How do you fix a broken political party?

There is widespread acceptance outside the MAGA cult that the Republican party has ceased to be a political party in any accepted sense. Even within the MAGA movement, there are those who have contempt for the Republican party, seeing it as part of the establishment that is not fully accepting of serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT). The rot did not begin with SSAT’s takeover of the party, though. The rot started earlier, and John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin has his running mate in 2008, and the way she was embraced by so many, was the first serious sign that it had ceased to be a serious party. But the surest indication that a political party has gone seriously off the rails is when a demagogue with no serious policy agenda but instead spouts a series of grievances is seen as a savior and becomes its unquestioned leader, leaving it as just a hollow shell. The brutal ouster on Kevin McCarthy as speaker, someone who tried to have it both ways as a establishment figure as well as a MAGA cult member, was seen as the stripping away of final veneer of any political credibility.

Politico had an interesting roundup of opinions from academics and journalists about how it went so horribly wrong for the Republican party and what needs to be done to make it into a party again. I picked out just a few of the many contributions and the gist of the things they said.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., leads off.

“A grown-up Republican Party — even a deeply conservative one — would accept the rule of law, the norms of liberal democracy, and the legitimacy of the opposing party. It would seek to represent all Americans and would prioritize winning converts over destroying heretics. It would be a governing party, understanding full well that governing is impossible without negotiation and compromise. It would accept America’s responsibility to uphold the post-World War II global order. Its leadership would seek to address the real needs and problems of its working-class base while resisting the conspiracy theories, demagoguery and temptations toward political violence to which populism is all too susceptible.

Unfortunately, that’s not the Republican Party we have. Instead, we have a party that prefers temper tantrums to governing, fantasies about stolen elections to the hard work of appealing to swing voters. It would rather destroy the federal bureaucracy than use it to implement conservative policies. Increasingly it poses a threat to national stability and world order. Kevin McCarthy did little to resist the feral direction of his party and much to indulge it. The next speaker will either find the courage to stand against this Republican nihilism or be consumed by it in turn.”

Joanne Freeman, professor of American history and of American studies at Yale University, says that the problem is not due to an extreme faction, since there seems to be unity among it for its dysfunctional role.

“More noteworthy is the willingness — even eagerness — of some Republicans to abandon democratic standards, norms and practices. This isn’t an ethereal matter of a broken spirit or wrong-headed ideals. It’s a brass-tacks reality, a strategy in motion throughout the nation: election denial, contested voting rights, denouncing any and all opposition as illicit and un-American. For the most part, fellow Republicans have allowed this extremism to flourish unopposed.

But it’s not an extreme faction of the Republican Party at fault, at least, not alone. The party’s unity is the problem, its shared focus on ends (uncontested rule) over means (democratic practices). Norms and rules be damned, they feel entitled to maintaining power. This isn’t democracy. It’s the heartbeat of authoritarianism.”

Norman Ornstein, emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says that SSAT did not start the rot but was an accelerant.

“Donald Trump was in some ways a logical extension of the nihilistic, radical politics that emerged in the two decades before his emergence as a presidential candidate and president. But he was an accelerant, not the cause. The GOP transformation into a radical cult was there before he became its leader, and was itself shaped and incited by the rise of tribal media and social media, and advanced by gerrymandering and other political tools that insulated a minority in the country from the consequences of their radical statements and actions. McCarthy paid the price — but we will all pay a heavier price with an ungovernable House dominated by a lunatic fringe that is now at the center of the GOP.”

Jeff Greenfield, a network television analyst and author, says that the fact that there is no behavior by SSAT that is seen as beyond the pale, is a dismaying sign.

“One fact that has dominated Republican thinking for eight years now defines the behavior of the party: There is virtually no behavior, however repellent, however malicious, that will trigger a political cost, because the beating heart of the Republican base will not care.

