What Kind of Party is the GOP?

Weak party institutions plus a disorganized capitalist class equals an ever more extreme Republican Party.

This is an abridged version of Paul Heideman, “Behind the Republican Party Crack-up,” Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, Vol. 5 No. 2, 44-101. It appears here with the permission of the author and publishers. – eds.

Since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president in 2016, claims that the Republican Party has turned into something fundamentally different from its precursors have become common. The claimed sources of this supposed novelty vary widely. Some say the Republican Party has embraced naked racism like never before. Others say Trump has abandoned the decorum of office that even a lawbreaker like George W. Bush affirmed. Still others, including many Republicans, claim the party has embarked on a populist turn, abandoning its roots as the preferred party of American big business.

None of these stand up to much scrutiny. It’s very difficult to claim that the Republican Party of today is more racist than the Republican Party of the 1990s, which was led by proud veterans of the struggle against desegregation like Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, and Strom Thurmond. Decorum and respect for office are far too superficial criteria to evaluate a political party’s evolution. And for all the GOP’s supposed populism, any halfway rigorous investigation of the party’s finances reveals that its funds still come from the ultra-rich.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the impression that the Republican Party really has changed. While George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, that theft was carried out through normal constitutional mechanisms; the Supreme Court played its historic role as an antidemocratic bulwark. The riots of January 6th, 2021 were obviously of a different character altogether. There, an incumbent president incited a mob to try and intimidate Congress and his own vice president into nullifying his challenger’s victory at the polls. Though conservatives in the US have been contemptuous of democracy in the past, January 6th represented a noticeable change in the means they adopted.

Moreover, the party has increasingly found itself at loggerheads with leading organizations of American business over the last decade. After January 6th, the Chamber of Commerce and even the Koch brothers’ organization Americans for Prosperity signaled their disapproval of Trump’s disregard for the norms of bourgeois legality. Most of the GOP ignored them, sticking with the president as the Democrats brought impeachment charges over the riots. Other Republican priorities have also strayed from the preferred priorities of corporate boardrooms. The government shutdowns of the Obama and Trump years were stridently opposed by business organizations, who, of course, rely extensively on federal government services from the E-Verify system to Securities and Exchange Commission filings to conduct their normal business. Similarly, the regular Republican games of chicken with the debt ceiling threaten the trustworthiness of American Treasury notes, the main pillar of the international financial system. In some respects, the Republican Party really has gone rogue.

In my view, two transformations in American politics and society underlie this transformation: the weakening of the parties since the 1970s, and the political disorganization of corporate America since the 1980s.

American parties have been institutionally weak by international standards since at least the early twentieth century. As ideologically undefined catchall parties, they existed more as confederations of local political machines than genuine national institutions. However, beginning in the 1970s, changes in party rules, congressional rules, and campaign finance law all combined to hollow out the parties even further. The result is that American political parties barely exist except as networks of funders, campaign services vendors, and candidates. Decisions such as candidate selection are instead outsourced to the primary system. This same system only magnifies the power of money in deciding party politics, since the parties possess few institutional resources for resisting it.

Weak parties themselves are insufficient to explain Republican radicalization, however. If the weakening of party institutions were the only dynamic, we might expect to see an ever-tightening link between Republican politics and the preferences of American business. Instead, we see growing autonomy and conflict. American business, it seems, is no longer as capable of setting the party’s agenda as it once was. This incapacity stems from the increasingly disorganized character of American business politics. While in the 1970s business mounted a spectacular mobilization against the New Deal order, by the early 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in the White House, business’s enemies in the state and the unions were defeated. Business unity then began to unravel. At the same time, the reorganization of corporate America via mergers, acquisitions, and consolidation inclined corporate managers away from long-term, policy-oriented political activism and instead toward narrow defenses of the rents and privileges of their respective economic sectors. This kind of activism has often proven compatible with the Republican Party’s long march to the right, as the party has been only too happy to oblige corporate America’s preferences for anti-labor, anti-regulatory judicial appointments and tax breaks. The structure of political action by the American ruling class, in other words, has evolved away from the kind of coordinated, long-term action that would be necessary to successfully discipline the Republican Party.

Together, weak parties and elite disorganization have cleared the way for right-wing political entrepreneurs to push the party further and further to the right. A kind of dialectic has ensued since the 1980s, in which party insurgents come to power, fail in their goals, and are replaced by a more establishment power bloc, whose failures then open the door for a new group of insurgents.

