While most look to President Trump for signs of democratic erosion and the rise of populism, one can find them in his adopted party, the Republican Party (or as it is colloquially known, the “GOP.” for “Grand Old Party”). It is a party known recently for its two Speakers of the House and faces of party leadership post Bush: Paul Ryan, who has now announced he is not seeking reelection, and John Boehner. Many scholars site that the GOP has turned increasingly populist since Trump ascended to the presidency, yet one can look back upon the GOP under Boehner and subsequently Ryan to see the signs of polarization rising.
In Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book on conservatives in Louisiana, “Strangers in the Own Land,” he discusses three types of Republicans- the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper and the Cowboy. The Team Loyalist is someone who stays loyal to the party, and often shapes their views around the stances of the party if they do not have their own opinions on those views (for example, if someone does not have a definitive stance on the legalization of marijuana, the Team Loyalist will side with whatever the GOP’s stance is on it). They are the most polarized, as they are with the party over all others. The next is the Worshipper, one who does not see inequality as something to be equaled but that through grit, work, and determination, one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve the American Dream. (In a sense, they worship the perceived Republican values of ethical labor and opportunities for those who put in the work.) This is slightly less polarized, as one can find these values within the message of the Democrats, and many hold these values above their party lines. The last was the Cowboy, one who believed that chances had to be made by the GOP to brave the industries and places an emphasis on high moral value. This is the least polarized, realizing that with the risk of working with others without sacrificing your moral code, great rewards for the party can be found. With this, we can see Boehner as the Cowboy and Ryan as the Team Loyalist- both using their beliefs to guide them, yet prioritizing their beliefs differently.
Under Boehner, one saw the Cowboy- a man who placed a high moral value on bipartisanship and fiscal responsibilities of the state. During his tenure as a Speaker under an opposition president, one saw these play out time and again. This was an era of attempts at bipartisanships, whether through his relationship with the “Gang of Six” from the Senate and Senate leadership or with his closeness to President Obama. He placed his moral value on the good of the party, and worked out ways to make sure the GOP was at least on speaking terms with the opposition party, the Democrats. However, his gamble of befriending the Democrats pushed his party into the pre-populist thought, furthering the divide of “us” (being the GOP) and “them” (the Democrats), and who would stand up more for the party. When Boehner left, and his apparent successor, Eric Cantor, was not reelected, the most logical decision for Speaker was Paul Ryan, another Cowboy.
With Ryan, one saw the emergence of the GOP as a more polarized party. This was also due to the rise of the Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party under Boehner, which gained more power under Ryan. (This party also polarized the GOP with its very right-wing views on government and social issues. It is, in effect, the most libertarian part of the GOP, creating a polarized in-group within the GOP.) Ryan had endorsed Trump in 2016 with many heavy criticisms, but ultimately worked with him once Trump was elected. However, post-election, Ryan’s view of Trump became more of the Team Loyalist stance- Trump is now the leader of the GOP as he is president, and the Speaker and the President, when of the same party, are expected to get along. Instead of being in Boehner’s shoes of uniting a divided government, Ryan had to unite a divided party. His stance as the Cowboy on economic affairs, having worked intimately with Boehner and the Democrats during several budgets under the Obama administration, had to transition to fit the leadership above him- Trump’s populist and polarized views. In effect, with the rise in prominence of the libertarian GOP factions and the polarizing and populist president, Ryan became the Team Loyalist, a man determined to keep the party united under its unlikely leadership and make the party fit the image the president was putting forward.
The polarization of the Speaker was felt throughout Congress since Ryan’s ascendance to the job. Many Republicans who sided with Ryan are now struggling with the problem of reinforcing or recreating their brand- to support Trump or not, being the main question. Many Republicans, including Ryan himself, have stated they are not seeking reelection, as if to signal their lost hope for the party under Trump. Others are siding more so with the libertarian factions, further polarizing the party. With all of this in mind, the Democrats are forming a formidable opposition government and taking advantage of the districts of those not seeking reelection. According to many news sources and polling organizations, the Democrats have a good chance at a majority of the House in the midterm elections. If anything, the schism between not only the party and its leadership, but the party itself, is causing the advanced stage of polarization- setting the tone for the next congressional year.
In all, one hopes that the emergence of the Cowboy leader of Boehner in the Obama administration or the Team Loyalist with Ryan and the Trump administration can point to the emergence of the much needed united government under a Cowboy leader against a populist president.