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Elections offer a timely reminder: Ailing parties can still win

At an institutional level, the contemporary Republican Party is clearly ailing and unprepared for governing. That doesn't mean GOP candidates can't win.

The American Political Science Association recently held its annual conference, which Bloomberg Opinion's Jonathan Bernstein attended. He soon after reflected on some of what he heard at the event:

I attended the American Political Science Association's annual conference in Seattle last month and heard nothing but a string of pessimism about the Republican Party — something that simply was not the case even 10 years ago. Of course, not everyone was pessimistic about the future of the republic. But no one seems to be able to imagine how the Republicans can turn themselves around, and I can't remember the last political scientist I've spoken with (yes, Republicans included) who didn't see serious problems here.

Bernstein added, "One of the most important facts of U.S. politics right now is the terrible shape the Republican Party is in. It has been dysfunctional for more than a decade, and more recently the mainstream of the party has been acting as if they live in a fantasy world."

All of this, of course, is entirely right. Looking at the Republican Party as an institution, it's clearly ailing to a degree without modern precedent.

When I wrote my book on the GOP abandoning its role as a governing party, I wrote on the second page, "The current iteration of the GOP is indifferent to the substance of governing. It is disdainful of expertise and analysis. It is hostile toward evidence and arithmetic. It is tethered to few, if any, meaningful policy preferences. It does not know, and does not care, about how competing proposals should be crafted, scrutinized, or implemented."

It's hardly outlandish to conclude the party's condition has deteriorated further since this was published. Over the course of the last year, Republicans have added an increasingly overt hostility toward democracy to their disinterest in solving problems.

As The Washington Post's Michael Gerson put in a recent column:

Only one party has based the main part of its appeal on a transparent lie. To be a loyal Republican in 2021 is to believe that a national conspiracy of big-city mayors, Republican state officials, companies that produce voting machines and perhaps China, or maybe Venezuela, stole the 2020 presidential election. The total absence of evidence indicates to conspiracy theorists (as usual) that the plot was particularly fiendish. Previous iterations of the GOP tried to unite on the basis of ideology and public purpose. The current GOP is united by a common willingness to believe whatever antidemocratic rot comes from the mouth of an ambitious, reckless liar.

Gerson added that too much of the contemporary GOP also "employs violent intimidation as a political tool," has "made a point of denying the existence and legacy of racism," and is no longer "committed to liberal democracy."

The evidence to bolster these assertions is abundant. The reason Bernstein couldn't find political scientists who feel confident about the health of the Republican Party is that there are no reasons for optimism.

And yet, as we were reminded last night, ailing parties can win elections. Much of the electorate either doesn't know or doesn't care about the GOP's systemic difficulties, and has few qualms about putting Republicans in positions of authority.

The headline on Bernstein's piece read, "Can the Republican Party Return to Reality?" So long as GOP candidates can win elections, even in states where Democrats generally fare well, the answer is that the party doesn't have much of an incentive to return to reality.