But my question is, did Republican reformers like Mr. Douthat really think there was any chance that their ideas would achieve headway within the party? If so, they were remarkably naïve.
After all, what is the modern G.O.P.? A simple model that accounts for just about everything you see nowadays would describe the party as an engine designed to harness white resentment on behalf of higher incomes for the donor class.
What we call the Republican “establishment” is really a network of organizations that represent donor interests because they’re supported by donor money. These organizations impose ideological purity with a combination of carrots and sticks: assured support for politicians and pundits who toe the line; sanctions against anyone who veers from orthodoxy; excommunication for independent-thinking pundits; and primary challenges for imperfectly reliable politicians.
To a casual observer, it may look as if this movement engages in actual policy analysis and discussion - but that’s only a show for the media. Can you even imagine being unsure how a Heritage Foundation study on any significant issue will turn out? The truth is that the right’s policy ideas haven’t changed in decades.
So why is this system cracking up now? It’s not because events have called the orthodoxy into question. On the contrary, failed predictions have never caused even the slightest modification in claims: The same people who predicted that President Clinton’s 1993 tax hike would kill jobs and that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act would be an economic disaster are making confident predictions today about the salutary effects of tax cuts.
The problem, instead, seems to be the country’s demographics: An increasingly diverse population means that the party needs to go beyond white resentment, but resentful white Americans are having none of it. Oh, and the base never cared about the G.O.P.’s ideology.
Just to be clear, Democrats aren’t angels. But the Democratic Party has a very different kind of arrangement: It’s a coalition of interest groups. None of them are selfless, but the party does in fact try to serve the interests of these groups, more or less; it’s not the kind of immense exercise in bait-and-switch that the G.O.P. has become. And Democrats can respond to a changing country by changing the party, adapting to the shifting balance of power among its constituent groups.
The very pluralism of the Democratic system, while it can make the party diffuse and ineffectual, means that there’s nothing within the party like the right’s unchallengeable orthodoxy, which in turn means that sometimes analysis and evidence can matter.
The hope of reformist Republicans was, I suppose, that the donor class itself would realize the need to soften the party’s ideology in the face of a changing society. But the right wing’s wealthy are different from you and me: They can, and do, surround themselves with people telling them that if only they say the usual things louder - if only they run yet another ad accusing Donald Trump of not being a true conservative - they can re-establish the old order. Remember, it took five presidential defeats - 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944 and the shocker in 1948 - before the old G.O.P. accepted the legitimacy of the New Deal. If that’s the standard, would-be Republican reformers might have to wait through two terms of President Hillary Clinton and one term of her successor before getting a hearing.
For now, at least, the reformers have no constituency.