Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle wrote that 'the history of the world is but the biography of great men'. That theory was tested recently by academics from UCLA who used eight centuries of European history to assess whether having a high-quality absolute monarch was associated with national outperformance. Their proxy for the rulers' intrinsic calibre was their coefficient of inbreeding derived from their family tree. While it was often assumed that dynastic marriages would protect 'superior traits', the reality is that the offspring of first cousins are five times more likely to be mentally impaired than the children of genetically diverse parents.
The study's conclusion was that – absent parliamentary constraints – genetically diverse rulers did in fact get better results and therefore having great men (and occasionally women) on the throne did matter. Their cautionary tale about the perils of inbreeding is Charles II of Spain who died in 1700 and was literally the end of the line for the Spanish branch of the Hapsburgs. Poor Charles was the result of a multi-century experiment in consanguineous dynasty building which kept everything in the family, including reproduction. The Hapsburgs were so incestuous that one male appeared in Charles' family tree on 14 separate occasions, making the Windsors seem positively welcoming to outsiders in comparison.
The Hapsburgs' fondness for kissing cousins eroded their gene pool to the point where – although Charles' parents were 'merely' uncle and niece – he ended up more inbred than if they had been siblings. Not surprisingly, Charles was physically disfigured, mentally challenged, and most problematic for the dynasty, impotent. A contemporary didn't mince his words when he described the reign of 'The Hexed' as being characterised by 'misery, poverty, hunger, disorders, and decline'.
The importance of genetic diversity for high-quality individual leadership is mirrored in extensive research on the benefits of group diversity in both business and academic settings. It's now uncontroversial that, regardless of what fancy school they went to, a bunch of middle-aged white guys will not be as creative and innovative as a group that mixes gender, age, and ethnicity. A recent McKinsey study quantified the impact as a 30% higher probability of long-run outperformance when a management team meets certain diversity thresholds.
Yet, five months after the US election, the Republican Party is enthusiastically recommitting itself to electoral inbreeding to protect the superior traits of the American straight white xenophobic males who dominated their mythical golden age in the 1950s.
Despite record Republican turnout, Trump lost by seven million votes last November and Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the last eight Presidential elections. Nonetheless, the unrepresentative nature of the US Electoral College continues to emit a seductive siren call to the right. Despite Biden's popular vote landslide, it would have taken just 43,000 votes in a handful of states to secure Trump a second term. That strikingly narrow margin means that, rather than viewing his 2016 victory as an anomaly, the Republicans are doubling down on being the party of minority rule. So, Trump will not be the Charles II for this incarnation of the American right. Even if he himself is not the 2024 candidate, Trumpian purity tests will ensure that the Republican nominee will once again go to the well of white political grievance.
The dangers of electoral inbreeding on the American right have been apparent for decades. Faced with a five million popular vote deficit in 2012, the Republican autopsy zeroed in on the Hapsburg problem and concluded that the party needed to 'expand its outreach to communities of colour, women and young voters'. Yet in 2020, 81% of Trump voters were white and only 42% were women.
As early as 1964, moderate New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller warned that by nominating Barry Goldwater the party was embracing 'racism and sectionalism' and was being 'fantastically short-sighted'. George Lee, a prominent black Republican in the 1960s was more direct, foreshadowing the 2017 Charlottesville march by predicting that the party 'will be taken over lock, stock, and barrel by the Ku Kluxers'.
The most visible commitment to being a predominantly white minority party are the over 250 pieces of 'voting integrity' legislation working their way through 43 state legislatures. The 'Big Lie' that the 2020 election was stolen radicalised thousands to storm the US Capitol, but it also focused Republicans on rewriting the rules of the game rather than trying to win the game itself. The highest profile examples are the new voting restrictions in Georgia, revealingly signed into law by a Governor flanked by six white men standing in front of a painting of a slave plantation. Rammed through the state legislature, there are some positives in the bill, but there's little doubt that the overall impact will be to suppress non-white turnout in future elections.
