I'm skeptical. To be sure, some of the portends are there. Note, for example, yesterday's interesting New York Times piece arguing that business groups no longer feels welcome in the GOP. Interesting quote here:
“We are looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” said David French, the top lobbyist at the National Retail Federation. “We have come to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines is not good enough.”The question is, what do business groups actually do about this? If they see the party in which they have invested so much time and treasure driving off a cliff, how do they steer it back?
One way would be to fund more traditional business-friendly Republican candidates in the upcoming primaries for state and federal races prior to the 2014 midterms, perhaps even running some more moderate challengers to existing Tea Party incumbents. If that's the kind of action we end up seeing, then this is simply an internal factional struggle within the party. These do happen from time to time. In the mid-20th century, there was a struggle between the Reagan/Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans, with the former winning out. (This was arguably an "internal party realignment," but I'm uncomfortable with such terminology, and the literature on realignments gets pretty murky on this stuff.)
Could we be seeing the beginnings of an episode on par with what happened in the 1850s, when the rise of the slavery issue caused the Democrats to become an almost-totally Southern party while the Whigs collapsed and the anti-slavery Republican Party arose? For that to happen, we'd need to see a serious ideological rift emerging among modern Republicans. My impression is that the current rift is more tactical than ideological in nature. On a broad swathe of social and economic issues, Tea Party and other Republicans do not really disagree.
Is there some real chance that business groups would actually bolt the Republicans and join the Democratic coalition? I strongly doubt it. A party coalition that contains both the bulk of big business groups and major labor unions will not last long, especially in an era when economic issues are so central to the political discourse. Remember, it was once possible for African Americans and Southern white supremacists to exist in the same party, but only as long as the party could keep racial issues off the table. Once racial issues came to the fore in the 1950s and 60s, the Democratic Party had to pick a side, and the enormous New Deal Coalition began to crumble.
Obviously, it's hard to know how the current rift will play out. There seems to be a consensus emerging that the current Tea Party-inspired crisis over health reform, the shutdown, and the debt ceiling has been an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party, costing it in terms of policy and popularity. If that is the dominant interpretation a few weeks and months from now (especially among Republicans), Tea Party affiliates will get much of the blame, and this may represent an opportunity for the more traditional establishment types to reassert themselves and to ignore Tea Party demands in the future.
So I don't think the modern Republican Party is in any existential peril.
Then again, I probably would have said the same thing about the Whigs in 1852.