It began, of course, with Trump. In 2016, in the wake of his graceless, sometimes ugly behavior — mocking a disabled reporter, bragging of sexual harassment — four of the last five GOP presidential nominees refused to endorse him. That should have been the precursor to a resounding repudiation; instead, Trump got a larger share of the GOP vote than John McCain or Mitt Romney. “

In one of his segments, Seth Meyers also looked at the dysfunction.


  1. SchreiberBike says

    If the goal of a party is to win elections, I have yet to see evidence that the Republican party is broken. If the only goal of the party is to win elections then they are morally bankrupt. If they can win elections when morally bankrupt, the country is broken. The party is only a symptom.

  2. Allison says

    IMHO, the rot dates back at least to Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party faction. (Wikipedia says the Tea Party movement started in 2009, but I recall hearing of it long before that.)

  3. SailorStar says

    @Allison, 2: Sarah Palin was a big part of the Tea Party, and she was nominated in 2008. For her to glom onto it and try to use it to her own ends, she had to be aware of it, meaning it was around before 2008. She also glommed onto Trump in 2010 after she was soundly defeated in 2008. I have to admit, I had been considering voting for McCain (a known quantity and sometimes sane) instead of the unknown senator from Illinois with the hard-to-pronounce name whose record I wasn’t sure of…but once Palin opened her mouth, I knew there was no way I’d ever vote for that ticket.

    To me, 2008 was the no-turning-back final descent into madness that afflicts the Republican party; Palin was uneducated, not willing to be educated, malicious, greedy, and downright stupid. The pundits and the Republicans and the media all just sighed, “she gives me FEELINGS in my pants!” as if that was the only qualification needed to succeed in running the country. With professional hair, makeup, and a carefully-picked wardrobe, she was reasonably attractive on the outside, but it was obvious from outer space that she was rotten inside.

  4. Dunc says

    IMHO, the rot dates back at least to Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party faction.

    I’d have said Reagan, but that’s probably only because I’m not old enough to remember Nixon.

  5. outis says

    Nah look, SchreiberBike @1 nailed it.
    -- the GOP is working wonderfully well at catching votes, as a political party does.
    -- the fact that it’s no longer a political party but a subversive org should be a problem but it seems it ain’t because
    -- a robust percentage of citizens do not care a flying flick it they usher in a dictatorship, in fact they seem to like the idea.
    The third point above is the crux, as one of the Politico commenters pointed out: “the beating heart of the Republican base will not care”.
    When so many citizens go stark staring crazy, so does the country, and I see no obvious way out. Mind you, it’s happening in many other countries as well: the Tories in the UK are totally bonkers right now, in Germany a lot of neonazis recently came out of their sewers, Hungary is horrid, and so on and so forth.
    How ironic that the “Information Age” should spawn so many cretins. Who said “fate does have a wicked sense of umour”?

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @outis, 7:

    Mind you, it’s happening in many other countries as well: the Tories in the UK are totally bonkers right now

    There’s one crucial difference, though: the Republicans continue to be extremely popular with the violent, nasty, unpleasant part of the American citizenry -- so, y’know, most of them.

    Whereas in the UK the Tories are in power for now but even they know that at the next election they are shit on the shoe of an electorate who are sick to the back teeth of them and their bullshit and are going to oust them so hard it’ll make 1997 look like a close run thing. Their recent conference was a chaotic disaster that looked like they were actively trying to alienate all the voters in the north of England who were key to them getting in last time.

    If you don’t live here it’s hard to convey just how great the hatred of them is. I do know a couple of people who have historically voted Tory, and those people shut the fuck up about some time last May or so and haven’t mentioned politics since -- they’re just too ashamed.

    Yanks have no shame and proudly tell anyone who’ll listen if they vote Republican. It’s a very, very different situation.

