The VA GOP, Larry Sabato and The Fall of The House of Bothsides

Larry Sabato in jis office on April 2, 1990. (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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July 10, 2021 11:40 a.m.

On Thursday the Chairman of the Republican party of Virginia asked the University of Virginia, the state’s flagship public university, to open an investigation into Professor Larry Sabato for violating the University’s code of ‘Professional Conduct and Ethics’ with his “bitter partisanship.” UVA responded telling the Virginia GOP, in so many words, to STFU.

The most obvious and but also merited thing to say would be to castigate Rich Anderson, Chairman of the Virginia GOP, for his comical level of hypocrisy. After all this is the party currently defining itself as the party of ‘free speech’ trying to muzzle a highly respected senior professor and public commentator over what amounts to a few mean tweets. But let’s be honest. Hypocrisy is the closest thing the Trump Era GOP has to a defining brand. It doesn’t matter that I do it because your side did it worse! I’m the victim. Rinse and repeat. Blah, blah, blah …

But there’s something more worth saying about this nonsensical story.

Years ago – and in some case until quite recently – there was a group of commentators who the prestige news shows relied on for non-partisan, “both sides” commentary on the politics of the day. Two of the most visible – especially on shows like The NewsHour were Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two think tank political scientists from AEI and Brookings respectively. Another was presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Another was Larry Sabato. Ornstein and Mann tended to focus on the function of Congress; Beschloss, the presidency; Sabato, federal elections. But they each covered the full terrain of contemporary politics. If you go back through 20-plus years of my writing the Editors’ Blog you’ll probably find some criticism of each of them, almost certainly precisely because of this studious effort to see the country’s two political parties in equal terms and treat them as such, even as the evidence for that perspective steadily dwindled.

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In many ways TPM was begun, right on the heels of 1998/99 Impeachment and the 2000 election, with a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit argument that the two parties are simply not equal. They don’t function in the same way. Despite its history and current branding the modern GOP is not just another center-right party of government, such as exists under different labels in every functioning modern democracy. It’s something different. It now functions like one of the revanchist, rightist sectarian parties which also exist in most multi-party European democracies. Under the most generous read they play different roles. The fact that the GOP is substantively the latter (rightist sectarian party) while structurally occupying the space of the former (center-right party of government) is the essence of the United States’ current crisis of democracy.

Then in the spring of 2012 Mann and Ornstein published an OpEd in The Washington Post: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem“. The title speaks for itself but if you wanted more you could read the book that it was adapted from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Ornstein’s twitter feed is now so blistering in its criticism of contemporary conservatism and the GOP that it makes me blush. Beschloss now has a priceless Twitter feed made up largely of historical artifacts, photos, commemorations almost all of which function as subtweets of Trump, Trumpism or some related manifestation of the contemporary GOP.

Sabato was in many ways the final holdout. In an interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch for an article about the state GOP investigation demand, Sabato chalked the shift up to Trump and the January 6th insurrection. “People had better pay attention because if they don’t, it’s going to happen again.”

Reading over this post I can see that some might read it as a claim of vindication. Far from it. It is a more a testament to the Republican party. It is a good and proper thing to have a mode of commentary that is as free as possible not only of partisan commitments but the ideological commitments and opinions which are closely situated to the political contests of the moment. It is useful. But especially in the early 21st century the Republican party has simply given people who want to occupy this ground no place to stand. The culture of lying is simply too deep in the fabric. The rejection of democracy itself, let alone the culture of norms in which it best thrives, is too total.

And thus here we are.

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