Open­ing Re­marks

How anger is chang­ing the Repub­li­can Party

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - By Joshua Green

A few days be­fore the Feb. 1 Iowa cau­cuses, Brad Martsching was bar­rel­ing down a Penn­syl­va­nia high­way, hop­ing to un­load his eigh­teen-wheeler in time to get back home to In­di­anola, south of Des Moines, and par­tic­i­pate for the very first time in the open­ing rit­ual of the pres­i­den­tial pri­mary process. Martsching, 46, had set­tled on Ted Cruz over Don­ald Trump, but was mostly nurs­ing his dis­gust at Repub­li­can lead­ers. “I’m a con­ser­va­tive. I want the Con­sti­tu­tion to be our law, not political cor­rect­ness,” he said. “I want a smaller govern­ment with less con­trol of our per­sonal lives and more con­trol of our bor­der, our fi­nances, and our safety as a na­tion.” Repub­li­can law­mak­ers kept frus­trat­ing him by ig­nor­ing their cam­paign prom­ises. “We get peo­ple that run as con­ser­va­tive and even get Tea Party sup­port—they wear that lapel pin proudly,” he said. “But when they leave for Wash­ing­ton, they leave it on their dresser at home.”

Martsching was fed up. A lot of other Iowans were, too. So they handed a vic­tory to Cruz, who i nfu­ri­ated Repub­li­can lead­ers by en­gi­neer­ing the 2013 govern­ment shut­down. And they made Trump, who’s equally un­pop­u­lar in Wash­ing­ton, a close se­cond. Add Cruz’s 28 per­cent to Trump’s 24 per­cent, and more than half of cau­cus­go­ers sup­ported an out­sider openly de­spised by the GOP es­tab­lish­ment. Vot­ers had heeded party el­ders for decades by nom­i­nat­ing es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures such as Bob Dole, Ge­orge W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Rom­ney. The Iowa re­sult was noth­ing less than a re­volt, and the mes­sage to Repub­li­can lead­ers un­mis­tak­able: Drop dead!

It’s easy to view this year’s Repub­li­can pri­mary as a cult of per­son­al­ity and no more—the rise and fall of a colorful bil­lion­aire who stars in the great­est re­al­ity show on tele­vi­sion. But what’s hap­pen­ing is much broader than Trump and Cruz. It’s an ex­ten­sion of a shift in Repub­li­can pol­i­tics that’s been un­der way for sev­eral years. Al­though the me­dia is por­tray­ing the out­come in Iowa as a re­pu­di­a­tion of Trump, it’s bet­ter un­der­stood as a re­pu­di­a­tion of the party es­tab­lish­ment—just the lat­est in a se­ries of up­ris­ings dat­ing to the 2010 elec­tion. At the con­gres­sional level, the GOP has al­ready re­aligned it­self to re­flect this anger. Al­most 60 per­cent of House Repub­li­cans were elected in 2010 or af­ter. They’ve rad­i­cal­ized their party in Congress and driven out its es­tab­lish­ment-minded speaker, John Boehner.

In the eyes of Repub­li­cans l i ke Martsching, that isn’t enough. “Over the last six years, the na­tion has re­placed al­most all the lib­er­als who voted for Obama’s pro­grams with Repub­li­cans,” he said. “So why do they keep giv­ing him things any­way? They’re sim­ply not re­spon­sive. They have a dif­fer­ent set of pri­or­i­ties. It’s crony cap­i­tal­ism.”

For all that the me­dia fix­ated on Trump and Cruz, the Iowans I spoke to were more pre­oc­cu­pied with a litany of eco­nomic and cul­tural frus­tra­tions. The same com­plaints came up again and again—so did their an­tipa­thy to­ward their own party’s lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton, who, just about ev­ery­one agreed, had stopped lis­ten­ing to them en­tirely. “Out here in the cheap seats, those peo­ple are the ones that are our big­gest en­emy,” said My­ron Bren­ner, 61, a heavye­quip­ment op­er­a­tor in Walling­ford who cau­cused for Cruz.