  7. says

    When did this begin? Well, how far back do you want to go? Some have mentioned Gingrich and others, but…

    Reagan is strong contender because he was the one who pushed the idea that government is always the problem and never the solution. What an a**hole for poisoning the well.
    Nixon was the one who went with the racist “southern strategy”.
    Before that was the Birchers (the philosophical descendants of which now control the GOP).
    Before that you had the anti-FDR crowd who got the ball rolling on the “dangers of socialism!” idea.

    I think you have to go back to TR before you get a national-level Republican who was at least decent in some areas.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    We might also trace the Republican Rot to 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes “won” the Presidency by selling out southern blacks through ending Reconstruction and withdrawing federal troops from the former Confederacy -- and not incidentally losing practically all Republican voters in that region.

    None of any of this can we undo: sometimes identifying the cause does not lead to a solution. If someone gets hit by a car, disassembling that car down to the last nut won’t heal that person’s injuries.

    My proposal(s): strict campaign-finance reform and ranked preference/instant runoff voting. That would force all US parties to redefine themselves and trigger a wholesale replacement of party leaderships, as well as a national dialog about goals and strategies -- an overdue housecleaning that would benefit the Democrats as well.

  9. Trickster Goddess says

    I would put the inflection point at Nixon and the “southern strategy”. Once the GOP pegged their future successes on the racist vote the slide into fascism was inevitable. I’ve seen this coming for a couple of decades now. With steady the demographic shrinking of white people as a percentage of the population, the only way to keep winning was to rig the vote with gerrymandering and voter suppression. Eventually even that won’t work anymore and the only way for the white supremacists to hold onto power will be the elimination of democracy altogether.

  10. garnetstar says

    Allison @2, I agree, you’re right.

    Newt Gingrich, back when he was Speaker starting in 1995, started the republicans demonizing the democrats by doing it himself. The republicans no longer spoke of the democrats having bad policies or being political opponents: they loudly and consistently stigmatized democrats as evil and their policies the dictates of Satan.

    That stuck, and now always will: once you’ve convinced your republican base that your opponents are evil and demonic, you can never compromise or work with the opponents again. Compromising and working with politically-wrong people can be done, but the base will not accept compromise with Satan. Since then, all democrats and all democratic policies must be denounced, not just argued against.

    So, there’s been no compromising or working as a party to govern (governance would inevitably include democrats), by the republican party, since Gingrich. A very slippery slope, as we now see.

    In 1996, Fox News kicked off. And they were a *very* efficient catalyst in rapidly taking the democrats from opponents, with whom the republican party could work and govern, to absolute evil that was trying to destroy America.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    @WMDKitty, 12:

    You are either volunteering to pull the trigger yourself, or you’re just another mouse saying “bell the cat”.

  12. says

    In reference to my #9, I should add that I would be happy to see some Eisenhower Republicans these days. He supported the New Deal and warned against the rising military-industrial complex. Of course, he didn’t do much regarding the red scare BS, but he was sane compared to most of today’s GOP. Oh yeah, and I’d like the 90% top tax bracket that existed when he was in office to come back.

    Overall though, I have to place most of the blame on Reagan for poisoning the well, championing BS economic ideas, and doing his best to destroy unions. After that, Gingrich, because he was a cynical bomb-thrower who had no regard for truth (and admitted as much in an interview I saw).

    To our friends across the pond, who do you think was worse in the long run for their respective countries, Reagan or Thatcher*?

    *I saw Thatcher several years ago at a local college and thought she was a dunce. Maybe it was her advancing years. During the Q&A her defense of Pinochet would’ve been laughable if the whole thing wasn’t so horrible.

  13. JM says

    Nixon was corrupt but also different from those that came after him. Nixon ran on reducing crime and drugs and when elected started successful programs to reduce crime and drugs. He called in the experts to build programs to actually do what he promised. Nixon created the EPA because he had campaigned on doing doing something about pollution and protecting the environment. It’s impossible to imagine any current Republican doing that.
    During the Reagan years a bunch of things that set the stage for the later dysfunction of the Republican party got started. This is a long topic of it’s own but one thing stands out to me. This was the period when Republican politicians and strategists realized that if they were running on fear of crime then reducing crime was actually counter productive. There were still lots of congressional hearings, programs and laws but they were not designed to reduce crime. They were designed to sound good in public and play well in simple news reports.

