Every party in opposition goes a little crazy. For Republicans in the early Obama era, insanity took the form of the Sarah Palin spasm. Veteran politicos took the former Alaska governor seriously as a national figure. Republican primary voters nominated the likes of Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle. Glenn Beck seemed important enough to hold a big rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
Fortunately, serious parties eventually pull back from the fever swamps. That’s what’s happening to the Republican Party. It has re-established itself as the nation’s dominant governing party. Republicans now control 69 of 99 state legislative bodies. Republicans hold 31 governorships to Democrats’ 18.
When the next Congress convenes in January, Republicans will have their largest majority in the House of Representatives since 1931; they will have a majority in the Senate, dominate gubernatorial power in the Midwest, and have more legislative power nationwide than anytime over the past century.
Republicans didn’t establish this dominant position because they are unrepresentative outsiders. They did it because they have deep roots in four of the dominant institutions of American society: the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.
Look at the Republicans who were elected to office Tuesday:
The next governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, is the founder of The Hogan Cos., a real estate development firm. He co-chaired a bipartisan commission to reform county government in his state and then founded Change Maryland, an activist group.
David Perdue, who was elected senator in Georgia, was senior vice president for Asian operations for the Sara Lee Corp. He moved to Haggar Clothing before becoming CEO, successively, of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General.
Thom Tillis, elected senator in North Carolina, led a research team at Wang Laboratories before going to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then IBM.
The next governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, was chairman of the private equity firm GTCR, after having graduated from Dartmouth and Harvard. In 2008, Rauner was named the Philanthropist of Year by the Chicago Association of Fundraising Professionals. Rauner has given more than $20 million toward improving Chicago public schools. He’s also given time and money to a range of causes, including the YMCA, the ACLU, Morehouse College, the Red Cross and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The new senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford, got a divinity degree and ran Falls Creek, the nation’s largest Christian camp.
Tom Cotton, elected senator in Arkansas, graduated from Harvard before working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, serving in the Army and going off to McKinsey.
Let’s pause over some of the institutions mentioned in these mini-bios: IBM, Reebok, the Red Cross, McKinsey and the Army. These are not fringe organizations. These are the pillars of American society.
Republicans won this election in part because they re-established their party’s traditional personality. The beau ideal of American Republicanism is the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church and devoted to national defense.
During the primary season, groups like the Chamber of Commerce chased away or defeated renegade conservatives and opened the way for the triumph of this sort of institutional conservative. These candidates won in the general election because working-class voters will trust Republican corporate types so long as they are deeply embedded in their communities, so long as they have demonstrated loyalty to the whole society and not just the upper crust.
This year, Republicans won among white-working-class voters by 30 percentage points. They tied Democrats among Asian-Americans. They severely cut their losses among Hispanics.
The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club. But, at least judging by the postelection comments coming from all corners, it does believe in politics, in legislating, in compromise.
During the Palin spasm, Republicans seemed to detest the craft of governing. Hothouse flowers like Sen. Ted Cruz preferred telegenic confrontation to compromise and legislation.
But current party leaders are talking about incremental progress, finding areas where they can get bipartisan support: on trade, corporate taxes, the XL oil pipeline, the medical devices tax, patent reform, maybe even tax reform generally.
Republicans are also talking about restoring the traditional practices of the House and Senate. Let individual members introduce bills. Let those bills work through the committee structure and get votes. Pass budgets on time and according to the rules.
If the party is to fully detoxify its image, something will have to pass next year. Midwestern Republican governors will have to develop a compelling governing model. And the volcanic effusions of the Palin era will have to look like 1970s neckties — inexplicable oddities from another age.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.