I think Corey Robin is drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.
The problem with the Republican Party is a fundamental problem affecting the root of party politics, especially the way it has evolved in the past few decades in United States, not anything related to “conservatism” or any other ideology. It is rooted in institutions and the same problem, albeit of less extreme variety for now, is bedeviling the Democratic Party.
The so-called Tea Party in the Republican Party actually consists of two distinct movements that have gotten conflated, both by their own politics and by the outside observers. They are, in context of 2016 elections, the Ted Cruz Tea Party and the Donald Trump Tea Party. They share the same trait: they are outsiders to the traditional Republican machinery. The crucial distinction is that the Ted Cruz Tea Party has a fairly clearly defined political agenda and is interested in capturing the machinery to use it (and abuse it) to advance their own agenda, regardless of the medium to long term effect on their party or the rest of the political landscape, while the Trump Tea Party is a heterogeneous lot without a clear political aim but is characterized by deep distrust of the existing political institutions. On the Democratic side, the history of this conflict is rather different and the conflict has been taking place much longer, but is of similar nature.
In the abstract, the power of party institutions comes in two flavors. First, the formal powers of the institutions allow those who wield it to block adoption of the alternatives they disapprove of while accelerating and otherwise favoring the adoption of those that they do–negative and positive agenda powers, as the political science lingo labels them. However, this power is fragile: it can be deprived if an opposing coalition emerges with both sufficient numbers and sufficiently clearly defined aims to the contrary. No democratic institution (and the same logic applies even to most non-democratic institutions) can force through outcomes that are actively opposed by a very large number of people, especially those with whom they share the institution–such as other members of the same party, other members of the legislature, and so forth. The more important power of the institutions, then, is the ability of those who control it to define the conventional wisdom, or the narrative, that can serve as the focal point, to convince other participants in the political process who do not have clearly defined goals, preferences, and beliefs that they should want X, even without clear knowledge thereof, because X is the preferred alternative of “the party” or whoever. In the much ballyhooed and now increasingly discredited (undeservingly so, in both cases) book, The Party Decides, both forces are present: the party’s choice serves as the focal point for the many, many voters who don’t know and don’t care much, while the formal powers can be used to slap down the handfuls of troublemakers with actual dissenting agendas.
The problem for the party is that while the former, the more formal set of powers, has grown, the latter, the informal foundations on which they are built upon, has been badly degraded. Mayhew, in 1974, already foresaw the impending crisis for the party: rival power centers to Congress, like the president, can pursue their agenda without respect for the kind of consensus sought by the Congressional party leaders; ideological and other factions with their own agendas can publicize their aims and mobilize support for them through extralegislative/extrapolitical means; and the changes in technology was making it easier for these rivals to the traditional party politics to intrude on the leaders. (The entire second half of the classic 1974 Mayhew book is on this topic–but no one seems to remember any of these!)
The considerable formal power of the party leadership is a draw for the factions that are not so much interested in maintaining institutions and the associated powers stable, but in using them to actively pursue their agenda. The first serious civil war over this in the Republican Party took place in 1990s already, that pitted Newt Gingrich, who, despite the reputation he acquired as the Speaker, was actually interested in building a long term power base for the Republican Party on broad consensus (every one of the Contract with America items drew support from a majority, or at least, a very large minority, among the Democratic members of Congress, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes) against Tom DeLay, whose attitude towards the power might be summed by paraphrasing the quote attributed to Madeline Albright, “what’s the use of all the power of the party leaders if we don’t use it to aggressively advance our ideological agenda?” Needless to say that DeLay won and this set the pattern for the rest of the GOP: the ideological faction should actively seek to capture power, use it to advance their agenda aggressively as well as to beat down their intraparty rivals who get in their way. The Ted Cruz Tea Party is the natural progression of this attitude: the Republican Party is useful for them only so far as it can be used as a tool to implement their ideological view as policy. Among the Democrats, the same civil war took place much farther into the past, in the guise of “House reforms,” where the liberal wing took power and purged the Old Guard who were interested more in maintaining internal balance within the Democratic Party. The conventional wisdom holds that this “strengthened” the Democratic Party. This would only be true if parties were to be viewed solely as the vehicle for making policy, in much the same manner as DeLay and, later, the Ted Cruz Tea Party conceive parties to be, with the most minimum of winning coalitions. If the parties are to be viewed as a vehicle for maintaining balance and stability, this was a crippling blow that contributed to the poor electoral fortunes of the Democrats later.
