Steven V. Roberts: How to own the future

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, February 24, 2022

Both national parties represent broad coalitions of wide-ranging interests, otherwise they couldn’t win elections in such a vast and diverse country. These parties are most successful when they unify their factions behind an idea, a cause or a candidate.

Republicans coalesced around Ronald Reagan so effectively that Democrats won only 62 electoral votes combined in the Gipper’s two victories. In 2020, Democrats were bound tightly together by a common fear and loathing of Donald Trump.

Today, both parties are splintered by internal rivalries, but the fault lines dividing each entity are distinctly different. For Republicans, the conflict is essentially personal, not ideological. The warring camps are defined by one question: Are you for, or against, Trump and his deranged view that the 2020 election was rigged against him?

For Democrats, the opposite is true. The factions are defined by ideology, not personality. The left wing of the party embraces extreme ideas — defunding cops, opening borders, nationalizing health care — and denounces moderates who reject their orthodoxy.

Here’s the critical question: Which party will be more effective at restoring unity and appealing to the mainstream voters who still decide elections?

Start with the Republicans. Their internal strife is best summed up by the battle in Wyoming, where Rep. Liz Cheney is facing a primary challenger backed by Trump and other GOP leaders. A straight-line conservative when it comes to policy, Cheney has committed one unforgivable sin: She spoke the truth about Trump’s detachment from reality and determination to undermine the Constitution. “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” she vows.

This fault line is fragmenting many other state parties, as well. In Wisconsin, for example, a Republican candidate for governor, Timothy Ramthun, insists that the 2020 election can still be overturned. And some party activists are calling for the ouster of Robin Vos, the longtime speaker of the state assembly, because he won’t pursue Trump’s crazy claims of fraud. “We’re going to spend millions of dollars tearing ourselves apart,” Jack Yuds, chair of the Dodge County GOP, told Politico.

In Georgia, Trump has declared war against Gov. Brian Kemp and backed his primary opponent, David Perdue. But Kemp still leads in the latest Trafalgar poll. In Alaska, Trump is trying to purge Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted for his impeachment. But as of Jan. 1, Murkowski had $4.2 million on hand, while Trump’s choice, Kelly Tshibaka, had banked barely $600,000.

National polls reflect the same fierce factionalism. In October of 2020, 54% of Republicans told NBC that they identified more with Trump personally than with the GOP as a party. Today, only 36% place loyalty to Trump first. In a Quinnipiac survey, 52% of Republicans agreed with former Vice President Mike Pence that Trump was “wrong” to challenge the results of the 2020 elections, while only 36% backed Trump’s tirades.

Democrats have their own fragmenting fracases. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez traveled to Texas recently to embrace Jessica Cisneros, a left-wing challenger to Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, and to denounce centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin. In San Francisco, voters ousted three radical school board members “in a battle that underscored the limits of left-wing politics even in such a liberal city,” noted the Washington Post.

“As Democrats look fearfully toward the midterm elections, many of the party’s candidates, strategists and voters are recoiling from some of the left-wing proposals that gained prominence during the Trump administration,” the Post reports. “Many Democrats now see them as too extreme and harmful to Democratic prospects this fall … The result is a growing backlash against more-liberal officeholders, challengers and plans.”

This backlash comes as two senior party strategists, Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, issued a report that argues that liberal Democrats are “in the grip of myths that block progress toward victory”, and are engaged in a “new politics of evasion, the refusal to confront the unyielding arithmetic of electoral success.”

“Too many Democrats have evaded this truth and its implications for the party’s agenda and strategy,” the authors add. “They have been led astray by three persistent myths: that ‘people of color’ think and act in the same way; that economics always trumps culture; and that a progressive majority is emerging.”

Both parties are being pulled apart by powerful factions that have refused “to confront the unyielding arithmetic of electoral success.” The party that understands that arithmetic, and embraces the sane center, will own the future.

 Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at