Despite its divisions, the GOP will adapt

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The image of a divided GOP is now so prevalent that a neutral observer might well see the arc of history bending toward the Democrats. The numbers are humbling. Fewer Americans self-identify as Republicans today than did a few decades ago, and most independents lean Democratic.

Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one presidential election. California went Republican in nearly every election from Dwight Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush, but since 1992 it has been solidly blue. Joe Biden even eked out a victory in Arizona, where a Democrat has not won a true majority since Harry Truman in 1948.

Democrats flipped both Georgia Senate seats, and they may eventually flip Texas, too, as Latinos and new residents continue to alter that state’s political balance. Finally, progressives have been winning major legal and public opinion victories on cultural issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the legalization of recreational drugs.

The “demography is destiny” contention seems to offer an even more decisive GOP obituary. By 2050, the argument goes, America will be a “majority-minority” country with a plurality of white voters but without a racial or ethnic majority. Given this demographic shift, how can the Republican Party survive as its base dies off or is outnumbered into irrelevancy? As one political scientist has argued, by mid-century, “a nearly all-white party, which is what Republicans have become, would have no chance of obtaining an electoral majority.”

But rumors of Republicans’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. The “Biden landslide” and the Democratic “blue wave” did not materialize in 2020. Republicans picked up more than a dozen House seats despite then-President Donald Trump’s low approval numbers, his unpopular response to the pandemic, Democrats’ fundraising victories, and the GOP having to defend twice as many open seats. Not a single House Republican lost a reelection campaign, and the party may very well take back the House in 2022. Democrats spent $200 million on two losing Senate campaigns (South Carolina and Kentucky), and Republicans still dominate Texas.

To top it all off, the down-ballot races were a disaster for the Democrats, as the party did not flip a single state legislature. A trio of researchers has concluded that the Democratic Party is “hollow” in an operational sense: “top-heavy at the national level, weak at the state and local levels, and lacking a rooted, tangible presence in the lives of voters and engaged activists alike.”

And demography may not be destiny after all. Much like Captain Renault in Casablanca, some pundits have expressed shock (shock!) that 40%-46% of Texas and Florida Latino voters went for Trump in 2020 — both big jumps from 2016. Trump also improved his showing in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods nationwide, especially in counties with large Latino and Asian American populations. The events of 2020 exposed fractures over matters of race and the rule of law in communities nationwide, and polls suggest that many Latinos responded to Republican messaging about self-sufficiency, economic mobility, and traditional social values while rejecting some of the more progressive Democratic causes.

Moreover, racialized group identities are malleable, and many who are considered “minority” today may be considered mainstream in a few decades. The assimilation and ultimate success of previous “outsiders” — Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, East Asians — offers some guidance.

In the long run, party evolution is more likely than a party breakup. Indeed, adaptation is arguably the two parties’ defining accomplishment of the last 150 years. Republicans and Democrats have kept third parties out of the mainstream and have formed a lasting duopoly by adjusting to the times, updating their messages, shedding outmoded identities, and adopting new constituencies.

Whether the GOP can reconcile its disparate factions by the 2022 midterm elections is anyone’s guess, but the Democrats face difficulties of their own. Given their control of the House, Senate, and White House, it is not too hard to imagine them overplaying their hand in the next 18 months by pursuing policies for which there is little popular support.

In the years to come, Republicans will have little choice but to attract independents and discontented voters from traditionally Democratic communities. It remains to be seen whether they can entice enough new supporters while keeping their traditional constituencies and the Trump factions inside the same tent. Either way, the party is likely to remain intact, though it may look different in 20 years.

Joe Renouard is resident professor of American studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, China.

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