Enfeebled Parties

From the perspective of many other capitalist democracies, American political parties don’t really exist. They have no membership lists, their platforms are largely built after their candidates are nominated, and, perhaps most important, the parties themselves have very little control over the nomination process. Thus, it is not unheard-of for a Holocaust denier, for example, to win a Republican primary in a deep-blue district in which the party invests no resources, or for a member of the LaRouche cult to win a Democratic nomination in a deep-red district. Though in such cases the party will often denounce the candidate, it has no power to prevent them from running on its ballot line.

The weakness of American parties, which intensified after the 1970s, has had two results. First, the hollowing out of the parties removed one of the few counterweights to the power of money in American politics. Now, the power of money to decide matters of party direction, and thus ultimately of policy, is even more unmediated. Second, and related, the role of parties themselves changed, from institutions that determined key questions of party life, from platform to nomination, to candidate-service organizations whose main role is fundraising and providing access to vendors of campaign services.

American parties have been weak from the very beginning, and by design. The authors of the Constitution, rather naively, hoped political life could be conducted without parties, and explicitly designed a governmental structure which would, they thought, frustrate attempts to organize durable political organizations. As a result, for most of the nineteenth century, American parties were unwieldy coalitions of local elites, with little ideological coherence. In the early twentieth century, progressive reformers, seeing the elite dominance of parties, attempted to democratize them with the introduction of primary elections. Rather than democratizing parties, however, primaries reshaped them around individual candidates, weakening their organizational apparatus while preserving the elite-centered character of the institution. In his classic 1942 study Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, political scientist V.O. Key summed up the results:

The adoption of the direct primary opened the road for disruptive forces that gradually fractionalized the party organization. By permitting more effective direct appeals by individual politicians to the party membership, the primary system freed forces driving toward the disintegration of party organizations and facilitated the construction of factions and cliques attached to the ambitions of individual leaders.

Until the 1960s, then, American parties were pointillist entities, appearing unitary only from a distance. From the late ’60s onward, two changes took place. First, the parties sorted along an ideological axis, with the Republicans becoming the party of conservatives and the Democrats the party of liberals. Second, legislative and party reforms weakened the parties even further, combining with escalating campaign costs to define a new and even more unmediated role for money in determining questions of party leadership and direction.

The story of ideological sorting has been told many times. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Southern white conservatives abandoned the historic party of Dixie and joined the GOP, resulting, for the first time in American history, in a party system with a clear left of center party and a clear right of center party.

The rise of money in the parties is much less familiar, but no less crucial to understanding American politics. While money has always played a dominating role in American politics, reforms of the 1970s elevated it to an even more central place in party politics. Prior to the 1970s, committee assignment and leadership in Congress was based on seniority. The more senior a member was, the more access they had to powerful committee assignments. This system posed two problems for Democrats in the 1970s. First, a number of Southern segregationists stuck with the Democratic Party, and because they hadn’t ever faced competitive elections in the Jim Crow South, they had the most seniority. Second, the Democrats were getting clobbered in the fundraising race. With the rise of televised political advertisements, campaign costs were skyrocketing, and the Democrats were falling farther and farther behind. But the seniority system hampered congressional fundraising, since the number of people with real power to affect legislation (the kind of people donors want to give money to) was so limited.

To solve these problems, the Democrats rewrote congressional rules to empower party leadership to make committee assignments. The goal was to create more coherent parties with clear agendas, united behind their leadership. But the result was to make it easier than ever for money to buy power in Washington. Since members had a desperate need for campaign cash, leadership increasingly became defined by who could raise the most money.

Candidates soon began fundraising with the goal of redistributing money to their colleagues, thereby winning their support for key committee and caucus leadership positions. In 1977, when Tip O’Neill assumed his position as speaker of the House, the race to serve under him as majority leader was conducted, for the first time, on the basis of who could redistribute most to their colleagues. Jim Wright of Texas won, setting himself up to become speaker after O’Neill’s retirement a decade later. Two years later, Henry Waxman of California, a two-term representative, ascended to the chair of the Health and Environment Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee (on which he ranked fourth in seniority) by redistributing money to his colleagues. He founded a new PAC, the “Friends of Henry Waxman,” and directed $24,000 to his colleagues on the committee, who rewarded him with their votes. Seniority was, at long last, dead.

Others soon followed Waxman’s example. In 1988, there were forty-five such “leadership PACs,” which existed to redistribute money among congress members. One new congressmember who proved a keen student of Waxman’s approach was the representative from suburban Atlanta, Newt Gingrich. By 1998, freshman congress members were launching leadership PACs before they had even been sworn into office.

