The Magazine

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

The Republican establishment needs the grassroots, and vice versa.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JAY COST
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Jeb Bush’s recent musings on a possible presidential run—and his comments on immigration, rankling many in the Republican grassroots—sparked a familiar clash. Jeb, the establishment’s preferred candidate, some said, could neutralize the fiery GOP base in 2016. Conservatives shot back that Jeb would depress conservative turnout, and his last name would play poorly with the general electorate.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

It’s a constant tension: The base is unhappy with the establishment, and vice versa. But this year, the marriage of convenience between the grassroots of the party and its donor class has emerged so battered from eight years of George W. Bush and five of Barack Obama that some wonder whether this union can or should be saved.

In fact, the divide between the two sides of the GOP goes back a long way. Partly, it reflects a universal truth that James Madison noted in Federalist 10: “[T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” The establishment class of the Republican party holds property that the grassroots simply do not—disposable income high enough to facilitate political giving, sometimes on a vast scale. The grassroots have little spare cash; they have only their votes. 

This economic divide is reinforced by geography and culture, with
the donor class tending to live on the coasts, in or around cities, and the base spread out across the suburbs, small towns, and rural expanses in the Midwest and South. 

Furthermore, the nature of American elections—winner-take-all contests in geographically discrete jurisdictions—effectively precludes the formation of third or fourth parties, as French political scientist Maurice Duverger showed. As a result, many potentially clashing interests end up housed within our “big tent” parties, forcing leaders to find clever ways to keep potential conflicts from overwhelming shared values. 

Consider the Whig party, from which the Republican party was (mostly) formed. It tended to draw supporters from the higher end of the socioeconomic scale in the 1840s and ’50s: the wealthy planters in the South, merchants in New York City and Philadelphia, and the prosperous Yankee middle class. Yet that was not enough for electoral victory, which is why the Whigs nominated generals—William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott—who could appeal to what pundits today call “the heartland.” 

When the Republican party emerged from the pieces of the Whig coalition, it confronted the same dilemma, and Abraham Lincoln—the Midwesterner with a hardscrabble background and a moderate position on slavery—was chosen in part because his appeal was broader than that of Salmon Chase, a Dartmouth graduate and prominent Cincinnati attorney, or William Seward, also a lawyer, and the son of a wealthy landowner in upstate New York.

After the Civil War, the latent conflict between those who cut the checks to fund the party and those who voted for it, cycle after cycle, persisted. This helps explain why the Republicans tended to nominate presidential candidates from the Midwest and vice-presidential candidates from New York: A balanced ticket helped to keep the peace. 

The cultural, social, and economic divisions within the party have been reinforced in the last 80 years by ideological ones. Though founded out of opposition to the spread of slavery, the Republican party was Whiggish in its economic doctrine, making it the era’s “big government” party. The 19th-century GOP sought to use governmental action to promote business development. Thus, Republicans supported high protective tariffs, favored laws allowing for national bank charters, took a broad view of federal powers to suppress state regulation of businesses, and encouraged the secretary of the Treasury to manipulate the currency to retain the gold standard. 

Modern American conservatism developed in opposition to the New Deal, to fight the undeniable sense that laws like the National Industrial Recovery Act were changing the character of the country itself. In its first incarnation, this sentiment was present in both parties; indeed, some of the most prominent early opponents of the New Deal were leading Democrats—John Jakob Raskob, DNC chair in the 1920s, John Davis, 1924 presidential nominee, and Al Smith, 1928 nominee and 1932 runner-up. 

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