I had mixed emotions watching the returns from the House of Representatives races on election night. I was dismayed to see the moderate wing of the Republican party, which I have worked for and supported over many years, virtually wiped out. But I also wondered if their defeats really mattered.
They mattered quite a lot to the Republican party, of course. Conservative dominance in rural areas and small towns helped the Republican party maintain its Senate majority in the elections, because there are more sparsely populated red states than highly urbanized blue ones.
But conservatives only make up a little more than a third of the population – somewhat less than the 40% or so who approve of Donald Trump. As a result, the Republican party can only hold a majority in the House if it wins in a critical number of the suburban districts where affluent, college-educated, moderate voters live.
These voters – particularly college-educated women – have become so repelled by Trump that they have turned in large numbers against his party, even in places where the Republican party historically has been strong. On election night, these alienated suburbanites shifted their political loyalties to Democrats, costing Republicans the House majority.
While the defeat of its suburban moderates bodes poorly for the Republican party, is that a bad thing for the country?
After all, if enough moderate Republicans had survived the blue tide to prevent the Democratic takeover, Trump would have claimed political vindication. He almost certainly would have fired the special counsel Robert Mueller soon thereafter, and would have been liberated to exercise his worst instincts.
Further, nearly all of the Democrats who flipped the seats of moderate Republicans are themselves moderate. Few support the socialist agenda of Senator Bernie Sanders, and more than two dozen have pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. So the moderate Republicans’ defeat wasn’t a defeat for moderation overall.
Moderate Republicans also failed to make much of a positive impact during the Trump era. Those Republican representatives who, in 2016, vowed that a Republican-controlled government would take action against serious problems like climate change, metastasizing budget deficits, crumbling infrastructure, growing income inequality, a horrifying opioid epidemic and a broken immigration system, had few accomplishments to claim in 2018.
The only significant legislative achievement of this Congress was a deficit-ballooning tax cut that disproportionately benefited the very wealthy and actually raised taxes on many middle-class families. A handful of Republicans did vote against the tax bill and their party’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act without offering a viable replacement. But this hardly amounted to a serious internal opposition to the draconian conservatism of the House speaker, Paul Ryan. And, of course, congressional Republicans of all political stripes neglected their constitutional duty to exercise oversight and demand accountability from the executive branch.
So why care about the decimation of the Republican moderates? Because history has shown that significant, enduring government measures require some degree of agreement from both parties to achieve legitimacy and widespread public acceptance.
All of the major government achievements of the postwar era, from Eisenhower’s highway program to the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s to the 21st-century Cures Act, were the product of bipartisan negotiations and compromise. The Affordable Care Act – which passed a Democratically controlled Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote, led directly to massive Democratic losses in Congress and state legislatures, and has only recently gained a majority of popular support – may be the exception that proves the rule.
The only idea in Washington that both parties currently agree on is that one of them must control every branch of government in order to get anything done. But in a deeply divided country, this is a recipe for government paralysis in the face of threatening national and global problems. There’s a growing possibility that such paralysis will be broken only by catastrophe.
It’s true that the Democratic party has not yet become dominated by its ideological extremes in the way the Republican party has; the current situation is what political scientists call “asymmetric polarization”. But the intensifying partisanship of both parties, as well as ideological polarization, contributes to the legislative stalemate.
At the start of Trump’s term, it seemed likely that he would put forward a big infrastructure proposal that would gain considerable Democratic buy-in; that was the impression of the construction and building trades union leaders whom Trump invited to the White House during the first days of his presidency. But now, after two years of Trump shredding the social fabric of the nation along with whatever veneer of mutual respect both parties still held for each other, Democrats are unlikely to agree to any deal that he could tout as a victory heading into the 2020 presidential election.
Those Republicans who are interested in legislating and are willing to work across the aisle have had little impact because they are marginalized by their party’s ideologically conservative leadership and fear the consequences of angering the Trump-loving populist base. Moderates of both parties are in effect an inchoate, unrepresented, centrist third party in a duopoly that’s structured to prevent its emergence. They should cooperate to advance reforms – such as restoring the deliberative role of committees and reducing legislators’ fundraising obligations – that would enable the problem-solving that the system currently thwarts.
It may be a long time before that happens, if it happens at all. But everything we’ve seen over the past two years confirms the dictum of political scientist Clinton Rossiter more than half a century ago: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no parties without compromise and moderation.”
If the casualties of the present era are not to extend to democracy and America itself, moderates will have to make common cause against the forces that threaten our collective ability to govern ourselves.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party