Cruz’s vic­tory came as a mild sur­prise, in part be­cause the last 10 pub­lic polls showed Trump win­ning by an av­er­age of 7 points, and in part be­cause the me­dia long ago cast the mogul as the lead ac­tor in the Repub­li­can drama. Trump’s out­landish be­hav­ior and at­tacks on Mus­lims, im­mi­grants, China, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the “id­iots” and “losers” op­pos­ing him made him seem like the em­bod­i­ment of the anger and anx­i­ety cours­ing through the Repub­li­can elec­torate. “I want to win Iowa,” Trump de­clared in Cedar Rapids on cau­cus day. “It’s go­ing to send such a great mes­sage that we’re not go­ing to take it. We’re not go­ing to take it any­more.”

While Trump didn’t pre­vail, his mes­sage did: Cruz, and even third-place finisher Marco Ru­bio, echoed the same

dark themes of na­tivism, treach­ery, and cor­rup­tion. Like Trump, Cruz pre­sented him­self as the sav­ior of dis­af­fected work­ing-class Amer­i­cans who are rou­tinely sold out by a “Wash­ing­ton car­tel” that en­com­passes the lead­ers of both par­ties. (In a sense, Cruz won by run­ning as a pi­ous Trump with a bet­ter turnout op­er­a­tion.) Ru­bio en­gi­neered his last-minute surge by aban­don­ing the sunny “New Amer­i­can Cen­tury” pitch he’d been mak­ing for months and ap­peal­ing to “all of us who feel out of place in our own coun­try.”

Iowa doesn’t de­cide the nom­i­nee. But it does send a clear sig­nal about the di­rec­tion a party’s tak­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the en­trance/exit poll, 65 per­cent of GOP cau­cus­go­ers be­lieved that “new ideas and a dif­fer­ent ap­proach” were the most im­por­tant qual­i­ties a can­di­date should pos­sess. Cruz and Trump have dis­tinc­tive styles—Cruz touts his ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity, Trump his per­sonal strength—but both of­fer the same ba­sic di­ag­no­sis of what’s ail­ing the coun­try, who’s to blame, and what must be done to fix it.

That they’re res­onat­ing so strongly with vot­ers sug­gests that the same wave that’s swept through Congress since 2010 is now en­gulf­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. As Pa­trick Buchanan, the for­mer Nixon aide who won a 1996 New Hamp­shire pri­mary up­set by run­ning as a pop­ulist proto-Trump, told the Wash­ing­ton Post: “The anger and alien­ation that were build­ing then have reached crit­i­cal mass now, when you see Bernie San­ders run­ning neck and neck with Hil­lary Clin­ton in Iowa and New Hamp­shire and Trump and Ted Cruz with a ma­jor­ity of Repub­li­can vot­ers. Not to put too fine a point on it, the rev­o­lu­tion is at hand.”

The ques­tion now is what ef­fect this rev­o­lu­tion will have on the Repub­li­can Party. Will its vot­ers nom­i­nate Cruz or Trump, each of whom party in­sid­ers be­lieve could suf­fer a loss that would ri­val Barry Gold­wa­ter’s land­slide de­feat in the 1964 elec­tion? Will the party break apart if they do? Or will Ru­bio or some other es­tab­lish­ment-friendly al­ter­na­tive man­age to har­ness this anger and pre­vail? And what then?

It’s too soon to say. But a Repub­li­can elec­torate in­creas­ingly com­posed of work­ing-class white vot­ers who suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ately from stag­nant wages and dim prospects ap­pears to have lost faith in party lead­ers more in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing high-end in­come tax cuts and im­mi­gra­tion re­form. Given the political and eco­nomic cli­mate, his­tory of­fers an in­trigu­ing frame­work for what could hap­pen next.

