Springfield News-Sun

Sanders has a funny idea of what the Republican Party should be

- Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.

The most striking thing about the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union last week, delivered this year by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, was that it wasn’t actually pitched to the American public at large.

Of course, most people do not watch this particular ritual. But it does mark one of the few times when the opposition party has the undivided attention of a large part of the voting public. The State of the Union response reaches enough people — an estimated 27.3 million watched Biden — to make it worthwhile for the opposition party to put its best face forward. That’s why, when it’s their turn to deliver the response, parties tend to elevate their youngest, most dynamic leaders and showcase their broadest, most accessible message.

Sanders is a young and dynamic leader in the Republican Party, a point she emphasized herself, citing her age, 40, in comparison with the president’s, which is 80, but her message was neither broad nor accessible.

“In the radical left’s America,” she said, “Washington taxes you and lights your hardearned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country.”

Sanders attacked Biden as the “first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is” and decried the “woke fantasies” of a “left-wing culture war.” Every day, she said, “we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with

Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech.”

Sanders’ folksy affect notwithsta­nding, this was harsh, hard and delivered with an edge. But then, there’s nothing wrong with giving a partisan and ideologica­l State of the Union address — that is part of the point. The problem was that most of these complaints were unintellig­ible to anyone but the small minority of Americans who live inside the epistemolo­gical bubble of conservati­ve media. Sanders’ response, in other words, was less a broad and accessible message than it was fan service for devotees of the Fox News cinematic universe and its related properties.

It was not the kind of speech you give if you’re trying to build a political majority. The best evidence for this is that her speech was a version of the message Republican­s used in last year’s midterm elections. The result was a historic disappoint­ment, if not a historic defeat, for an opposition party against a relatively unpopular incumbent.

Yes, Republican­s won the House, but it was a slim victory despite expectatio­ns of a “red wave.” And the most unsuccessf­ul candidates were, in the main, the right-wing culture warriors who tried to make the midterms a referendum on their reactionar­y preoccupat­ions.

Here, I should say that this critique of Sanders’ response rests on the suppositio­n that Republican politician­s want to build national political majorities. And why wouldn’t they? Political parties are supposed to want to win the largest possible majorities. A large majority, after all, means a mandate for your agenda.

With it, you can set or reset the political landscape on your terms.

But what if there is a countervai­ling force? What if the structure of the political system makes it possible to win the power of a popular majority without ever assembling a popular majority itself ? What if, using that power, you burrow your party and its ideology into the counter-majoritari­an institutio­ns of that system, so that heads or tails, you always win?

In that scenario, a political party might drop the quest for a majority as a fools’ errand. There’s no need to build a broad coalition of voters if — because of the malapporti­onment of the national legislatur­e, the gerrymande­ring of many state legislatur­es, the Electoral College and the strategic position of your voters in the nation’s geography — you don’t need one to win. And if your political party also has a tight hold on the highest court, you don’t even need to win elections to clear the path for your preferred outcomes and ideology.

Sanders did not deliver a broad and accessible response to the State of the Union for the same reason that congressio­nal Republican­s refuse to moderate or even acknowledg­e the existence of the median voter; she doesn’t have to, and they don’t have to. The American political system is so slanted toward the overrepres­entation of the Republican Party’s core supporters, rural and exurban conservati­ves, that even when their views and priorities are far from those of the typical voter, the party is still more competitiv­e than not.

Unfortunat­ely, there’s no one weird trick to change this state of affairs. Republican­s may not need to win consistent majorities, but anyone who hopes to build a more humane country must still find and assemble a majority coalition of the willing — and pray that it is large enough not just to win power or hold power, but to use power.

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