Back in the Great Depression, amid the New Deal, when the Republican Party was the very face of the Establishment, a good-natured, lasso-twirling Oklahoma humorist named Will Rogers quipped, “I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
To some extent, amid a rebellion led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont, that quip may still seem to hold true. But it is looking pretty tame alongside the free-for-all on the Republican side, where ideological dysfunction seems to reign supreme after years of fairly orthodox nominees leading its party into quadrennial battle. The Establishment is in some ways shaken to its roots.
The moment of silence Saturday evening following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the outset of an otherwise raucous Republican debate may have honored proper protocol, but it seemed almost anachronistic in some ways. The uprising within the party is firmly anchored within the conservative elements of the American working class. Polls have consistently shown that Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump draw support from those with the lowest average levels of education within the party, and one can probably assume correspondingly low average income levels as well—if one excludes Trump himself, that is, who is clearly at the other end of the wealth spectrum but a far better self-promoter than any other candidate on the stump. There is irony in watching a multimillionaire real estate developer become the voice of right-wing working-class populism.
All the candidates honored the memory of Scalia, but it should be noted that he was no friend of the working class. His hide-bound originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution represented a particularly rigid brand of legal intellectualism that was increasingly out of touch with current American realities—and was intended to be. Originalism hews to the idea that the Constitution must be always interpreted in light of the intentions of the Founding Fathers, which may sound logical until one considers all the contingencies of American history that they could never have foreseen or even understood. I have seen this kind of originalism applied in the religious arena as well, trying to freeze in time the thinking of people like Martin Luther or others who themselves were revolutionizing the world’s thinking. It has always been hard for me to believe that the Founding Fathers, who themselves challenged the orthodoxy of the British monarchy, truly expected that their vision would be frozen in time for all who followed. Surely they understood the fluid nature of the revolutionary principles they enshrined in the new American system. I do not have to be a lawyer to see through the philosophical flaws in originalism, just as I do not have to be a theologian (but I am a Lutheran) to know that Martin Luther surely understood that he had set in motion with the Reformation certain forces that would lead to periodic reevaluation of the application of essential Christian principles over time. Modern American Lutheranism, fortunately, is for the most part more creative and dynamic in its spirituality than to follow an originalist path. Scalia, however, was a conservative Catholic whose originalism, curiously, did not strictly follow the separation of church and state advocated by Jefferson, Madison, and others. They surely never envisioned today’s Religious Right alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. Those interested in a powerful dissection of the origins of this brand of politics, by the way, can read Thy Kingdom Come, a decade-old treasure by Randall Balmer, a politically liberal evangelical who is deeply critical of the submersion of evangelical religion within the right-wing Republican political agenda.
That point leads us back to the bifurcation to date of the rebellion within the Republican Party. Basically, despite some cross-over in both directions, the Cruz vote relies very heavily on evangelical support from the Religious Right, while Trump relies on a more secular brand of support from working-class Republicans who see jobs slipping away, have lost the unions that used to support their aspirations within the private sector, and who exercise a kind of knee-jerk patriotism with distinctively nativist roots. But, of course, evangelicals can be blue-collar workers, and vice versa, and some evangelicals surely also recoil at their constant media characterization as conservatives, as Balmer does. All that said, indications are that the two candidates, each posing as anti-Establishment, together have been commanding about half of the Republican caucus and primary vote, which means that traditional pro-business Republicans face an uphill battle to maintain control of their party.
What is interesting is that they also face a rather incoherent threat, if judged by the rants and promises of Trump, who seems to enjoy playing a disruptive, destabilizing role in the Republican debates that nonetheless serves very well to keep the focus on Donald Trump. Despite the deference to the Scalia legacy, the debates seem far from the traditions that planted him on the U.S. Supreme Court in the first place. A Reagan nominee, Scalia won enough respect for his professionalism to win unanimous confirmation from the U.S. Senate. Not one Republican candidate in the Greenville, South Carolina, debate noted the obvious fact that every Democrat at the time respected Reagan’s prerogative, although later they did feel Reagan had pushed things just far enough with the nomination of Robert Bork, who was persuaded to withdraw his nomination in the face of intense opposition. This year’s candidates all insisted that President Barack Obama had no right to nominate a successor to Scalia and that they had every right to block confirmation, even before knowing whose name he would submit. The intent, of course, is clear—to withhold that right until a Republican wins the White House in the fall.
But one wonders: Have they considered what they will do if, perhaps as a result of their current intraparty fratricide, they lose that election, especially if the general electorate recoils at granting them such a privilege? Will they pledge to block any Clinton or Sanders nominee for an entire term in office?
It is an intriguing quirk of the American political system, perhaps part of the original intent of the Founding Fathers, that judges of one persuasion often die during the terms of presidents with quite different philosophies, who then get to replace them for life. It cuts both ways, as any intelligent person has seen over time. The failure to contemplate where the logic of obstruction leads may be the truest indication of a disorganized political party.