Republican Civil War

The BuzzMarch 21, 2016
Photo by Mallory Benedict

The Buzz is a a roundtable discussion showcasing the perspectives of writers with varying political backgrounds. Today's topic will be centered around the question, "Is there a Republican civil war happening?"

About the writers

Rob grew up in Southern California. He's currently a student at Harvard Law School, following a year working at a civil rights firm in New York City.

Jay is a California native, studying law at UCLA.

Jo is a 20-something year-old woman from the East Coast. She has a degree in Economics and watches videos of red pandas when she's feeling down.

Buck is studying law at UC Berkeley, and if admitted to the bar, will be a prosecutor in the Bay Area of California.

Sage is the Digital Director for the Republican Party of San Diego County and a respected advocate for local conservative causes in North San Diego County.

Question 1: Has this race seen an abnormally high amount of negative comments between the candidates or is there simply more coverage now?

Rob: There's more coverage now, and also more negativity, but perhaps most importantly there are better platforms for candidates to spew their negativity, and then for the conventional media to pick up on it. Of course, I'm referring to Twitter here, and particularly to whichever of Trump's social-media interns has the trigger-happy finger and the fondness for white-supremacist organizations.

Jay: This race has more negative comments than ever before! If you don't believe me, watch a debate from 2012. Unlike now, part elections never witnessed candidates denigrating each other's actual physical bodies on a national stage.

Jo: In 1851, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten unconscious and bloody with a wooden cane by a member of the House of Representatives while on the floor of the Senate. His assailant, Representative Preston Brooks, disagreed with a speech Senator Sumner made about slavery in Kansas. It is hard to say that modern political commentary is any more negative or vicious today. However, today, media coverage is much more extensive and accessible, and Presidential Candidates have Snapchats, personal Twitters, and a 24-hour news cycle. If you're lucky, a presidential Hopeful will read your mean tweet about them on Jimmy Kimmel.

Buck: I think what we've seen this election cycle is a new type of candidate entering the fray, and really changing the nature and tenor of the dialogue – for the worse. The rise of Donald Trump has unquestionably lowered the bar for what we collectively expect from presidential politics and debate, creating a race to the bottom of sorts among the candidates. In the wake of the 2008 and 2012 elections, the relentless 24-hour commentary-go-round that we see play out on FoxNews, MSNBC, and CNN is, well, old news. But the effect of Trump's candidacy is akin to pouring nitroglycerin on a fire that already had plenty of wood in it.

Sage: The laws of supply and demand extend beyond the marketplace on Main Street. This is nothing more than an adaptation to a general societal trend. Much like how popular television shows have evolved to become more obscene - making cursing and nudity more socially acceptable - politics is evolving. To make matters worse, I don't remember the last time I saw O'Reilly or Maddow discuss how peaceful and rational all the candidates were on a given day. Drama drives ratings, and as such, drive public perception.

Question 2: Is this really a Republican "Civil War"?

Jay: Yes. The Republican Party "Establishment" does not want either Trump or Cruz to be the nominee. However, both candidates have popular support, which is problematic since the Establishment cannot disregard either without losing their voters in the General Election.

Rob: This is. There remains an establishment wing of Republicans characterized by their adherence to free market principles and commitment to US hegemony. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan are two such examples. There's a growing branch of today's GOP, however, that's defined more by its xenophobia and nationalism. I remain optimistic that a true Civil War ensues, rather than that the establishment gets swept up in the growing tide of populist animus.

Buck: If you recall, a host of commentators back in 2012 suggested that the rise of the Tea Party and its growing influence relative to the GOP establishment signaled a "civil war" within the Republican Party. And to some degree it was, as two organized camps vied for supremacy, one following the older, orthodox ways, and the other advocating a radical departure. But if that was a "civil war," what's happening in the 2016 (not to stretch the metaphor too far) is a clash between warlords in a lawless state. Tea Party support is fractured among a diminishing pool of candidates, and what remains of GOP establishment is using every last play in the book (queue Mitt Romney) to mount a final defense against the one warlord that could defeat it for good: Donald Trump.