Since the 1990s, party leaders have been distinguished by giving vastly more money to their colleagues than non-leaders (though the amount distributed by non-leaders has greatly risen as well). Nancy Pelosi’s reign in the House has been built largely on this foundation. She is, as Ian Shapiro and Frances McCall Rosenbluth note, “the most effective Democratic fund-raiser the House ha[s] ever seen.” In 2008, Pelosi pledged to raise $25 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, more than the other eight House Democratic leaders combined. Despite leading her party to defeats in the 2004, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections, Pelosi has remained the head of the House Democratic Party by virtue of her immense fundraising prowess.

As party organizations became ever-more subordinate to political money, the role they played in American politics changed. At the state level, parties are now decisively subordinate to candidates, whose nomination is not controlled by party organizations and who don’t even rely on parties for fundraising or campaigning. Instead, state parties exist mainly to “provide linkage with the increasingly well-funded national organizations.” As one scholar summed up the new role of state parties, they are “no longer performing all or even most of the roles of recruitment, nomination, electoral support, and party discipline of elected officials. The activities of the formal state party organizations are more supplemental than controlling.” At the national level, the story is much the same. Parties now exist primarily as networks of funders, external organizations, and campaign service vendors. Their role is to act as “intermediaries between the candidates and the private market of campaign services.”

The American party organizations, always weak, have become background players in American politics. They are, in the words of two prominent scholars, “hollow parties, neither organizationally robust beyond their roles raising money nor meaningfully felt as a real tangible presence in the lives of voters or in the work of engaged activists.” Without any real institutional powers of their own, they exist mainly as conduits through which political money can flow from source to destination.

As a consequence, the enfeebled Republican Party can exert little counterpressure against extreme candidates who run for nomination on its ballot line, particularly if they are well financed. Sometimes, as in the case of a Holocaust denier running in a deep-blue district, the only result is half a news cycle of bad press. In other contexts, however, it has cost the party wins. In 2010, Christine O’Donnell, a Tea Party activist only marginally tethered to reality, beat the former Republican governor of Delaware in a Senate primary and proceeded to lose the general election by more than 15 points. In 2012, Tea Party Senate candidates in Indiana and Missouri handily won primaries against more establishment candidates and went on to lose winnable general elections, making a Republican seizure of the Senate that year all but impossible. Though these candidacies were opposed by many in the party leadership, the leaders now possessed few organizational resources with which to derail them.

The Fractured Elite

Party enfeeblement is clearly not sufficient to explain the Republican Party’s increasing distance from corporate political preferences. If money now rules the parties in a more unmediated fashion than ever before, one would expect the historic preferred party of American capital to be an even more servile supplicant to corporate boardrooms. Instead, the opposite has occurred. The party’s steady march to the right has resulted in new levels of estrangement from capital. American capital has failed to discipline the Republican Party.

American capital is unique among other advanced capitalist countries for its disorganized character. There is no national organization that is the primary representative of American employers. The roots of this go back, ironically, to the weakness of the American labor movement. Scholars of business organization noticed long ago that the organization of capital into business associations follows the organization of labor. Claus Offe and Helmut Wiesenthal summed up the dynamic of organization in capitalist society as follows:

In all capitalist countries, the historical sequence is this: the first step is the “liquidation” of the means of production of small commodity producers and the merging of these into capitalist industrial firms; the second step is the defensive association of workers; and the third step is associational efforts that are now made on the part of capitalist firms who, in addition to their continued merging of capital, enter into formal organizations in order to promote some of their collective interests.

The United States has never had a dominant national business organization. The American labor movement, weak and sectional in the half century following the decline of the Knights of Labor, never forced American business to organize. The absence of a strong socialist party similarly removed the threat of a hostile party coming into government. As a result, the first major organizations of American business, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce, were organized externally, the first by the McKinley campaign of 1896 to promote its effort to rally all of American capital behind the campaign, and the second by the Taft administration as an effort to overcome the fragmentation of American business that was making it harder for the administration to hear what capital wanted. In the US, business has felt precious little pressure to organize itself.

The consequences of the resultant disorganization are considerable. As Cathie Jo Martin has argued, it is “much harder for U.S. employers to think about their collective long-term interests than their counterparts elsewhere.” As multiple organizations compete to represent business interests, business organizations have to themselves be concerned with their market share. They find it easier to “voice short-term objections than to endorse positive policy change.”