In 1955 the famed political sci­en­tist V.O. Key pub­lished “A The­ory of Crit­i­cal Elec­tions,” an ar­ti­cle pop­u­lar­iz­ing the idea that cer­tain elec­tions in Amer­i­can his­tory were more mean­ing­ful than the rest be­cause “the de­ci­sive re­sults of the vot­ing re­veal a sharp al­ter­ation of the pre-ex­ist­ing cleav­age within the elec­torate.” This be­came known as re­align­ment the­ory. Re­align­ing elec­tions, Key be­lieved, cre­ate “sharp and durable” changes in the polity that can last for decades.

Amer­i­can his­to­ri­ans gen­er­ally see five or six elec­tions as re­align­ing: 1800, when Thomas Jef­fer­son’s vic­tory crip­pled the Fed­er­al­ist Party and shifted power from the North to the South; 1828, when An­drew Jack­son’s win gave rise to the two-party sys­tem and two decades of Demo­cratic con­trol; 1860, when Abra­ham Lin­coln’s elec­tion marked the as­cen­dancy of the Repub­li­can Party and the se­ces­sion­ist forces that led to the Civil War; 1896, when Wil­liam McKin­ley and a new ur­ban political or­der were swept into power by a de­pres­sion and in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion; and 1932, dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, when Franklin Roo­sevelt’s tri­umph marked the be­gin­ning of three decades of Demo­cratic dom­i­nance. Some his­to­ri­ans ar­gue that Ron­ald Rea­gan’s 1980 vic­tory, primed by the stagfla­tion of the 1970s, was also re­align­ing.

Political sci­en­tists don’t all sub­scribe to this the­ory. It’s more of a con­cep­tual scheme, any­way, since it of­fers lit­tle in the way of pre­dic­tive power. But it’s a use­ful way to an­a­lyze political change across elec­tions. Academics gen­er­ally say two ma­jor pre­con­di­tions must be present for a re­align­ing elec­tion to oc­cur. First, as the political sci­en­tist Paul Allen Beck has writ­ten, party loy­alty must be suf­fi­ciently weak that the elec­torate is “ripe for re­align­ment.” Se­cond, there must be a trig­ger­ing event—a “so­ci­etal

trauma,” Beck calls it—such as a war or a de­pres­sion. Through­out his­tory, wars and de­pres­sions have failed to cause big shifts be­cause vot­ers weren’t primed for one. Like­wise, pe­ri­ods of voter alien­ation didn’t cause en­dur­ing swings be­tween the par­ties be­cause there was no trig­ger­ing event. But when the proper con­di­tions are present, they pro­duce “con­cen­trated bursts of change” that cause tur­moil in the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing process, the political sci­en­tist Wal­ter Dean Burn­ham wrote.

Re­align­ment the­ory was pop­u­lar in the 1960s and ’70s, but it’s faded since, be­cause the Amer­i­can elec­torate has be­come po­lar­ized to the point where long pe­ri­ods of sin­gle-party dom­i­nance no longer hap­pen. But re­align­ments can still oc­cur. They’re just more likely to hap­pen within par­ties, rather than be­tween them.

In hind­sight, the 2010 elec­tion looks like it may have set off, or at least ac­cel­er­ated, a shift within a Repub­li­can Party that, in the 30 years since Rea­gan took of­fice, has ori­ented it­self around free mar­kets, a smaller safety net, for­eign ad­ven­tur­ism, and low marginal tax rates for the wealthy. As Cruz and Trump have demon­strated, a large sub­sec­tion of Repub­li­can vot­ers—pos­si­bly a ma­jor­ity—are no longer sat­is­fied with this ar­range­ment.

Both of the nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tions for a re­align­ment are present. The Great Re­ces­sion of 2007-09 sup­plied the cat­alytic so­ci­etal trauma: Pew Re­search Cen­ter data show Repub­li­can anger at Wash­ing­ton spiked be­fore the 2010 elec­tion and has never fallen. And no one who’s turned on a tele­vi­sion or at­tended a Repub­li­can rally can doubt for a minute that at­tach­ment to party lead­ers is at a low ebb.