Sage: Perhaps - but I'd point out that the possibility of actual secession is quite minimal. The Republican Party has gone through transformations such as this at multiple times throughout history, just as the Democratic party has seen these shifts. Many would argue that this same thing occurred when we nominated Goldwater in 1964, or when Reagan came close to replacing a sitting President as our nominee in 1976. These conversations are healthy, and usually result in an outcome that betters the party, whether that's at the end of this year or in a decade. Those results will have to be seen.

Jo: I would instead say that the Republican Party is at a crossroads. It is completely normal for American political parties to grow, split, and die out over time. Actually, It would be pretty concerning if the ideals and standards of the party did not evolve over the generations to keep up with the times. For example, the Democratic party has changed dramatically since the Civil War, when it was popular with Southerners, conservatives, traditionalists, and slave-owners. If the ultimate Republican Nominee loses the General Election, it's likely that the Republican Party will undergo a period of change and emerge in a new form, not unlike the Democratic Party during the Civil War. The GOP is a party with a lot of ideological, moral, and socioeconomic diversity, and it's difficult to get that many people with vastly different opinions to agree on anything.

Question 3: Is this fight within the Republican Party needed to shift the views of the Party and create a cohesive message come August?

Jay: No. This fight is the last thing the Republican Party needs. Just when the Party won a huge victory in cohesion with the election of Paul Ryan to Speaker of the House, this election battle has again split the Party and sent any semblance of cohesion out the window.

Rob: No. The fight's not needed, it's not going to create cohesion or even consolidation within the party, and certainly nothing's going to improve by August. To the contrary, I expect the clash between Trump supporters and #NeverTrump to engender a lasting---if not permanent---schism within the GOP.

Jo: We're experiencing a volatile period in American politics. I don't think it's likely that the Republican Party will form a cohesive message come August. Arguably no matter which Republican candidate ultimately wins this nomination, it's reasonably likely the Republican party will undergo a significant change. The relative success of Donald Trump has made fracturing more likely. If he becomes the Republican Nominee, more moderate Republicans will feel that their party does not align with their views and become disillusioned. If he does not become the nominee, staunch Trump supporters will feel that their voices have once again been drowned out by the establishment. This could lead to further internal disputes within the Republican Party, and could culminate in the Republican Party changing drastically or even splintering. Even if a Republican wins the General Election, it's likely that the Party will have to seriously evaluate its stance on more than a few issues.

Buck: YES! Well, that's what a Trump supporter would say at least. You would be hard pressed to find a non-Trump Republican who would give the same answer. With each passing week, what we've seen is a growing number of Republicans who see or hear something The Donald does and withdraw their support from him, or even from the party itself. This should be distressing to GOP party officials, who need an electable candidate with a more broadly palatable message by the time the general election ramps up in August. The way things stand, with Trump poised to secure the nomination, that seems like a long shot.

Sage: Nomination fights are probably the least ideal times for a party to craft its message. It's why the RNC and DNC keep their mouth shut regarding candidate statements. Despite what their leadership might think, they understand that it'll be fatal to have to backtrack if the person they don't want becomes the nominee. That being said, the fight is played out more on the television more than on the ground. County and State parties are still working hard to elect small-government conservatives to school boards and city councils, and they're doing it with Trump supporters, Rubio supporters, etc, all working together.

Question 4: Will the significant media coverage surrounding this race and in particular Republicans help drive excitement in the General Election?

Rob: Yes, the media coverage will certainly drive excitement heading into the General. For all their spin, however, the media still is limited to working with what the candidates give them. Thus, the excitement will be dependent in large part on who gets the nomination, and what role they decide to play. We can't rule out the (admittedly remote) possibility that after receiving the nomination The Donald might discard his base and attempt some dramatic centralization.

