There has been a lot of debate, particularly on the left, over whether the Republican party is disorganized and flagging, or if it remains a powerful and threatening political force. But perhaps the question of its current political weakness or strength addresses the wrong question. The far-right takeover of the GOP might hurt it electorally, but our assessment should not just be the prospects of traditional party competition within bourgeois democracy.
The GOP has now morphed into an entity not currently controlled by elite managers. Openly authoritarian, political entrepreneurs at the county, state, and national level vie to represent a massive base of tens of millions who believe Biden was installed illegally. Their ties to armed paramilitaries are open in some places, only slightly veiled in others.
This then is a historic shift in the US party system itself, the institutional effects of which are as yet unclear. The GOP will increasingly compete through institutional vote suppression and extra-institutional intimidation, street violence, and direct action – enacting repressive rule where they can win, and sabotaging governance where they can’t.
The related debate, whether the GOP is any more racist, antidemocratic, etc. than it has been across the long Reagan era is also the wrong question. The GOP has been moving rightward since 1964, with periodic cycles of internal insurgency followed by consolidation and stasis. But this dynamic is developmental as well as cyclical, with both its populist right and caesarist tendencies gaining ground over time, culminating in Trump’s 2016 victory.
Political science theories of partisan realignment, such as Steven Skowronek’s important heuristic model of political time, discussed recently in a New York Times opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg, may no longer do us any good. Partisan realignment theory posits that US political history can be divided up into stable “party-system eras” when one party’s ideas dominate the whole political field, punctuated by moments of realignment when new issues emerge decisively, causing a shift in political identifications and party dominance. Think of the Jacksonian era, Republican rule after 1860, the New Deal, and the Reagan era as examples.
But that pattern may no longer hold, insofar as one of the two major parties has arrayed itself against the conventional workings of party competition. Other traditions in US politics – violent disenfranchisement and political terror – which as Black radicals have long pointed out constitute permanent forms of US racial fascism, may better help us grasp the changing landscape more generally. We may find ourselves in an early stage of fascist development, as Rebecca Hill recently argued, or an as-yet ill-defined “liquid authoritarianism” as Heinrich Geiselberger described in a recent Guardian piece. These questions remain open.