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[Research Reports] Possible Takeover of Established Parties by Extremists ---- Perspectives on the 2022 Midterm Elections ----

Satoshi Machidori (Professor, Kyoto University)
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Research Group on the US FY2022-# 1

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

Another focus

The 2022 midterm elections are approaching. The main focus will be on whether the Democrats can maintain their current majority in both houses of Congress. In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend toward polarization in U.S. politics, with both major parties becoming increasingly united internally while at the same time deepening their ideological conflicts with the other party. The more polarized the two parties become, the more likely they are to reach an impasse in the policy process in the case of a divided government where the governing party does not have a majority in Congress. With this in mind, it is clear that the ability of the Democratic Party to maintain a majority in both houses of Congress will be of great significance to the Biden administration.

Another point that cannot be ignored is the extent to which the Trump faction has grown within the Republican Party. The Trump faction is difficult to define exactly, as there is no specific organization or cohesive action of any kind. For the sake of convenience, however, let us refer to Republican candidates and their supporters who sympathize with former President Donald Trump's claims and seek to be elected with his support as Trumpists. It is safe to assume that the term overlaps roughly with the term "MAGA Republicans," which is sometimes used in the United States in a derogatory way.

Trumpists, or 'MAGA Republicans,' are thought to be about 35% of today's Republican supporters. For example, a September 2022 NBC poll asked Republican supporters (including those leaning Republican), "Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?" Of those who responded, 33% were Trump supporters and 58% were Republican Party supporters. These numbers fluctuate depending on the time of the survey; as of August, the numbers were 41% and 50% but, since spring 2021, respondents have always been more likely to say they are Republican supporters (

On the other hand, as various reports and surveys have already shown, pro-Trump candidates have a high rate of victory in Republican primaries. This result is not surprising, given that primaries are a major opportunity for influence for committed party members known as activists. The Trump faction, which is a minority as a percentage of all Republicans, is clearly the majority among activists. It is not uncommon in recent American politics for groups with wildly extreme positions (extremists) to gain the support of activists and become more powerful than their numbers would suggest.

Since national elections in the United States are contests between candidates fielded by each of the two major political parties, the voter's choice of how to vote is based on the party he or she supports. In other words, if a pro-Trump candidate stands in a given district, Republican supporters are likely to vote for that candidate, even if they feel uncomfortable as non-activist party members. Trump's election in the 2016 presidential election was itself a consequence of such voting behavior. As a result, the Trump faction could become the majority among congressional Republicans and even make up a majority in both houses of Congress despite the greater part of Republican supporters not wanting this, constituting a takeover of the Republican Party by the Trump faction.

Leaving aside for the moment the many analyses and predictions on the feasibility of such a takeover, this paper will examine theoretically what such an extreme takeover would mean in American party politics and what might be expected to happen if such a takeover were to occur.

How did the hijacking come about?

In order to consider the implications of the growth and even takeover by certain intra-party groups - and not just the Trump faction - it is necessary to take into account the characteristics of the American presidential system. The presidential system is a concrete form of the federal dimension of the division of power that is the pillar of the American political system. The division of power through the presidency in modern states has its institutional origins in the U.S. Constitution, as evidenced by the fact that the political system and its operation based on the division of power is called "Madisonian" in honor of James Madison, who made a major contribution to the establishment of the U.S. Constitution.

However, it is widely known today that numerous variations of the presidential system exist and, while the United States is the root country of the presidential system, it is certainly no longer a typical example (Mainwaring and Shugart 1997; Kasuya 2013). The main reasons for this are that the U.S. presidency has less presidential power than in many other countries and that congressional elections are based on a first-past-the-post (single-member district) system. The presidential system, which came into being at the end of the 18th century, was often combined with an electoral system featuring high proportionality, such as a proportional representation system, in order to strengthen the president's power to lead the executive branch and to control the various political forces in the legislature in response to the expansion of the role of government. Today, the U.S. presidential system is more like an outlier.

The American presidential system, which is unique in two respects (presidential power and the congressional electoral system), has brought the following characteristics to the political process. The two major national political parties formed to fight presidential elections also become the center of congressional elections - and winning presidential elections is a significant goal of the two major political parties - but gaining the presidency alone does not lead to the realization of their policies. In a country with a population and area as large as the U.S., congressional elections under a single-member district system can only means confrontation between the two leading candidates in each district due to greater diversity within the country, which should inherently lead to the formation of many regional parties such as those in Canada. Although the existence of presidential elections deters this, the internal cohesion of the two major national parties is weak due to socioeconomic diversity, which inevitably leads to intra-party factionalization. As Yutaka Okayama points out, the two major parties in the United States are essentially "tents" (Okayama 2020).

Thus, the formation of intra-party factions and the existence of conflict and competition among them are rather the norm for American political parties. On the flip side, it was assumed that majority formation for policy realization would take place in a bipartisan manner. Bipartisan majority formation, on the one hand, made the raison d'être of political parties different from that of textbook modern European parties but, on the other hand, it had the effect of deterring deadlock in the policy process under a strict division of power. David Mayhew's classic view that important legislation is possible even with a divided government is now hardly sufficiently persuasive, but it can be easily understood on the basis of such a party political system (Mayhew 2005).

