In April, Rep. Paul Ryan announced that he would be joining the ranks of the several dozen Congressional Republicans who would not be seeking re-election this year. So why, after a mere three years as Republican Speaker of the House, has Ryan announced his political retirement? Only he knows, of course. But a widely touted explanation — Ryan fears the House will fall to the Democrats in the upcoming November midterms — makes little sense. What makes more sense is that Ryan has seen the writing on the wall for not just himself, but for the entire GOP.
Ryan is a young man. If the GOP loses control of the House, it probably won’t be long, in this age of quicksilver (relative to the last century) changes in party control of Congress, before the Republicans regain the House and Ryan his speakership. But if the GOP did win back the House, what could they really expect to do beyond cut taxes?
The future of the Republican Party lies not in forging strong national majorities to enact conservative legislation, but in taking refuge in the least democratic branches of government.
Even with the GOP controlling all the elected branches of federal government since last year, they haven’t been able to repeal Obamacare. Instead of the major assault on entitlements and welfare that Ryan had promised, he and his fellow Republicans have pushed through “a domestic budget to make Barack Obama proud,” as Russell Berman wrote in the Atlantic.
The GOP’s $1.3 trillion budget increases funding for Pell Grants, Head Start, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Education, Health and Human Services and renewable energies. It includes no cuts to the EPA, Planned Parenthood, or sanctuary cities.
In this context the more likely explanation for Ryan’s retirement is that he senses how little the GOP can accomplish in the coming years, even it maintains full party control. Ryan knows what Mitch McConnell says. The future of the Republican Party lies not in forging strong national majorities to enact conservative legislation that will fundamentally alter the political conversation, as the GOP did under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but in taking refuge in the least democratic branches of government: the Senate and, behind and beyond the Senate, the courts.
Conservatives used to decry the power of activist judges; now they see those judges as their last line of defense. That turnaround is a symptom less of hypocrisy than of decline.
Irving Kristol once described “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism” as the conversion of “the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” Back in the days of Whigs and Tories, conservatism had an air of the stuffy and the staid. What it came to need was a popular touch, a way of connecting with ordinary people, so that it could win majorities and wield power in a democratic society.
But the days of the emerging Republican majority may be drawing to a close.
Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were reelected in landslide popular victories. George W. Bush and Donald Trump crept into power with the help of the Supreme Court and the Electoral College, counter-majoritarian institutions designed by the Framers to frustrate the popular will.
Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, which altered the discussion around markets and government for decades, commanded overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress; 168 Democrats voted for them. Even George W. Bush got 40 Democrats to vote for his tax cuts in 2001. Trump’s cuts received not a single Democratic vote.
Meanwhile, the alt-right was supposed to supply Trump with the kind of shock troops conservatives once got from the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority. Instead, it has fallen victim to massive infighting, lawsuits, defections and opposition in the streets.
The right still has support, of course, but it lacks the dynamism of a movement in ascendancy. The racist backlash and free-market utopia that turned the sclerotic Republican establishment of the 1950s into the counterrevolutionary mass movement of the 1970s no longer provides the same majoritarian fuel. That’s why gerrymandering has proven to be so critical to the GOP’s future.
A cataclysmic social defeat — not a onetime rout at the polls but a massive act of material dispossession — is the only thing that will force the leaders and intellectuals of the right back to the drawing board.
A party that was swept into office in 2016 on the promise of a new populism, commanding a new electoral majority on the basis of racial and economic nationalism, looks increasingly like the Tories of early 19th century Britain, dependent on a combination of stale ideology and rotten boroughs.
Where some think the GOP simply needs a new ideology, junking its attachment to tax cuts and hostility to popular social programs, the truth is conservatism cannot retool itself just like that. (Just ask Steve Bannon. Or the reformicons.) A cataclysmic social defeat — not a onetime rout at the polls but a massive act of material dispossession, like the New Deal or abolition — is the only thing that will force the leaders and intellectuals of the right back to the drawing board, to ask first and fundamental questions, as the most powerful innovators of the right have always done.
From the days of Edmund Burke, dispossession has been the mustard seed of the right, the sand in the oyster that makes the conservative pearl. Until that dispossession occurs, we’ll be waiting for the Republican Party to figure out what Paul Ryan already knows.
Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump."
To learn more about Robin's book and the conservative movement's challenges, listen to his conversation with Chris Hayes on a new episode of "Why Is This Happening?"