At the risk of spoiling your holidays, it’s time for a serious talk about what’s driving the race for the GOP nomination. It’s not just personality, although Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are certainly more effective messengers than, say, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, their ideological doppelgangers. More important, the broad appeal to the party’s base of the extreme attacks by most GOP candidates on immigrants, Muslims, the mainstream rights of women, climate science, and government under both parties raises questions about where the Republican Party is headed.
As is often the case, one reason these messages resonate so powerfully among GOP voters lies in the economy, especially what’s happened to their incomes. New research shows that across groups which account for nearly two-thirds of American households — those headed by people without college degrees — median household incomes fell pretty steadily from 2002 to 2013. (Over the same years, progress by households headed by college graduates slowed but didn’t turn negative.) These data tracked people’s incomes as they aged, capturing their actual economic experience. So, for example, the median income of households headed by people without college degrees who were 35 to 39 years old in 2001 fell about 1 percent per-year from 2002 to 2013, when those same people reached ages 47 to 51.
As documented in my report for the Brookings Institution, these persistent income losses as people aged are unprecedented in modern America. Households headed by people ages 35 to 39 in 1981 and without college degrees saw income gains averaging 2.3 percent per year under Ronald Reagan; and the median incomes of comparable households in the 1990s increased 2.8 percent per-year under Bill Clinton. (An infographic version of the report can be found here.)
White males without college degrees make up a major share of the GOP’s base, and it’s unsurprising that many of them blame their hard times on competition from immigrants and women, abetted by the alleged indifference of the government under both parties. Nor is it unreasonable that people who already feel vulnerable economically also are sensitive to the specter of a new physical threat, including terrorism — so much so that they’re open to ostracizing anyone who shares the faith of the small group of terrorists in Paris and the isolated couple in San Bernardino. Judging by the last GOP debate, most of the candidates (all but Trump and Rand Paul) also expect their base voters to welcome America addressing terrorism by going to war again in the Middle East.
Divisive fights inside the GOP between mainstream conservatives and right-wing populists are not new. In fact, they were features of the 2008 and 2012 nomination races. In the past, the Republican establishment papered over the split by acknowledging the noisy complaints of the right-wing populists. John McCain did so by naming Sarah Palin to his ticket, and Mitt Romney called for anti-immigrant policies so onerous that 11 million undocumented Hispanics would “self-deport.”
This time, the right wing is poised to claim the top of the ticket, intensifying the candidates’ competition for hyper-conservative voters. The race has not only pushed Trump, Cruz and their anti-establishment confederates further to the right; it’s also forced more traditional candidates such as Marco Rubio and even Jeb! Bush to fall in line on most matters. So, come next July in Cleveland, the GOP almost certainly will present itself as a vessel for an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-science, and anti-government agenda.
These developments present a serious dilemma for the majority of GOP office holders in Congress and the states, who still identify with mainstream conservatism. Across the Midwest, parts of the South, and most mountain and southwestern states, Republican candidates will have to choose between angering their party’s radicalized base and turning off millions of moderately conservative suburban women and millennials, on top of nearly all Hispanics and Asians. Whatever choice these GOP candidates make, many may not survive 2016 — and the day after the elections, the Republican Party will still face its Hobson’s choice.
The hard political truth is that no one can reconcile alienated, right-wing populists and mainstream establishment conservatives. Unless the economic casus belli for these developments disappears — and strong, broad income progress returns — one side or the other may well be forced to look beyond the GOP.
All of this sounds like good news for the Democrats. In fact, 2014 was the first good year for most households’ incomes since 2000. If Hillary and the next Congress can enact policies and programs that sustain broad income progress, the Democrats could become the nation’s default governing party. If not, the Democratic Party may find itself by 2020 in a bind similar to the Republicans — riven by an ideological battle between angry left-wing populists and the party’s establishment.