The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are on track to regain power. They should decide what to do with it.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displays the signed Parental Rights in Education bill on March 28 in Spring Hill, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/AP)

All signs portend a historic Democratic wipeout in the midterms, and if things don’t change, a Republican presidency in 2024. Many analysts fret that Democrats are sleepwalking into disaster. They’re not wrong to worry, but at this point I’m more worried that Republicans are sleepwalking into success.

Let’s say the GOP manages to hit the trifecta: control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. What, exactly, is it planning to do with all that power?

Currently, the entire Republican agenda seems to consist of complaining about moderation policies at Twitter and Facebook and trying to curb perceived radicalism on race and gender in the nation’s schools. In fairness, the best case for this narrow focus is that it gets results at the ballot box.

Concerns about “wokeness” run amok helped propel Republican Glenn Youngkin to victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year, and measures such as the recent Florida parental rights bill poll well, even among some Democrats. That’s because some schools really have adopted quite radical approaches to sensitive topics, and social media companies’ moderation decisions really do look politically slanted.

Yet vexing as this might be, it doesn’t add up to a workable party agenda. Nitpicking outrages makes for a great Tucker Carlson segment but offers no guide for what Republicans should do in office — which is why the various bills so far introduced tend to range from vague to unworkable, with a dubious future in the courts. This kind of campaigning also leaves Republicans dependent on progressives to constantly provide new excesses against which they can rail. And it offers no answers to other concerns of voters. You know, the ones that have made them so unhappy with President Biden, such as inflation.

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One can certainly imagine a more coherent campaign against woke teachers and Twitter moderators — a kind of cultural antitrust, paralleling the economic antitrust movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Just as the progressive-era trustbusters confronted a rising concentration of economic power in the hands of a few titans of industry, today’s conservatives worry about an unprecedented concentration of economic and cultural power in the hands of a relatively narrow professional class, clustered in a few coastal cities and satellite garrisons in college towns.

That class is quite socially liberal to begin with, and moreover, it tends to defer to its even more radical leftward fringe. The views of that fringe represent perhaps 1 in 20 Americans, yet they dominate key institutions in media, nonprofits and academia. Including schools of education, wherefrom these ideas have begun to influence public schools.

That much power was always going to attract a political counterweight, and at least in some cases I would argue that’s a good thing. Schools should be generational transfer points for useful skills, not the vanguard of cultural revolution.

Yet the trustbusters of yesteryear didn’t just say that “companies are too big.” They spent decades building the institutional framework for antitrust: a theory of exactly what kinds of bigness were bad and why, a legislative agenda to whack troublesome monopolies down to size and an administrative operation capable of turning those laws into effective action. Too, they recognized that antitrust was not, by itself, a winning agenda; it was only part of a broader program.

Republicans at the moment have none of this. Their only answer to social media concerns is to fiddle with the liability rules regarding tech platforms. As for schools, those decisions are made at the state or district level, not by Congress.

So, let me ask again: How do Republicans plan to govern? The GOP needs a positive program for reducing inflation, fighting crime, reforming health care, keeping entitlements solvent and boosting employment. The party also desperately needs the administrative capacity to get a recalcitrant civil service to carry out its plans. Without those things, the GOP will fail voters and quickly lose power again.

Republicans might retort that they’re winning, aren’t they? Why not ride cultural antitrust to power, then worry about the rest when they get there?

Donald Trump’s whole presidency testifies to the dangers of running hard on emotional issues, without policy substance behind it: He left having accomplished almost nothing that could not be undone by an unfriendly judge or the stroke of a Democratic successor’s pen. The notable exception was the conservative judges he appointed — notable because it involved a concrete political goal (appoint these judges!), enabled by decades of work by conservative legal scholars who built up a law-school-to-judiciary pipeline.

That’s exactly the kind of patient work Republicans are not doing, on cultural issues or anything else. If Republicans want to change things, or even to hold office for more than a few years, they need to prepare to run the federal government, not just yell about the things they’d do if only they’d been elected governor, or king.