  14. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. The will reject democracy.” -- David Drum.

  15. xohjoh2n says


    To our friends across the pond, who do you think was worse in the long run for their respective countries



    Both of them were parroting the same ideas but they didn’t come from them directly: they were promoted by those who were likely to increase their own power-share and not suffer any consequences, but sounded good to politicians in a certain zone. I could say Thatcher at least reversed course a couple of times when ideology banged up against hard reality economically, but maybe the US just never found itself against the wall quite so hard on the same terms so never needed to -- but when opposed by only people who would suffer by her policies no reconsideration was required to cement her own power.

    But since then the US has been a large and powerful reservoir of really bad economic and political ideas which you just don’t seem to be able to dispel no matter how long and how badly they just don’t fucking work, and they leak and get reinforced over here in the UK. Our polity might not be *quite* as susceptible to all of the bullshit, but it’s apparently close enough to have exerted political control and let in at least partially some of the really toxic policies that pretty much by now provably fuck over whole nations.

    So: Reagan was worse for the UK.

    And Murdoch has been terrible for us both.

  16. marner says

    One can pick all sorts of dates when the demonization of the other party started (like the Moral Majority forming in 1979), but the hour I realized that this is a real problem was during Pat Buchanan’s “Culture War Speech” at the Republican National Convention in 1992. I vividly remember listening to it and thinking that Pat was calling the Democrats actual demons.

    The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America needs. It is not the kind of change America wants. And it is not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call God’s country.

  17. John Morales says

    Sometimes, things don’t need fixing, they need replacing.

    Get something newer and more up to date.

  18. sonofrojblake says

    @JM, 16:

    Nixon […] started successful programs to reduce […] drugs

    Citation needed. As in -- by how much has the USA’s drug problem improved since the 60s?

    @xohjoh2n, 19:

    [the UK’s] polity might not be *quite* as susceptible to all of the bullshit

    I sometimes moan about memories being short when people don’t remember how Trump rose to power in 2015… but this iis ridiculous. Were you even IN this country this time last year?

    As for Reagan vs. Thatcher: Reagan, no contest. Thatcher was, at root, evil and a pernicious influence on the country… but I can see a reasonable argument that something at least a bit like her was an inevitable and possibly even necessary corrective to (among other things) unions who were abusing their power to the detriment of the public. (It’s possible I’ve swallowed some propaganda here, I know). I can also see that in 1997 a government came to power that actually corrected a lot (not all, but a lot) of what was wrong with the country as a result of her influence. They were brought down by hubris and billionaires who own newspapers. (Ask the question again, but phrase it “Reagan or Murdoch”, and I’ll not have anywhere near such a firm response. It was Blair’s successful courting of Murdoch that allowed the ’97 landslide to happen, and arguably it was Brown’s failure to do likewise that cost him in 2010.)
    I can’t see anything very much that has swum against the tide Reagan created in the 80s.. There’ve been some occasional minor victories, but the average direction of movement of the US since then has, to this outsider’s eyes, been firmly backward. Eight years of Clinton and eight years of Obama didn’t noticeably improve the US’s moral authority, to me. Do please tell me why I’m wrong, I’d rather think those two had made a difference and that I’ve been overly cynical.

  19. birgerjohansson says

    The Republicans will only be replaced by a new conservative party if enough corporate donors get behind the new party. This is the lifeblood of conservative politicians.

  20. lanir says

    Until some other political group gets organized around an idea that the Democratic party doesn’t already hold as their own there is no way to remove the Republican party. So it simply does not matter how bad they get, we’re built on a two party system and we’ll stay that way.