The other Tea Party, the Donald Trump Tea Party, exists on a completely different plane. It is not made up of ideologues who are particularly interested in implementing a particular program, assuming that they are at all interested in the program. It consists of those who are justifiably suspicious of those who control the machinery of power, who feel that their interests, even if they cannot articulate them clearly, are not being taken into account by the powerful who are too busy with their own agendas and shutting out all their rivals by using and abusing the formal powers that they control. Ultimately, it is a matter of trust–we don’t know what exactly we want, we don’t know what exactly they should be doing that they are not, but we know that these guys are not our friends and are looking to cheat us at every opportunity. And they are right, for the ideologues have no interest in wasting time on those who cannot help them achieve their policy goals. To the degree that the Ted Cruz Tea Party was mainly organized to topple the power of the incumbent leadership of the Republican Party, both “Tea Parties” made for natural allies–they shared a common enemy. Once the Ted Cruz Tea Party, or at least its fellow travelers became powerful in Washington, they became the enemy of the Trump Tea Party, as much as the older Republican leaders. In a sense, the increasingly narrow policy pursuits by the Ted Cruz Tea Party, made it even more blind to the discontent of the Trump Tea Party and may well have earned enmity faster. The defeat of Eric Cantor, if not an actual member of the Ted Cruz Tea Party then certainly a close ally, by a “Tea Party-aligned” insurgent movement in the Republican primaries in 2014–supposedly a good Republican year–should have drawn everyone’s attention to the peculiar divisions within the Republican Party. As an analogue, imagine what might happen if Anheuser Busch decided to get rid of all cheap beer in favor of expensive beer that “you want.” Some people might pay extra for Bud Light because they like its taste, but vast majority of Bud Light drinkers who do so because it is cheap or for any number of reasons other than taste will be outraged and may never buy another A-B product again.
In a sense, Democrats already had their own version of Eric Cantor, already, in the person of Bill Clinton and the DLC. However, unlike Cantor, the first Clinton moved the Democrats in a different direction. By 1980s, the Democrats already had a leadership that was interested in using the Democratic Party as the means to advance a liberal agenda, and that was losing them elections–Mike Downey, a congressman from 1980s, supposedly said, “If we wanted to pass a bill that suited the tastes of the average person, we have to pass the Republican bill.” Bill Clinton and DLC did not argue that the party should deemphasize the policy orientation in favor of maintaining stability, but that it should use its powers to pursue a different set of policy, those that, by the standards of 1980s and early 1990s, may not be so polarizing. Or, in other words, the Republican bill that Downey was complaining about. And, as the president, Clinton did exactly that. For all the apparent animosity between Gingrich and the Clintons, they actually made an excellent team: Gingrich, in his desire to build a governing party that was stable and enjoyed a broad base of support, was willing to pass legislation that suited many Democrats. Clinton, of course, wanted to pass bills that met the taste of the average man, which Gingrich supplied.
Notwithstanding the difference in the direction of the policy, the Democratic Party today is, no less than the Republicans, a tool subservient to the pursuit of policy: for many, the Democratic Party and the direction of the policy that it pursues are indistinguishable. The internal struggle within the party, then, is not over whether it should be policy oriented or stability-oriented, but simply over what direction the party should pursue in terms of policy. The folly of DLC and its legacy, for many, is that it focused on the policy that suited the taste of the “average man,” which, in 1990s, was in accord with Gingrich, not that the Democratic Party was reduced to a policymaking tool, in any direction. The answer by the liberal critics of the current leadership is that it should pursue more liberal policy–not so much that it should stop focusing on particulars of policy questions and start listening and rethinking about how to address the unmet needs.