The polarization of inter-party relations, or the intensification of inter-party conflict and the weakening of intra-party conflict, which has been evident to all since the 1990s, has drastically changed the basic conditions of American politics: the two-party system combined with the division of power and the formation of bipartisan majorities. If bipartisan majority formation is not possible, the value of being a minority party or a minority division within a party is greatly diminished. On the other hand, if a faction is able to attain an intra-party majority and make its party the congressional majority party or governing party, the possibility of achieving the policies it desires is significantly increased. As a result, the competition among intra-party factions turns into a drive to eradicate opposing groups and gain supremacy within the party, with the principal pursuit becoming a takeover of the party to ensure that one's own group enjoys an overwhelming majority. The American political parties have gone from tents in which groups of diverse positions coexist to intolerant, monolithic battle groups.

Attempts at takeover are not limited to the Trump faction; the early 2010s saw a takeover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party's attempt to establish a basic policy platform in the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich and others rose to power, should also be considered something like a takeover. The uncompromising stance of the Democratic Party's most leftist faction (the Democratic Socialists) today also has much in common in terms of its mode of behavior, although an actual takeover would be impossible given its power. It can also be pointed out that the extreme factions are often hardline in their arguments, which is compatible with a struggle for supremacy within the party.

What would a takeover do to American politics?

As we have discussed, the takeover is in part a response by intraparty factions to a change in the basic conditions of American party politics, namely polarization. The best approach, if seeking solely to win presidential elections, would be to recognize the existence of diverse groups within a party and work together to present a platform that appeal to independents; such dynamics have been at work in the two major political parties for a long time. While this was seen as anathema to those viewing organized parties in Europe as the norm, it had the effect of avoiding deadlock in the policy process by creating fluidity in the formation of majorities in Congress.

Therefore, the greatest significance of a takeover, or what is aimed at through a takeover, is the improvement of intra-party unity in Congress. By uniting under principles and systematic policies and by not allowing easy compromise with opposing parties or the existence of intra-party factions, a takeover helps overcome the constraints of the division of power system, in which winning a presidential election alone is not enough to realize policy. The policy process of a presidential system ultimately hinges on forming a majority in Congress, and this becomes even more significant when Congress has as much power and autonomy as it does in the U.S. The fact that Republican conservatives, who were the driving force behind the creation of the Reagan administration in the 1980s, turned to the congressional Republicans in the 1990s is suggestive.

That is why the impact of a takeover on U.S. politics would be so significant. In terms of the upcoming midterm elections, if a Trump-led takeover of the congressional Republicans takes place, it would make party rivalries even bitterer than they are now, and polarization would intensify. Many news organizations and pollsters expect the Republicans to become the majority party, at least in the House of Representatives, which would be accompanied by the emergence of a divided government. In that case, the Biden administration's only means of policy implementation would likely be through unilateral action, such as the use of executive orders. Reliance on unilateral action was seen in the Obama and Trump administrations (Umekawa 2017). However, it should not be forgotten that the U.S. Supreme Court, with its increasingly conservative tendencies, is also currently involved in the polarization of party politics. In other words, it is conceivable that a unilateral action by the Biden administration would be rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in not a small percentage of cases. If that happens, the deadlock in the policy process will become even more difficult to overcome.

Furthermore, if extremists from the left and right, such as the Trump faction of the Republican Party or the Democratic Socialists of the Democratic Party, take over the two major political parties, the policy processes of a unified government (when the governing party is the majority party in both houses) and a divided government (when the governing party is the minority party in at least one house) will be very different. The promotion of extreme policies in a unified government and severe deadlock in a divided government will become the norm in U.S. politics. Frequent "stop-go" (or "stop and go") shifts in past fiscal and monetary policy in the U.K. were pointed to as having led to macroeconomic malaise. In the case of the U.S. as well, the amplitude of policy directions has increased significantly, and the fear of similar adverse effects is not small. This could even have a major impact on foreign and security policy.

By extension, we should also note the danger that the growing contrast between unified and divided government that would accompany an extremist takeover might undermine confidence in the American political system and, by extension, in the democratic system. Many have already suggested that Trump and his supporters are destroyers of democracy (e.g., Levitsky-Zibrat 2018; Diamond 2022). While there is much to agree with that point, what is more serious is the takeover of both of the two major political parties by the extremists. Whether the policy process comes to a complete standstill with divided government and federal Supreme Court intervention, or whether a unitary government emerges and an extreme group's arguments become policy one after another, the distrust of the majority of voters in the country will increase significantly and may even lead to a decline in the reputation of democratic regimes worldwide.

When one thinks about it, the vital defense line against extremists in American politics could be said to be not presidential elections but congressional elections. We should keep this point in mind in the current midterm elections.


Umekawa, Takeshi (2017) "Policy Formation by the President and 'Presidential Decrees'," FY2016 Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs and Security Research Project, "Domestic Factors Affecting U.S. Foreign Policy," The Japan Institute of International Affairs. [In Japanese]

Okayama, Hiroshi (2020), Party Politics in America, Chuko Shinsho. [In Japanese]

Larry Diamond (2019), Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. New York: Penguin Press.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018), How Democracy Dies. New York: Crown.

Kasuya, Yuko, ed. (2013), Presidents, Assemblies and Policy-making in Asia. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mainwaring, Scott and Matthew Shugart (1997), Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mayhew, David (2005), Divided We Govern (second edition). New Haven: Yale University Press.