In response, congressional Democrats have introduced a comprehensive voting reform bill to broaden the electorate, eliminate partisan gerrymandering, and improve the transparency of election funding. The bill addresses many of the issues that recently prompted the NGO Freedom House to highlight a precipitous decline in the quality of American democracy that now puts it on par with Panama and Romania. The Democrat's bill may go too far in some areas, like allowing party activists to collect mail-in ballots, but its broad intent is to maximise the size of the electorate.
On a parallel track, Democrats are also seeking to re-establish Federal oversight of elections in the Deep South; a key part of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. Given the current flurry of voter suppression efforts, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was prescient in her dissent when she said that taking away Federal election supervision was like 'throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet'.
As the parties lock horns on voting rights, Trump's legacy is that many Republicans are happy to say the quiet part out loud, admitting that more people legally voting will lower their chances of winning elections. When Republicans start invoking 'states' rights' to justify voter disenfranchisement – with its 19th-century echoes of the defence of slavery – it's clear they're not winning the argument on either its moral or technical merits.
Although minimising the electorate is essential for establishing Republican minority rule, voter suppression could end up being an own goal, as it's focusing attention on another minority bulwark; the ability to use the filibuster to block legislation in the Senate. If the 'two Senators per state regardless of population' rule and the Electoral College both skew US political power towards smaller rural states, then the filibuster enables minority rule on steroids. In an extreme scenario, 41 Senators representing less than 25% of the US population could block legislation, allowing a mere 13% of US voters to wield a super-minority veto.
With a self-imposed threshold of 60 votes to pass anything except budget bills in the Senate, issues with broad popular support like climate change, gun control, and the protection of voting rights can easily be stymied. The filibuster was only used 60 times between 1917 and 1970, but in the 1960s it became the favourite tactic of Southern Senators looking to delay the passage of civil rights legislation. Once a rarity, minority vetoes are now commonplace, with 'legislative holds' currently averaging 80 a year, vastly outnumbering the legislation that the Senate actually passes.
Although Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader was happy to remove the filibuster for supreme court nominations in 2016, as Minority Leader he's now aghast that Democrats may dispense with it to protect voting rights. Faced with an expanding electorate, McConnell's pleas for 'measured and deliberative change' recall the white backlash mentality of the early 1960s when many thought civil rights were moving too fast for white America. It was a time when many in the white majority claimed that desegregation represented a bigger danger to American society than the injustices it was intended to address. This idea of white tranquillity prevailing over racial justice was one that Trump unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate in the 2020 campaign with his slogan that 'under Biden the suburbs will be gone'.
Although it's now almost certain that there aren't 50 Democratic votes to completely abolish the filibuster, there does appear to be growing support for a limited exception that would re-establish federal election supervision to prevent disenfranchisement. This approach could even attract moderate Republicans, particularly as major corporations worry about being on the wrong side of history and start to turn off the money spigot for those restricting voting rights. While the Republican response has been a cancel culture performative hissy fit, it seems a forlorn hope to oppose American icons like Coca Cola and Major League Baseball.
An expanded and protected electorate that turns once solid Republican states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas purple could trigger an existential crisis on the political right. Over centuries, the inbred Hapsburgs developed distinctive physical deformities such as an enlarged jaw and protruding lips. In its pursuit of the tyranny of the minority, the Republicans risk baking in similar unappealing reactionary traits like white nationalism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and unhinged conspiracy theories, all of which will further estrange the party from true majority support. The US Census Bureau reports that only 42% of Americans now identify as 'White Christian' and by 2045 the US will have a non-white majority, making it increasingly unlikely that an inbred Republican Party will ever produce another viable Presidential candidate.
The best thing for American democracy would be for the current Republican dynasty to die out like the Hapsburgs. America desperately needs a counterbalance to the progressive left that cultivates rather than marginalises moderates and that isn't committed to restricting voting, increasing economic inequality, fermenting racial division, and limiting LGBTQ rights. We need a centre-right party that doesn't have an overt disdain for democracy but instead focuses on expanding its appeal to secure a governing majority. If the Republican Party actually paid attention to that 2012 autopsy it might recognise that low-tax, small-government, morally conservative ideas can be just as appealing to Hispanic and African American voters as to whites. But the post-Trump Republican Party will only get there if it stops believing that marrying its cousin is its only route to electoral success.