A symptom, not a cause.

Photographer: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The GOP Is Failing. Democracy Can, Too.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Donald Trump's pending presidential nomination has confirmed what many have argued for years: The Republican Party is not well.

The party's heightened political obstruction and ideological extremism during the presidency of Barack Obama undermined governing norms and political standards. Now Republican voters have gone the distance, choosing a presidential candidate who functions as a performative and rhetorical riot, smashing to bits rudimentary expectations of competence, coherence and civility.

As Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, wrote at Vox: "This represents the most colossal failure of an American political party in modern history."

Which raises an uncomfortable question. If one of the parties in a two-party democracy is a "colossal failure," how secure can that democracy be? Is Trump's rise an instance of democracy letting off steam or evidence of systemic failure?

"American democracy is not in crisis, but the current Republican Party definitely is," said Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, via e-mail. "Of course, the country as a whole is also at supreme risk when one of its two major parties nominates a resentful bully with no governing experience to contest the presidency. Something could happen to put him over the top. Still, the likelihood is that Trump will lose and the crisis will remain largely the GOP's dilemma, while leaving our democracy without a coherent and responsible oppositional party (a deficit we have suffered throughout Obama's presidency)."

It's difficult to know exactly how seriously to gauge the threats -- short term and long term -- that Trump poses. We lack experience with his ilk in such a position of power.

"The system is working to the extent that it is responding to the anger of the white working class, a group whose interests have been largely ignored by both parties up till now," said Francis Fukuyama, director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, via e-mail. "Trump, however, has all the habits of a classic demagogue and will not serve the country well as president."

Trump's success in November, while unlikely, would put the nation on a completely uncharted path. Yet even his failure wouldn't resolve the myriad conflicts that his candidacy has not so much created, as elevated.

"American democracy has still got sufficient slack in the system that Trump is unlikely to destroy it," said Cambridge University politics professor David Runciman via e-mail. "But thinking that no one can destroy it is a big mistake. Perhaps most dangerous for American democracy at the moment is a Trump defeat and then a feeling that the ship has righted itself and it’s business as usual. The anger Trump is channeling is not going away; it’s likely to ratchet up during another Clinton presidency."

Political scientist Norman Ornstein, who with political scientist Thomas Mann was an early and eloquent chronicler of the Republican Party's descent, suspects the challenge to democracy will not be quarantined within the GOP. When I asked him whether Trump's success represents a crisis for democracy or just for Republicans, he replied, via e-mail, "Maybe a bit of both."

But I come down far more on the former side. This is a crisis with many dimensions. One, a democracy can't function well if one of its two major parties is unhealthy, narrow and extreme. Two, any major party nomination going to an authoritarian-leaning vacuous blowhard is not good -- stuff happens, and he could win. Three, the tribalism, reinforced by outside media and social media, makes bipartisan action on pressing problems, much less long-term ones, very difficult if not impossible. Four, having one party as a white party and the other made predominantly of minorities layers race on top of partisan tribalism, which is combustible. Fifth, the GOP, despite its slide to minority status, will continue to win state elections and do well in the House and Senate. In the House, the homogeneous nature of districts, reinforced by gerrymandering but even more by natural residential patterns, gives them an edge and also makes the House less responsive to national tides or desires. A Senate with immense leverage for small, rural states makes it less responsive to urban and minority needs. These are not formulas for representative democracy to work and have legitimacy.

None of the issues Ornstein cites is exclusive to, or even largely a result of, Trump's candidacy. They are baked in the demographics, psychology and ideology of the Republican cake. Trumpism, or Palinism, or some other personally tailored cocktail of demagogy and yahooism will remain a threat until the party halts its cultural and regional retreat, and engages the cosmopolitan, multiracial 21st century without a crutch of nostalgia and resentment.

The Republican candidates who offered alternatives to that mix were crushed in 2016. This could take a while.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net