The economic crisis of the 1970s triggered a medium-term reversal of this tendency. In the late 1960s, as corporate profits began sagging, the efforts of American businesses to recoup them through intensified exploitation sparked a rank-and-file-led upsurge among American workers. At the same time, the American economy, more integrated than ever into the global economy, was falling behind its international competitors. Finally, beginning in the late 1960s, a new wave of regulatory bodies was created, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose new impositions on business could not have been, from the perspective of corporate managers, more poorly timed.

In response, American business organized as never before. New organizations like the Business Roundtable formed, and once-somnambulant organizations like the Chamber of Commerce found new vigor. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it, “Corporate leaders became advocates not just for the narrow interests of their firms but also for the shared interests of business as a whole.” Initially focused on defeating liberal legislation, such as labor law reform and consumer protection bills, American business had, by the time of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, moved to take the offensive, pushing for the rollback of long-existing elements of the New Deal order.

The very success of the business mobilization, however, undermined its durability. By the 1980s, labor institutions were in shambles, and both parties had accepted a neoliberal policy agenda. Profits were on an upward trajectory again, and labor no longer posed a threat. In the absence of a unifying external enemy, capitalist class unity broke down. On the most basic level, organizations like the Chamber of Commerce had trouble selling membership while a friend of business like Reagan was in the White House. By the mid-1980s, Chamber membership was once again falling, dipping below two hundred thousand in 1985. One senior official explained, “For the last six and a half years, you’ve had a President in the White House who said he’d veto anything antibusiness. So why should business people bother to join?” With the various threats of the 1970s receding in the rearview mirror, the divisions and disorganization that characterized American business associations for most of the twentieth century once again began to assert themselves.

By the 1990s, both the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce, the leading organizations of American business, were both in atrophy.  Observers in Washington noted that the Roundtable’s influence was not what it once was. In 1997, Fortune magazine ran a story on its decline entitled “The Fallen Giant,” which noted the group’s troubles achieving consensus. Around the same time, the group’s president wrote a memo urging a tripling of its dues to finance more aggressive campaigning. But the move backfired, costing the group nearly a third of its membership.

Attempting to avoid this fate, the Chamber of Commerce shifted its model from trying to find consensus among its members to selling its services to the highest bidder. Since the Chamber is a trade association, donations to it are not required to be disclosed. As such, it could act as a kind of shield for companies wishing to push unpopular causes that might damage their brands. Their donations to the Chamber would be secret, and the Chamber’s lobbyists and attorneys would be the ones to get their hands dirty. The Chamber’s head was explicit about the purpose of this business model, boasting “I want to give them all the deniability they need.”

Over the next decade and a half, the Chamber would offer its reputation-laundering services to a number of different industries. When Congress considered new auto safety regulations in the wake of the Ford and Firestone recall in 2000, GM, Toyota, Ford, and Chrysler pumped over half a million dollars into lobbying to remove criminal penalties for auto executives from the legislation. Eleven pharmaceutical companies contributed over a million dollars each for a campaign about prescription drug pricing. The tidal wave of cash the insurance industry sent toward the Chamber in 2009 and 2010, however, dwarfed what had come before. In 2009, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, donated more than $85 million to the Chamber, which came to 42 percent of its funds that year. These funds allowed the insurance industry to play a double game, pledging support for reform efforts in public, all the while funding the Chamber’s scorched-earth campaign against a public option or any meaningful regulations on the industry. Throughout all this, Donohue continued to insist to journalists that donations to the Chamber were unrelated to its decisions to get involved in different political causes. The group was selling plausible deniability so rapidly, it seemed, it had forgotten to save any for itself.

In the three decades that followed Reagan’s administration, American business’s form of political action changed drastically. The united fight to tear down the remnants of New Deal liberalism was over, and business had won. Its victory, however, undermined the very conditions that had made such unity possible. Now exercising an unquestioned dominance over American politics, business found itself rent by the kinds of divisions that had seemed insignificant in the 1970s. They became, once more, as Karl Marx described, “a band of warring brothers.”

In this new environment, the leading organizations of American capital could no longer operate in the same way. They stopped trying to forge a classwide perspective and ceased seeking consensus. Instead, they attached themselves to the most narrow and sectional concerns of business, whether that meant shielding the tobacco industry from liability or doing everything possible to preserve managerial autonomy.

For these sorts of endeavors, a Republican Party moving ever further to the right was a profitable partner. The Republican right could be counted on to fight against any real penalties for business malfeasance, to back the most brutal slashing of the tax code, and to support judges who would maintain a ceaseless hostility toward labor unions and regulations. What Richard Lachmann describes as the “autarkic” orientation of American capital fit perfectly with the party becoming more and more conservative.

