Monday, October 21, 2013

Okay, so our problem is GOP extremism -- but what's driving that?

Jonathan Bernstein advances a kind of Bad Man theory of contemporary American politics -- the bad man being Newt Gingrich, the GOP's Faust. The problem with U.S. politics, he argues, isn't structural, and it's not political polarization per se:
No, the problem is the Republican Party, which has developed a weird and dysfunctional set of incentives along with the legacy of a handful of role models they would be better off without. There’s the race to be the True Conservative, which requires staking out ever-more-crazy positions in order to differentiate from RINOs and squishes – and the reaction by mainstream conservatives who are terrified at losing their conservative credentials and therefore cling as close as possible to the nuttiest radicals out there. There’s the lucrative conservative marketplace, which thrives on incivility and conflict – that’s one set of perverse incentives – and which also thrives when Democrats are in office, which is another set of perverse incentives. There’s the conservative closed information feedback loop, with Republican Party actors and politicians failing to see the U.S. that the rest of the nation sees.

 Then there’s the legacy of Newt Gingrich and other destructive party successes. Gingrich was always a fan of blowing things up in order to benefit; today’s Tea Partyers have certainly been influenced by that example, which is not only repulsive but also doesn’t actually work very well in most cases. It’s no surprise that Ted Cruz and other Tea Partyers chose a hostage-taking shutdown as their weapon of choice; they were only following Newt’s disastrous example.
To a degree, this diagnosis feels intuitively right to me.  I have argued myself, in response to filibuster abolitionists, that our current ills stem not so much from skewed rules as from violated norms -- norms violated mainly though not exclusively by the GOP.  But what's behind the devolution of the GOP?

The germ of an answer may lie in the writings of Yale political scientist Juan Linz, whose signature work is the two-volume The Failure of Presidential Democracy, and whose death three weeks ago led several writers to note the apparent relevance of his work to the legislative warfare of the past few years. By way of Matthew Yglesias, I happened on Linz's short 1990 paper, “The Perils of  Presidentialism," which sketches out in miniature his argument that the presidential system tends toward instability:
But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.

It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties—which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties—has something to do with it. Unfortunately, the American case seems to be an exception; the development of modern political parties, particularly in socially and ideologically polarized countries, generally exacerbates, rather than moderates, conflicts between the legislative and the executive (pp 53-54).
That blithe reference to "the diffuse character of American political parties" is likely to prick a wistful nostalgia in many. Yglesias notes:
That was 23 years ago. Today, of course, we have ideologically disciplined parties that are “responsible” in the sense that they make a serious effort to deliver on their stated policy agendas. We also have a government shutdown, a looming debt ceiling breach, and a country in which regular order budgeting is an increasingly distant memory.

Maybe the Civil War, which shuffled the U.S. political deck and dealt the demographic and ideological cards our parties played with for a century following, created anomalously heterogeneous parties and so enabled compromise. Maybe the same forces that have driven cutthroat global commercial competition in recent decades -- winner-take-all, so anything goes-- made the rise of a Gingrich on the political scene inevitable. Maybe the trend toward total ideological warfare has been further exacerbated by a global media market that enabled Fox's lowest-common denominator journalism to degrade political discourse throughout the anglosphere, including in the U.S. In other words, maybe the extremist GOP and the zero-sum political norms with which it's replaced the more collegial and compromise-friendly politics of yore are products of what Robert Reich in Supercapitalism identifies as a global force undermining, or at least stressing, democracy. And perhaps a presidential system is more vulnerable to such stress than a parliamentary one (or perhaps not -- I'm sure Linz's theory has attracted pushback). The extremism is mainly on one side so far, perhaps, simply because of the preponderance of power in favor of large business interests, which the hyper-competition driving "supercapitalism" exacerbates.

Linz's account of the "zero sum" nature of presidential elections suggests that that evolution is latent in our system:
The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate. There is no hope for shifts in alliances, expansion of the government’s base of support through national-unity or emergency grand coalitions, new elections in response to major new events, and so on. Instead, the losers must wait at least four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization (p. 56).  
Tension and polarization -- that resonates, no? Maybe it's structural -- and the "diffuse" nature of our parties in decades past was an anomaly traceable, like so much in U.S. history, to the legacy of slavery and racism.

Update: this post seemed to me to move a bit slowly, so I cut out this meander immediately following the Bernstein clip up top:

To a degree, this diagnosis feels intuitively right to me.  I have argued myself, in response to filibuster abolitionists, that our current ills stem not so much from skewed rules as from violated norms -- norms violated mainly though not exclusively by the GOP. I would allow, though -- as would Bernstein, who's in favor of filibuster reform -- that well-designed rules changes could help to shape new norms. And while Our Undemocratic Constitution -- or more precisely, our imperfectly representative Constitution -- in some ways helps magnify the recalcitrant minority's power, I share Bernstein's wariness of systems that give a parliamentary majority something much closer to legislative fiat. With a dangerously extremist party running loose, I prefer legislative sclerosis to the possibility of giving the rogues free reign.


  1. The Supercapitalism explanation risks being to economic-materialist. At least as important, or as intertwined in this, is the cultural dimension, in which rural and traditionalist enclaves within the massive country of the US (unlike in the smaller, more culturally homogenous communities of advanced European countries) freak the f*** out about the sociocultural evolution of other communities in their country.

  2. Seems the system, understood narrowly, clearly has the vulnerabilities described, but what makes them especially problematic is a breakdown or fracturing within the larger system or super-system. If the mass electorate or citizenry insisted or was capable of insisting or was determined to insist that spoilers pay a penalty for spoiling, the spoilers wouldn't arise in sufficient numbers and with sufficient force in the first place. That the opposite seems to be occurring is both a theoretical and an historical problem. It also raises the question of whether, regardless of attempted formal fixes, the forces stressing the system will be channeled into other forms with the same end effect.

  3. "To a degree, this diagnosis feels intuitively right to me. I have argued myself, in response to filibuster abolitionists, that our current ills stem not so much from skewed rules as from violated norms -- norms violated mainly though not exclusively by the GOP."

    This hits the nail on the head.

    If you are looking for wider explanations for why political cooperation has fallen apart, I strongly advise you to consider the work of cliodynamist Peter Turchin. He noted a few months ago that is is not just congress that is becoming more and more dysfunctional - volunteerism has fallen, politics has become more polarized, and labour-business cooperation has nose dived. In Turchin's words, there has been a "strange disappearance of cooperation in America".

    Turchin has actually developed a rather sophisticated model that explains all of these trends. For Aeon he penned an essay to explain the model to popular audiences, while has placed the technical version of his work (which is still a draft) on his blog.

    I strongly suggest you give it a look.

    I highly advise you to look up