Sarah Huckabee Sanders Has a Funny Idea of What the Republican Party Should Be
"The most striking thing about the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union last week, delivered this year by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, was that it wasn’t actually pitched to the American public at large.
Of course, most people do not watch this particular ritual. But it does mark one of the few times each year (outside a presidential election year) when the opposition party has the undivided attention of a large part of the voting public. The State of the Union response reaches enough people — an estimated 27.3 million watched Biden — to make it worthwhile for the opposition party to put its best face forward. That’s why, when it’s their turn to deliver the response, parties tend to elevate their youngest, most dynamic leaders and showcase their broadest, most accessible message.
Sanders is a young and dynamic leader in the Republican Party, a point she emphasized herself, citing her age, 40, in comparison with the president’s, which is 80, but her message was neither broad nor accessible.
“In the radical left’s America,” she said, “Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country.”
Sanders attacked Biden as the “first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is” and decried the “woke fantasies” of a “left-wing culture war.” Every day, she said, “we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with big tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech.”
Sanders’s folksy affect notwithstanding, this was harsh, hard and delivered with an edge. But then, there’s nothing wrong with giving a partisan and ideological State of the Union address — that is part of the point. The problem was that most of these complaints were unintelligible to anyone but the small minority of Americans who live inside the epistemological bubble of conservative media. Sanders’s response, in other words, was less a broad and accessible message than it was fan service for devotees of the Fox News cinematic universe and its related properties.
It was not the kind of speech you give if you’re trying to build a political majority. The best evidence for this is that her speech was a version of the message Republicans used in last year’s midterm elections. The result was a historic disappointment, if not a historic defeat, for an opposition party against a relatively unpopular incumbent.
Yes, Republicans won the House of Representatives, but it was a slim victory despite expectations of a “red wave.” And the most unsuccessful candidates, in races across the country, were, in the main, the right-wing culture warriors who tried to make the midterms a referendum on their reactionary preoccupations.
Here, I should say that this critique of Sanders’s response rests on the supposition that Republican politicians want to build national political majorities. And why wouldn’t they? Political parties are supposed to want to win the largest possible majorities. “Unless there’s a countervailing force,” the historian Timothy Shenk notes in “Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy,” “parties bend toward majorities like sunflowers to the light.” A large majority, after all, means a mandate for your agenda. With it, you can set or reset, the political landscape on your terms.
But what if there is a countervailing force? What if the structure of the political system makes it possible to win the power of a popular majority without ever assembling a popular majority itself? What if, using that power, you burrow your party and its ideology into the counter-majoritarian institutions of that system, so that heads or tails, you always win?
In that scenario, a political party might drop the quest for a majority as a fools’ errand. There’s no need to build a broad coalition of voters if — because of the malapportionment of the national legislature, the gerrymandering of many state legislatures, the Electoral College and the strategic position of your voters in the nation’s geography — you don’t need one to win. And if your political party also has a tight hold on the highest court of constitutional interpretation, you don’t even need to win elections to clear the path for your preferred outcomes and ideology.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not deliver a broad and accessible response to the State of the Union for the same reason that congressional Republicans refuse to moderate or even acknowledge the existence of the median voter; she doesn’t have to, and they don’t have to. The American political system is so slanted toward the overrepresentation of the Republican Party’s core supporters, rural and exurban conservatives, that even when their views and priorities are far from those of the typical voter, the party is still more competitive than not.
Unfortunately, there’s no one weird trick to change this state of affairs. Republicans may not need to win consistent majorities, but anyone who hopes to build a more humane country must still find and assemble a majority coalition of the willing — and pray that it is large enough not just to win power or hold power, but to use power."