The cover of the April 21 issue of The Economist asked, “What’s become of the Republican Party?” Inside, the article was headlined, “How the elephant got its Trump,” beginning with a quote from a speech that Sen. Jeff Flake made in March: “Never has a party abandoned, fled its principles and deeply held beliefs so quickly as my party did in the face of the nativist juggernaut.” Flake added, “We have become strangers to ourselves.” Had The Economist waited a month, it could have added a quote from former House Speaker John Boehner, who told the Detroit Regional Chamber’s renowned annual Mackinac Policy Conference last week that “there is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party. … The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
The truth is that the GOP’s changes long preceded the Trump candidacy. They go back to the advent of the tea-party movement and even to the Gingrich revolution of 1994, when the Republican establishment and conventions began to be overturned. The Trump presidency and the current dynamic are the culmination of a trend that some believe is a partisan realignment. Former Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee for four years and is surely one of the most politically astute people in Washington, argues that “the Republican base has migrated from the country club to the country.”
To illustrate his point, Davis likes to point to a map he created showing precinct-level shifts in voting patterns from the 2013 to the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial races. Across the vast expanse of the Old Dominion, there are red arrows indicating precincts with significant shifts in favor of Republicans from 2013 to 2017, mostly in small town and rural Virginia. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, a smart guy who ran a good campaign and made no major mistakes, actually overperformed past winning Republican candidates in southern and southwestern Virginia.
Meanwhile, there are large blue blots created by masses of blue arrows in the Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads regions, basically suburbs and more urbanized areas that are strongly trending in favor of Democrats. There were also small blue smatterings in and near Winchester, Harrisonburg, Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Blacksburg, Roanoke, Lynchburg, and Martinsville.
The challenge for the GOP is that the population growth is in the blue areas trending Democratic, while the red rural areas are receding in population. Hence, Gillespie lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by an unexpectedly wide 9-point margin. Democrats carried the lieutenant-governor and attorney-general contests by 5.4 and 6.5 percentage points, respectively.
What this means is that it is a mistake to simply say that the Republican Party is in a state of decline. Populism is shifting certain kinds of voters toward the Republican Party while repulsing others—more often than not white, suburban, college-educated voters who are uncomfortable with at least that form of populism.
Donald Trump’s style certainly plays into all of this: To one group, he is venting their anger, fears, and frustration via his tell-it-like-it-is, politically incorrect manner. The opposing group sees his behavior as coarse and childish, even ignorant. Trump isn’t the cause of the GOP’s shift; he is the effect.
Across the country, we are seeing political division—some say the greatest since Reconstruction (even likening Trump to President Andrew Johnson). But these divisions aren’t just political; they are social, cultural, and economic as well. We are seeing seismic shifts, not just Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other, not just conservatives on one side and liberals on another, but on a geographic level: people who live near the coasts and in urban/suburban areas on one side, and those in the heartland and rural and small-town areas on another. We also see it on an economic level, with whites working in the knowledge economy tending to go one way, and many working-class whites going the opposite way. Then there are internationalists versus isolationists, and protectionists versus free-traders. We are seeing tectonic plates collide, with the disruptions that one might expect.
To be sure, Democrats are facing their own set of problems. It isn’t hard to find those who populated the Clinton and Carter administrations wringing their hands over the possibility of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the party taking over in 2020, bemoaning the demise of the centrist and business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council. Obama exiles tend to be more quiet in this particular fight, but some quietly wonder whether the ideological excesses of their eight years might have contributed to the 2016 outcome. If there is a movement of certain types of upscale voters away from the Republican Party, is the Democratic Party likely to behave in a way to invite them in? But that is another column for another day. Suffice it to say we are seeing big changes in American politics, with the outcome still to be determined.