    The only other two political parties I know of are the Green party and the Libertarian party and neither one has any sort of power as far as I’m aware. Even worse, as far as I can tell they’ve been making the same poor bargain that got McCarthy chucked to the side of the road for years: pandering to the loudest members of the base they have even if the ideas those people are rooting for are terrible and run counter to what most voters want. This makes growth a difficult prospect for either of them. And lacking any sort of idea to pull voters to them instead of the Republican or Democratic party would seem to put expansion and relevance entirely out of their reach.

  21. says

    @22 sonofrojblake
    Clinton and Obama are both “corporate Democrats”, and not progressives. I have a particular sore spot regarding Clinton as he was the guy who ran with the idea of cozying up to Wall St. and ignoring the traditional working base of the Democratic Party. Granted, he was far better than the alternative, but he struck me as a guy who was always trying to triangulate, or find some alternate angle of attack (which, admittedly, sometimes can be a good approach), and in the process leaving the working class out of luck. And truly, the GOP hated him for his successes (especially the bloviating gas bag known as Rush L). I think Obama was better than Clinton but I also believe that he trusted the GOP to act like adults, which was a major fault. For example, he pulled the public option for ACA (“Obamacare”) off the table, hoping to get some Repub support. Nothing came. And let’s be honest, he had an uphill fight from day one as he wasn’t an old white guy. Everything I’ve seen leads me to believe that much of the fervor of the Tea Party was thinly disguised racism. If Obama had pretty much any level of support from a portion of Repubs, he could’ve done more with ACA, climate change, protections from guns, etc. I have no doubt that if he saw a viable path, he would have gone down it. Having said that, I do not think he would’ve made certain moves that are popular in progressive circles.

    To be clear, I do not support the idea that both parties are equally corrupt or equally bad. By way of comparison, my ideal party would be giving everyone free back rubs. In contrast, the corporate Dems will break your thumb while the GOP will hack off your legs with a rusty axe.

  22. JM says

    @22 sonofrojblake: Nixon created SAODAP, a White House office lead by Dr. Jerry Jaffe. This group was instrumental in creating methadone clinics and other treatment programs.
    Even before he left office Nixon played up the attacks on dealers for campaign publicity but he kept the treatment programs going. Nixon felt that the war on drugs had to be both a reduction in demand and a reduction in supply. It was later Republicans that focused on what played well in the press, promoting high profile arrests, vindictive jail policies and largely abandoning treatment programs. This failed entirely and the war on drugs not only failed but made the situation in the US worse in multiple ways.

  23. Deepak Shetty says

    @sonofrojblake @8

    Yanks have no shame and proudly tell anyone who’ll listen if they vote Republican. It’s a very, very different situation.

    So you say, time will tell. The UK seems to be where the US was with George Bush Jnr. The Democrats got swept in, and had power to actually pass something and then after 8 years Trump happened. Who is to say that after Labours resounding victory and some laws passed , you wont see say Nigel Farage(Or Priti Patel ? Or Suella Braverman ?) _ as the new Tory lead? And who would be that your country is sane enough to not vote for him ?
    If the UK was sane , BREXIT would be undone -- Instead Labour wont even bring it up, no ?

  24. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    If the UK was sane , BREXIT would be undone — Instead Labour wont even bring it up, no ?

    It’s way too late for that. You can’t undo Brexit. Britain had a really sweet deal with lots of special exceptions. They’re not going to get those exceptions again from the EU. If they rejoin the EU, they’re joining as a new standard member without any special treatment. AFAICT.

  25. sonofrojblake says

    @Deepak Shetty:

    Who is to say that after Labours resounding victory and some laws passed , you wont see say Nigel Farage(Or Priti Patel ? Or Suella Braverman ?) _ as the new Tory lead?

    Oh, you’re absolutely right -- in fact Braverman is visibly manoeuvring for the inevitable post-election-defeat leadership contest already. And you’re also right that the thick-as-pigshit electorate absolutely are stupid enough to vote her in if Labour don’t do well enough.