Even if you don’t sub­scribe to re­align­ment the­ory, the 2010 elec­tion is still a use­ful de­mar­ca­tion in un­der­stand­ing the Repub­li­can pri­mary cam­paign. Ev­ery can­di­date who’s caught fire this cy­cle came to political promi­nence af­ter 2010: Trump, Cruz, Ru­bio, Ben Car­son, and Carly Fio­r­ina all fit this bill. Those who have dis­ap­pointed the most are gen­er­ally prod­ucts of the era be­fore then: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Ka­sich come to mind.

Look­ing back, it’s clear that the forces up­end­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­maries were also present in 2012. We just weren’t look­ing for them. As they did this cy­cle, Repub­li­cans toyed with nom­i­nat­ing goofy flim­flam artists such as Her­man Cain and Michele Bach­mann be­fore set­tling on for­mer Penn­syl­va­nia Sen­a­tor Rick San­to­rum as the main ri­val to Rom­ney, the es­tab­lish­ment fa­vorite.

San­to­rum’s out­spo­ken so­cial con­ser­vatism has al­ways caused him to be viewed as a can­di­date of the religious right. But in 2012 he spoke to many of the same blue-col­lar anx­i­eties that Trump and Cruz have tapped into, propos­ing a mix of pro­tec­tion­ism, in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, re­vived man­u­fac­tur­ing, and a pu­ri­fy­ing sweep of cor­rupt Wash­ing­ton lead­ers as the rem­edy for eco­nomic and cul­tural stag­na­tion. “It was cer­tainly, at the very least, a pre­cur­sor to 2016,” says John Braben­der, San­to­rum’s chief strate­gist.

San­to­rum’s most strik­ing TV ad that year (“Re­bel­lion”) was one Braben­der cre­ated that showed work­ing-class vot­ers be­ing blind­folded and marched off a cliff by an ex­ec­u­tive with a bull­horn—a standin for the GOP lead­er­ship. “The es­tab­lish­ment is once again telling us to fall in line,” a nar­ra­tor said, “and vote for their back­room, hand­picked mod­er­ate can­di­date.” San­to­rum went on to win 11 states.

The in­ter­ven­ing years, Braben­der be­lieves, have only deep­ened this voter sen­ti­ment: “Peo­ple are no longer say­ing ‘Who am I sup­posed to vote for? Lead me there.’ Ev­ery­thing since then has so­lid­i­fied that feel­ing of be­ing aban­doned and made them more an­gry.” It’s no won­der au­di­ences al­ways re­spond to Cruz’s shouted stump-speech ad­mo­ni­tion, “If you see a can­di­date who Wash­ing­ton em­braces, turn and run!”

As the pri­maries took shape over the past six months, the big fight has been less ori­ented around ide­ol­ogy and more ori­ented around class. Ac­cord­ing to the Iowa en­trance/exit polls, Cruz and Trump were, re­spec­tively, the top choice of “very con­ser­va­tive” and “mod­er­ate” cau­cus­go­ers. Ru­bio won “some­what con­ser­va­tive”—those in be­tween. Where Trump and Cruz di­vide most sharply from Ru­bio is in their sup­port­ers’ education level. Ru­bio hand­ily won vot­ers with a post­grad­u­ate de­gree; Trump and Cruz per­formed best among vot­ers with a high school de­gree or less (Trump) or some col­lege (Cruz). A Cruz or Trump win would sig­nify that work­ing-class vot­ers will no longer be for­saken by their party lead­ers in fa­vor of a class of wealthy cam­paign donors.

Per­haps, as they did in Iowa, Trump and Cruz will stay fo­cused on each other, al­low­ing the new, an­grier Ru­bio to eke out a win. Re­gard­less, the sig­nal Repub­li­can vot­ers are send­ing is clear. From here on out, the con­test will be about which can­di­date should de­liver that mes­sage to Wash­ing­ton. <BW>

Can Ru­bio or some other es­tab­lish­ment-friendly al­ter­na­tive har­ness this anger? What then?

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