The catch, then, is that the direction of the policy does not matter much. The more narrowly a party might be focused on the policy pursuits, the more likely it is to leave many of its supporters behind. The leftward orientation of the Democratic Party in 1970s and 1980s led to the abandonment of the white working class who backed Reagan, not necessarily because these voters were “conservative” but because they could no longer trust the Democrats to be concerned over their interests. (It is noteworthy that, vindicating Mayhew, the presidential tide turned far earlier and more decisively than the Congressional.) The rightward turn by Bill Clinton and continued by Hillary Clinton does not change the fundamental dynamic–they simply alienate a different group of voters. If the Democrats turn left again, the same scenario would repeat itself. The trouble with the Democrats, then, is exactly the same problem as that divides the Cruz Tea Party and Trump Tea Party, at least in institutional terms. It is a divide between policy-seekers and insurance-seekers, those who want to do things and change the world in their image vs. those who need protection from the changes, including those that the former want to bring upon the world.
The Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in the party machinery and its associated powers as tools for making policy. They want to know what policy they should pursue because, other than making policy and the details thereof, they have no sense of what a party is supposed to do. Their opponents–the rank and file Democratic supporters who were unsatisfied with the party leaders, much more than the liberal critics thereof–who found their voice in the person of Bernie Sanders in 2016, do not have a clear idea of what specific policy they want to see pursued–at least going beyond some popular ideas that do not collectively make up a coherent”ideology.” However, like the Trump Tea Party, they also know that the single-minded pursuit of policy by the party insiders is drawing them away from paying attention to their needs and interests, even if they cannot precisely spell them out in terms that can be translated to bills. Once again, the problem is ultimately that of trust–which has been showing up in the polls repeatedly.
However institutionally analogous they might be, the discontented Democrats do not overlap much with the Trump Tea Party. This needs to be made clear, as it is critical in shaping the electoral landscape today. The former are, after all, Democrats, or at least, Democratic sympathizers, while the latter are Republicans or Republican sympathizers. The relatively few real independents in the electorate might swing between the two camps, but, again, they are relatively few. The average Sanders voter, for all the disappointment, is a Democratic-sympathizer and he will not turn. Who might, had things been progressing differently, is a sizable minority composed of the true independents, but the prospects that Trump might lure away many of the independents who supported Sanders seem to be dimming daily, due to his own wackiness. If the choice is ultimately that of “trust,” Trump has not exactly shown himself to be a trustworthy person for many beyond his relatively narrow band of fans.
The likely failure of Trump, however, does not obviate the inherent problems facing the parties, both of them. The second face of power, the trust and the associated ability to act as the focal point for the uncertain partisans, is ultimately what sustains the first power. The overreliance on the first face of power has effectively broken the latter. When the narrative breaks, it is not easy to put it back together, without some great big myth and a larger than life founding father–an FDR, a Reagan, or a Lincoln. All the institutional rigging to shore up the first face will not be enough–indeed, it may even exacerbate the erosion of trust and subvert the second face of power even more. This is the real danger that faces the American party system today that goes far beyond the problems of “ideology.”
PS. I think a simple way of describing the problem (which, incidentally describes the variance-centric thinking vs. the means-based thinking) is that the dissenting voices in both parties want someone who listens, who recognize that the answers are still problematic, not someone who has answers, even better answers. Answers, like the means, may be right on average, but often wrong–perhaps, even wrong for everyone (e.g. the mean prediction for the number of heads of a fair coin will ALWAYS be wrong for any single coin toss.) The important thing, rather than getting the mean right, might be to recognize the variances exist–ie. how wrong the answers are for different peoples. This is all the more important because, when “the answers” become a narrative, like the standards of “cuteness,” the variance is significantly underestimated. The correct answer may be .5, rather than .6, but it will still be wrong on the next coin toss. Blaming the coin for not producing just half a head, rather than one full head or zero head will not resolve the problem.
PPS. The great insight that Bill Clinton and DLC had was to ask, as the Democratic Party was committed to becoming a vehicle for policy, whether pursuing the policy that was against the wishes of the average man was a good idea. Now, three decades later, his wife faces an altogether different challenge, where the average man does not know what exactly he should want any more, but does not trust the people who are running Washington to be interested in him. The attitude taken by both parties was to exploit the average man’s uncertainty and ignorance to their advantage, further subverting his trust. So, now what?