replaces class polarization, with the highly educated voting liberal and the less educated voting for various forms of conservatism.5 It is not only the hopeful right who sees the working class turning the wrong shade of red.

These arguments were, of course, given a healthy fillip by Donald Trump’s election in 2016. And indeed, researchers have found real evidence that the white working class was quite important to Trump’s victory. Mike Davis, writing in these pages, drew attention to the role of plant closings in key counties in pushing white workers toward Trump.6 Other researchers have found that white workers comprised a crucial portion of the bloc of 2012 Barack Obama supporters or nonvoters who went for Trump in 2016.7 Trump, in his own vulgar way, endorsed Piketty’s argument about educational polarization, proclaiming, “I love the poorly educated.”

Yet for all the noise about the GOP’s transformation into a working-class party, the claim has remarkably little basis in fact. Examination of survey data reveals that the working class has undergone a slight shift toward the Republican Party, but it is nothing resembling the kind of “coalitional transformation” claimed by party boosters. Similarly, there is no evidence that workers are today a more important constituency in the Republican Party than in the past. The GOP, simply put, is not transforming into a working-class party.

There’s no question, however, that it has become a different kind of party than American politics are accustomed to. Though complaints about political polarization in the United States are ubiquitous, it is by now widely accepted among political scientists that “the main cause of polarization has been a move to the right by Republicans.” In comparative perspective as well, the Republican Party stands out. Analysis of its 2016 platform by the Manifesto Project places the GOP closer to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland than Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union), and to the right even of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.8

Moreover, the GOP has embraced politics that often run directly counter to the preferences of American capital. The government shutdowns it forced while in opposition in 1995–96 and 2013, and while holding the presidency in 2018–19, brought demand shocks and economic uncertainty with them, in the service of political goals (budget cuts, stopping Obamacare implementation, and a border wall with Mexico) that could hardly be said to be set in Fortune 500 boardrooms.9 Tensions between the party and the corporate power elite reached new levels in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, when the bulk of congressional Republicans still refused to disavow Trump’s claims of election fraud. In response, a number of companies, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, vowed to withhold campaign contributions from Republicans who voted against certifying the election results.10 Although the boycott of election conspiracy pushers soon fell apart, it underscored the growing distance between the Republican Party and the business lobby.11

This transformation in the party was not driven by a change in its voting base. Instead, it stems from the interaction of two transformations in American politics and society: the weakening of the parties since the 1970s, and the political disorganization of corporate America since the 1980s.

American parties have been institutionally weak by international standards since at least the early twentieth century. As ideologically undefined catchall parties, they existed more as confederations of local political machines than genuine national institutions. However, beginning in the 1970s, changes in party rules, congressional rules, and campaign finance law all combined to hollow out the parties even further. The result is that American political parties barely exist except as networks of funders, campaign services vendors, and candidates. Decisions such as candidate selection are instead outsourced to the primary system. This same system only magnifies the power of money in deciding party politics, since the parties possess few institutional resources for resisting it.

Sorry, but this article is available to subscribers only. Please log in or become a subscriber.