Ever since a high-profile faction of Republican intellectuals and political operatives formed an auxiliary brigade for the 2020 Democratic ticket, a question has lingered over their heads. What will they do when President Trump is defeated: return to their old party, or remain with the new one?
What they ought to do, for the sake of both their short- and long-term political interests, is to realign with the Democrats for the time being. Even the Democratic Party’s left wing would eventually gain from Never Trumpers remaining in the party, at least for a time.
Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush aide turned fierce critic of Trump and his party, argues that anti-Trump Republicans have already joined the Democratic Party. Their evolution simply tracks the leftward evolutionary movement of college-educated white voters into the Democratic Party over the last quarter-century.
And the accelerating shift of college-educated whites constitutes not only Joe Biden’s biggest demographic gain but essentially his only important one. Compared with Hillary Clinton, Biden failed to gain significant ground among working-class whites, and lost ground among all racial minorities, but gained nearly two and half points over Clinton’s margin by flipping voters in formerly Republican suburbs.
The Never Trump Republicans gave a colorful identity to this shift. The breaking of ranks among political elites always attracts disproportionate attention. The defection of neoconservatives from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the 1970s, or the entrance into the Democratic Party of some socialists attracted to Bernie Sanders in 2016, commanded a space in political coverage vastly out of proportion with the tiny number of people involved.
The prospect of Never Trumpers joining the Democrats has unsettled critics on both the right and the left. There’s an old saying that conservatives are always looking for converts while liberals are always looking for heretics, which (I once argued) explains why defections from right to left make both sides unhappy.
Leftists have argued that the Never Trumpers would nefariously pull the Democratic Party rightward. “Even though these voters appear to be statistically insignificant, one could easily imagine a future in which the Lincoln Project is using its claim to speak for moderates to lobby the Biden administration against health-care expansion or a rise in the corporate tax rate — which will surely put them on the same side as all the Republican politicians who have enabled Trump’s rise,” argued the New Republic’s Alex Shephard. Trump defender Byron York assumed, conversely, that Never Trumpers would be utterly stymied by the Democrats’ unyielding leftist bent: “The small but vocal group of Republicans and former Republicans who oppose President Trump has watched in horror as Democrats veered leftward, embracing ‘Medicare for All,’ virtually open borders, sky-high taxes and other positions no conservative could ever accept.”
It’s impossible for both of these predictions to be true. It’s quite possible that neither will be. The nightmare scenarios of the left and the right share a mistaken assumption that Joe Biden’s administration will have significant latitude to govern from the left, and that implementing policies congenial to the party’s Sanders-AOC wing is a choice on the table.
The unhappy truth is that anything even close to the agenda Biden ran on — let alone the agenda of the party’s left — stands no chance of enactment. Even if Democrats win the Georgia runoffs and gain a 50th Senate seat, securing all 50 Democratic Senate votes for anything will present a forbidding obstacle.
Left-wing activists have devoted so much of their strategy to a struggle to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from its centrist wing that they’ve hardly planned for a world in which Democratic centrists themselves lack the means to advance their preferred agenda. One knock-on effect of this reality is that Republicans for Biden won’t, and probably can’t, hold back his ambitions in any meaningful way.
The left would like to imagine that Democrats could move sharply to the left and mobilize a new trove of progressive votes among young people or members of the white working class who haven’t voted before or supported Trump out of a desire to strike a blow against neoliberalism. But the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, despite its ample funding and high name recognition, demonstrated fairly conclusively that there is no sizable latent left-wing vote. In the world we live in now, gaining majorities means expanding the Democratic coalition to the center.
That’s not the world I want to be living in. It’s certainly not the world leftists want to be living in. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is fond of noting that, in many other countries, she and Joe Biden would not even be sharing the same party. Certainly it’s odd for a socialist like AOC to vote for the same candidate as the likes of Mike Murphy, Rick Wilson, and Bill Kristol.
But in the short run, the American political system, with its enormous overweighting of rural, Republican voters, forces Democrats to win supermajority levels of votes even to gain bare majorities. Moderate Republican support is needed to push through whatever partial advances can be wrung out of Biden’s precarious agenda.
In the longer run, Democrats need to win the kind of majority capable of pushing through pro-Democratic reforms, like anti-gerrymandering legislation and statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which can reduce the pro-Republican advantage in the system.
Many leading Never Trump Republicans support these reforms. In general, we should not assume anti-Trump Republicans will automatically return to the fold after Trump disappears. Once you’ve seen your party fall behind a deranged racist authoritarian, it’s hard to unsee it. In particular, anti-Trump Republicans have had to think clearly about the centrality of democracy as a dividing point in American politics, and have discerned the anti-majoritarian streak that has run through their former party.
Eventually, a more (small-d) democratic system coupled with the full emergence of more progressive younger voters will allow Democrats, and force Republicans, to move left. A world in which the leaders of the Democrats actually do advocate the socialist policies Republicans currently have to pretend they advocate is one in which Republicans can appeal to moderates.
One day, though perhaps not for years or even decades, the Republican Party can be made safe for democracy again. In the meantime, the Democratic Party has to remain a broad anti-authoritarian coalition. The Republican dissidents who revolted against Trump should stay a while. Liberals are going to need their help.