    Re: Brexit -- GOTS is right, it’s far to late to simply undo it. That ship has sailed, and Labour are right not to mention anything they may be thinking about what to do next about our future relationship with Europe. One thing is certain -- it has to change and grow closer, but it makes no sense to talk about that now. Much easier to wait three or four years until even more of the morons who voted Leave have died off.

    Note: sheer demographics says that if you reran the referendum today and every single person who voted in 2016 voted the same way… Remain would win. Leave voters were massively skewed old and stupid. And old people and stupid people have been dying far, far more often than young people with better educational outcomes since 2016. I saw a figure that we passed the point of demographic flipover as early as February 2018. Remain would get a landslide today -- but it’s not on the table.

    Just joining wouldn’t get us back to where we were in 2016, with our rebate and our opt-out from the Euro. Realistically(?) the best we can hope for is either to join again like any other country (and accept the Euro and no rebate… a very hard sell even to people who like the EU I think), or negotiate some kind of soft-rejoin where we’re in the customs union but get to keep the pound. I don’t know. I didn’t know in 2016, which was why I voted Remain -- because every single person recommending a Leave vote was a fucking idiot and everyone with any credibility was recommending Remain.

    I’ll say again a shortened version of something I posted to Facebook in 2016, before the vote:
    When it comes to unifying quantum mechanics with general relativity, do you consider loop quantum gravity or string theory to be the more fruitful avenue of research? And if you shrug and laugh and point out that you’re comically unequipped to even understand the implications of the question, much less come up with a meaningful answer, know that you are precisely as ignorant about the benefits of being in or out of the EU. Thus in a referendum, the best you can do is pick your company…

    Then I listed the Nazis and shitbags who were for Leave, and the many, many respectable organisations that were for Remain. Pick which group -- it’s the best you can do.

    And the fucking electorate picked Boris Johnson, and the only good thing I can think of to say about them is that quite a lot of them are dead.

  26. Dunc says

    When talking about “undoing” Brexit, it’s very important to remember that it’s not just up to us -- every member state in in EU would have to agree to let us back in. And let’s be honest here -- they’d be mad to under the anything like the current circumstances. There’s no way they’re going to agree to that unless it’s certain that we’re not going to change our minds again, and that we’ll actually play nicely with everybody else instead of being the obstructionist dicks we were normally accustomed to be in the past.

  27. xohjoh2n says


    Remember it took us three attempts to get in last time, because de Gaulle didn’t believe our heart was really in it.

  28. xohjoh2n says


    Actually, I think there’s a fairly good argument that he knew precisely how much you could trust the British (or at least the British Government)…

  29. sonofrojblake says

    I think you’re giving him way to much credit for what was at root a crudely nationalist sentiment.

    Realistically, Brexit wasn’t something anyone really expected to happen. Evidence: the look on the face of Boris Johnson, Brexit’s most prominent proponent, the morning the results of the referendum were announced. He looked like someone who’d just seen his wife AND mistress get shot in front of him… and he’d WON. Pretty much everyone in Britain’s leadership took it for granted that the electorate wouldn’t be so monumentally stupid as to perpetrate such an obvious act of self-harm. They obviously massively misjudged just how pissed off people were, and didn’t stop to think that decades of European elections had inured people to the idea that Euro elections didn’t matter, and were a mechanisms for giving the government of the day a bloody nose without affecting anything real. It’s funny -- Gordon Brown, when he was PM, was definitely not the worst PM of my lifetime. Cameron, for folding to the idiots in his party and giving them the referendum, then failing to campaign properly for Remain, definitely was. Then he was beaten to the title by the character who followed him, who was worse. Then Johnson was worse than that, and even most actual Conservatives probably wouldn’t argue with the observation that Truss was the worst Prime Minister not only of my lifetijme, but likely EVER. Sunak has broken the streak by lasting more than a single digit number of weeks and not actually reverting the country to subsistence agriculture.

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