Jo: I reject the premise of this question. This race is full of colorful characters with strong beliefs. This causes the media coverage to be more extensive -- because the public is very interested in this race, the media covers it more, not the other way around. That being said, as I discussed in Question #1, the public's ability to constantly access the news has impacted engagement in politics. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton are particularly polarizing figures and media engagement is already very high because of them. If Mr. Trump, Senator Sanders, or Secretary Clinton receive their respective nomination, it's likely that interest in the General Election will be much higher.

Jay: Yes. This primary season has hosted more Republican voters than ever before. It's likely that these voters will remain interested in the General Election, particularly since the two prospective candidates on the Democratic side are both highly contentious figures to conservative Republicans.

Sage: Despite a great deal of millenials "feeling the Bern," the truth is that the wind is to the Republicans' back in 2016. This is becoming more apparent with each passing primary and caucus as Republican turnout is dramatically higher - sometimes up 100% - since 2008, and Democratic turnout is an almost exact reflection - with the arrows being red and the graphs trending downwards. This will be a big year for Republicans, nationally, regardless of the Presidential nomination, but I'm confident the diversity of GOP national candidates will be beneficial to down-ticket races as well.

Buck: As is true with every election, more voters will show up at the polls during the general election than in the primaries, but this increased turnout is probably not a product of media-driven excitement. Due the sheer volume of information being dumped on public through a host of medial outlets, most Americans have probably already hit their saturation point when it comes to presidential election coverage. The real question is how the media will treat a Trump candidacy in the run-up to the general election, and whether this treatment will rally undecided voters to his camp, or alienate those that already support him. I'd put money on the latter.

Question 5: Will the trend of more extreme candidates in both parties become a norm?

Jay: Yes. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have pulled their respective parties away from centrist policies and have shown that there are legitimate votes to be found there. As long as voters remain away from the center, it's easy to imagine a scenario where this type of shift spreads to Congressional and Gubernatorial races.

Sage: Many wouldn't find much similarity between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but the truth is that they both have defied the odds and derive their base from a similar mindset - the disgruntled. On one hand, you have a bombastic businessman, never having held public office, and on the other, you have a socialist Senator who isn't even a registered member of the party he's seeking the nomination for. You see an increasing amount of Americans who are frustrated with the status quo, and as such, have chosen to support candidates who fall outside of the norm - as radical as they may seem.

Buck: The answer to this question will turn on who is ultimately elected in November. An establishment candidate like Clinton, who is a product of existing power structures and perhaps most likely to secure bipartisan consensus on certain issues, might restore some moderation to the process. On the other hand, the election of an anti-establishment candidate like Sanders or Trump may force the extremes of each party even farther from the center. The interesting thing about this election is that it is challenging the conventional wisdom of American presidential politics that only moderate candidates are electable. While its certainly possible that Trump and Bernie (if nominated) will conform with historical precedent and tack to the center during the general election, both men are ideologues that don't seem to like playing by the rules. If either of them pulls that off, future candidates, especially the more extreme will have at least some sort template off which to work.

Jo: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are both fascinating case studies in extreme candidates. Although they have vast ideological differences, both candidates sit at the extreme end of their respective parties, promise massive changes to what they describe as huge problems, and favor sweeping, populist rhetoric. They are both gaining massively in popularity because of a purist voter base that feels frustrated with the status quo and perceived lack of change in Washington. I would say we are nearing the peak of a trend towards extremity. However, politics are cyclical, and we'll eventually move back to moderates, and then cycle again!

Rob: Yes, is the brief answer. It's important, however, to consider the current elections trends within the context of politics throughout the rest of the western world. In Europe, both Trump's nationalism and Bernie's socialism resemble established political movements. Given the waning political power and corresponding resentment among white middle-class voters, and given Bernie's overwhelming support among young voters, we're likely to see their messages resonating for decades to come. So will "more extreme candidates" become the norm? Sort of, but a better way to look at it might be that the views of these two "extreme" candidates will become more normalized.


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