Steve Bannon’s plot to remake the Republican Party is bold, ambitious, and doomed to fail. The problem is that he’s chosen the wrong culprit for the GOP’s woes.
Over the coming months, President Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist intends to back primary challengers to those incumbent GOP senators whom he finds to be insufficiently zealous in their commitment to the Trump agenda. According to Bloomberg Politics, Bannon has two main demands of candidates seeking his support: They must commit to booting Mitch McConnell out of his role as Senate majority leader, and they must support killing the filibuster, which has evolved into a de facto requirement that the party in power maintain a supermajority to enact its legislative agenda.
One argument against Bannon’s scheme is that even if it works, it won’t work. Imagine he succeeds in ousting a Republican incumbent in a swing state. Say it’s Dean Heller of Nevada, a man who’s clearly no fan of President Trump and who’s been keen to present himself as scrupulously moderate to voters in his purple state. If Heller loses, chances are his successor will be a Democrat, not a Bannonite. Because the 2018 Senate map has such a strong Republican tilt, this red-to-blue swing might not be enough to jeopardize the GOP majority in the upper house. Still, the most likely takeaway here would not be that Republicans should be terrified of Bannon’s new electoral machine, but rather that the man from Breitbart cost Republicans a winnable seat.
The bigger picture issue for Bannon is that if he wants to change the GOP, he needs to offer more than just empty sloganeering.
If there’s one thing we know about Bannon, it’s that he’s a self-described populist who wants to move the GOP in a more populist direction. But as sociologist Bart Bonikowski has observed, “populism” is best understood as a rhetorical style commonly adopted by political outsiders. There’s no essential ideological core there, which is why you’ll find both democratic socialists and corporate libertarians who talk up the idea of a conflict between the people and the powerful. There are a number of smart people, such as Jan-Werner Müller, who insist there is a unifying thread to populism—Müller would say it’s anti-pluralism—and they might be right. But for our purposes, it’s reasonable to say that the fact someone identifies as a populist tells you almost nothing about what she actually believes on policy matters. All it tells you, truthfully, is that she probably hasn’t been on the political scene for very long, as it strains credulity for a veteran politician to claim to be an outsider who can shake up the system. Ask Hillary Clinton.
Bannon is wrong to think the problem with today’s GOP senators is that they’ve been unwilling to climb aboard the Trump train. Rather, it’s that there’s no train to climb aboard. If the president had a well-defined, reasonably popular agenda, it’s possible a handful of Republican senators would keep defying him out of principle. But, really—does anyone believe that Republican senators are an especially principled bunch? If Trump’s job approval ratings were in the high 40s rather than the high 30s right now, that would mean he’d successfully incorporated a new group of voters into the GOP. Republican incumbents would have little choice but to defer to him.
Bannon does, however, have an achievement he can build on. Trump managed to win the votes of millions of working-class voters who were otherwise skeptical of the GOP. If the Republican Party could somehow retain these voters, the changing Republican base would compel GOP politicians to embrace a more working class–friendly agenda. Why? Because it’s the job of politicians to keep their electoral coalition intact and happy.
David Karol, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, has found that parties change their ideological complexion not just through turnover, i.e., the election of new candidates under the party’s banner, but also through conversion, i.e., incumbent politicians changing their stances to match the evolution of their party’s coalition. For example, there are tons of Democrats who were once wary of backing same-sex marriage or single-payer health care (because they were afraid of alienating moderates), and who are now passionately committed to both (because the Democratic base has moved to the left).
We’re seeing a similar process at work among Republicans. The failure of the Obamacare replacement effort is arguably a sign that at least some Republicans are adapting to the more working-class character of their base, whether they’re willing to acknowledge it or not. Confronted with the fact that many of their voters depend on Medicaid, Republicans who’d long defined themselves by their commitment to small-government ideals are redefining themselves as defenders of (part of) the safety net.
If Bannon’s goal is to remake the Republican Party, he ought to help Republicans consolidate their support among working-class voters, and to grow that support as much as possible. But the obstacle there isn’t Mitch McConnell, and it’s not the incumbent GOP senators Bannon is targeting. It is Donald Trump, whose fecklessness and incompetence put him at risk of losing the working-class voters in the industrial Midwest who put him in the White House.
If Bannon wants to find a ripe target, he should look no further than the president he once served.