Rogue Elephant

The events of the last year have led many to hope that the Republican Party will return to normal in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed his unique combination of incompetence and indifference with an urgency that simply could not be ignored. Similarly, the pathetic stunts through which Trump and backers like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell tried to overturn the 2020 election results only underscored his weakness. Finally, the riots at the Capitol on January 6th seemed to be a nail in the coffin of Trumpism, as even Trump stalwarts like Lindsey Graham lined up to denounce the president.

The Capitol riots also marked a new level of discord between the Republican Party and the business community. Everyone from the Business Roundtable to the Chamber of Commerce to Americans for Prosperity denounced the riots. Trump’s strongest backers, like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, found themselves completely isolated. Some businesses signaled they would stop donations to Republicans entirely, while many more said they would stop donations to any politicians who voted against certifying the election results.

Yet these actions proved less substantial than many had hoped. When the Republican conference stood strong beside Trump during the post-riot impeachment hearings, the business boycott began to fall apart. By March, the Chamber of Commerce announced it would not proceed with the boycott. As the Biden administration moves to expand the welfare state, raise corporate taxes, and enact new environmental reforms, there is little doubt that many sections of business will migrate back to what is still Trump’s GOP. Indeed, even during Trump’s disastrous last year, both the Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers’ network worked to push Trump’s plans for reopening as soon as possible.

These dynamics reveal the failures of potted Marxist paradigms like treating Trump or the Tea Party as a radicalized middle-class insurgency. Since the 1980s, the Republican drive to the right has been powered by the shifting political interventions of capital. If the GOP now pursues policies that are frequently opposed by large sections of capital, that fact only testifies to the profound divisions that exist among the uniquely disorganized American capitalist class.

If Republican radicalization is rooted in the weakness of the parties and the disorganization of capital, it is unlikely to reverse so long as those dynamics persist. Moreover, there are strong reasons to expect continued conflict between Republicans and large sections of business. In particular, the party’s discarding of even a rhetorical commitment to the basic democratic principles of fair elections and majority rule are likely to create conundrums for business in the future. The GOP has, in essence, admitted that it has no hope of winning national majorities in its current form and will thus pursue politics through the negation of democracy. Where possible, this will be through constitutional means, such as the filibuster. Where necessary, fraud and even violence, like that of the Capitol riots, will be employed. All this poses a problem for business. Even now, firms are coming under tremendous pressure to denounce Republican attempts at voter suppression. Over the long term, Republican efforts, should they succeed, will have a profoundly delegitimizing effect on American capitalist democracy, a system that has worked remarkably well for American capital. American capital wants the policy fruits of Republican rule, but it is understandably nervous about the instability that accompanies dominance without hegemony.

The Republican Party’s frank abandonment of democratic commitments is obviously a tremendous problem for the American left. Any prospect of winning reforms like welfare state expansion is dependent on the ability to conduct class struggle via the ballot box. Already in many states, Republican gerrymandering has made it functionally impossible to unseat a Republican legislative majority.

On another level, the Left’s relationship to the forces driving Republican Party radicalization is paradoxical. The weakness of American parties has, after all, been an obvious asset to the American left. Without this weakness, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 candidacies would have been far less impactful. Similarly, the victories of socialist candidates in primaries across the country would have been impossible in a party whose leadership controlled candidate selection.

At the same time, weak parties and disorganized capitalists are both powerful barriers to socialist advance in the United States. A left party simply cannot exist in a political context where money drives partisan dynamics in such an unmediated fashion. For parties to play the kind of role the Left needs them to play, from building class consciousness to solving collective action problems to forging classwide preferences, they must be organizations with genuinely autonomous institutional power. Similarly, as plenty of research in comparative political economy has revealed, a disorganized capitalist class, focused on the narrowest and most short-term interests, is often a more dedicated foe of the welfare state than an organized one. Capitalists organize in response to external threats. If socialism is to progress beyond its present, barely marginal presence in American political life, it will depend on growing strong enough both to forge a new kind of political party in the American context, and to threaten employers enough to completely change their mode of association.

In the short term, Republican radicalization is likely to remain the defining feature of American politics. At this point, the party looks likely to retake both the House and the Senate in 2022, putting an end to whatever tepidly expansionary and ameliorative policies the Biden administration decides to enact before then. The outcome of the 2024 election will depend on what kinds of voting access and electoral certification measures the GOP passes in various states in advance. Republican radicalization is, in other words, well-positioned for continuing political success, even as it promises to bring political and economic instability with it. The forces deranging the Republican Party are deeply rooted in American politics and society. They show few signs of abating.