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The press loves "Dems in disarray." But GOP infighting is far more consequential.
Dems are divided on some issues, as is any political party. But Republicans can't even agree about free and fair elections.
Dear Readers — I’m excited to run the first contributed piece in Public Notice, by the talented Noah Berlatsky. For an update on all the good stuff you can expect from me and others in the weeks to come, be sure to check out yesterday’s newsletter. — Aaron
“Democrats in Disarray!” The media loves alliterative headlines about Democratic dysfunction and dissension. When West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin scuttles President Joe Biden’s major infrastructure spending bill, op eds about progressive/centrist infighting and the resulting Democratic inefficacy leap from computer keyboards. Progressive initiatives such as defund the police are widely blamed for harming Democratic electoral fortunes. Democrats are at each other’s throats, we’re told, while unified Republicans march single-mindedly to victory.
It's true that Democrats have internal disagreements, like any political party. But the “Democrats in disarray” narrative has obscured the fact that Republican infighting is much more serious, much more widespread, and arguably much more consequential. GOP divisions are a frightening reminder of how radical and dangerous the party has become. But they also offer a slim possibility that people of good will can move our nation onto a more just, more democratic, and less fascist path.
It may seem odd to talk about Republican dissension as the party prepares to gut abortion rights with barely any intra-party protest. Maine Senator Susan Collins claims to be pro-choice, and has expressed mild consternation that Brett Kavanaugh, who she claims promised to preserve Roe, is apparently committed to forcing women to give birth. But she’s not planning to overturn the filibuster in protest and it’s hard to imagine she’s actually that surprised. To the extent there’s a difference of opinion here, it’s a cosmetic one; Collins knows that being a Republican means holding her pro-choice opinions lightly.
But the consensus on abortion doesn’t extend to every issue. Republicans have for decades encouraged conspiratorial anti-government rhetoric, as scholars Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris have argued in their book At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump. That anti-establishment rhetoric is volatile; once you’re in power, it can easily be turned on you. Which is why Republicans were so angry when Madison Cawthorn claimed they were all elitists indulging in cocaine orgies.
Cawthorn was only the latest example; Republican party machinery has been slipping out of establishment control for decades. Back in 2012, conservative Christian Todd Akin unexpectedly won the Missouri Senate primary, and then managed to lose the general by making wildly offensive comments about rape. Four years later, Donald Trump, a real estate developer and reality television star who had never held political office, defeated a field of Republican senators and governors to become the party’s nominee.
Trump’s victory in the 2016 general election solidified him as the party leader; incidents in which he insulted the wives of Republican rivals were nervously glossed over. But over time, Trump’s recklessness and extremism only created more rifts in the party.
These culminated in 2020, when Trump refused to admit he’d lost the general election to Joe Biden. His more and more open effort to retain control of the government despite voters’ wishes put him at odds with even loyal Republicans like Georgia governor Brian Kemp. Ultimately, Trump encouraged a coup attempt, in which his supporters stormed the capitol and threatened the life of his own vice-president, Mike Pence. Trump afterwards defended insurrectionists who chanted “Hang Mike Pence.”
Nor have divisions in the party evaporated with Trump’s defeat. Trump himself continues to insist that he is the real, legitimate president, and to fight efforts to investigate the January 6 attack on the capital. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy has backed Trump and the House has censured members who have criticized him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in contrast, spoke against the censure, drawing Trump’s ire.
Not all Republican disarray is about Trump, though. The party has also split over support for Ukraine. Most Republicans have agreed with Biden’s policy of providing aid to Ukraine following the Russian invasion. But a minority, like Fox News commenter Tucker Carlson, have praised Putin’s authoritarianism and homophobia, and tried to paint Ukraine as the aggressor. In April, 30 percent of the House GOP voted against a boilerplate statement of support for NATO. The dissolution and weakening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of Putin’s long-term policy goals.
Intra-party vitriol has also reached an intensity of invective you basically never see on the Democratic side of the aisle. After Republican Senators Mitt Romney (UT), Susan Collins (ME), and Lisa Murkowski (AK), announced their support for Democratic Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene called them all “pro-pedophile.” Republicans had baselessly accused Jackson of not taking a strong enough stance against child abuse, and the party has more and more openly embraced antisemitic, rabid QAnon conspiracy theories, slandering Democrats as child abusers. Now Republicans are slandering each other as well.
Rhetoric is one thing; losing elections is another. Republican dissension hasn’t led to full-scale electoral collapse or anything like it. The GOP outperformed polls in 2020, and they look set to win back the House in the midterms, as the party out of power generally does. If GOP division doesn’t harm them at the ballot, how important is it?
There’s reason to believe, though, that GOP division has had electoral effects. In late 2020, Trump insisted over and over that Democrats had rigged the election against him. He also attacked the Georgia state party. Republicans then lost two state Senate seats in Georgia, giving Democrats control of the Senate.
It’s hard to know exactly how Trump affected the very close election. But in general, telling the electorate that elections are unfair and that their state officials are untrustworthy is not a strong strategy for getting your voters to the polls.
Republicans have normalized the idea that elections that go against you should be disregarded and that your opponents should be painted as illegitimate threats to decency and democracy. What happens when these kinds of strategies are unleashed not just in general elections, but in primaries?
We’re already seen some of the possible chaos in the Ohio Republican Senate primary, which featured an intraparty redistricting fight and extremely heated rhetoric as candidates vied for a Trump endorsement. That eventually went to former Trump critic J.D. Vance — but he was seriously challenged by an anti-Trump candidate, state Senator Matt Dolan. Vance ended up winning the primary by more than eight points, but had it been closer, the state party could have had trouble unifying around a candidate.
A similar dynamic is certainly plausible in the 2024 presidential contest. If Trump runs and loses, it seems almost inevitable that he’ll claim the vote is illegitimate. What happens to Republican candidates in a general election with a rogue Trump savaging members of his own party as cheaters and enemies of democracy? I’m sure Mitch McConnell wakes up in a cold sweat some nights imagining it.
Partisanship is a powerful force; party actors have extremely strong incentives to unify in general elections to defeat the hated opponents. Republicans have launched an assault on election integrity and small-d democracy. That could end up blowing up their own primary process. But they might hold it together long enough to get into power and install permanent one party rule instead. There’s no way to know.
In either case, this is mostly a Republican fight; there’s a limited amount that outsiders can do about it. Still, Democrats and journalists of good faith should at least acknowledge the reality that Republican divisions are much more serious than Democratic ones. We should let Republican voters know how much their representatives hate each other. And we should remind ourselves that our opponents, however vicious and determined, are neither infallible nor unified. The future looks bleak in many respects. But as long as Republicans are trying to claw each other’s eyes out, there’s hope.