Voice

American Politics 101, R.I.P.

The U.S. federal government continues to stay shut down, and analysts are beginning to realize that the current crisis will soon ensnare the debt-ceiling vote that must take place by Oct. 17. This is prompting a geyser of political analysis to explain why a legislature with a 10 percent approval rating has reached a position where the outcome is a gambit opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

As a political scientist, I'd humbly suggest that that standard Political Science 101 models are now pretty much bunk.

The bread and butter of American politics is pluralism. Members of Congress want to get elected and re-elected. The way they do that is by pleasing their constituents. Traditionally, the way they did that was by pursuing a mix of policies that pleased the kind of organized, concentrated interests that bothered to go and vote. These policies usually included a slice of pork-barrel politics designed to target groups with a material stake in their representatives, and some symbolic politics designed to target groups with an ideological stake in their representatives.

The funny thing is that this time around, the material interests on the GOP side appear to have zero influence over their party, as the Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb reports:

The decision to shut down the government because Democrats would not make major changes to President Obama’s health-care law underscored the fading influence of traditional business interests in the Republican Party — and the rising influence of more confrontational and conservative tea party groups that encouraged Republicans to embrace the shutdown strategy.

“While I don’t think the Affordable Care Act is in the best interest of the country, I also don’t think it is in the best interest of the country to shut the government down,” said Harold L. Jackson, executive chairman of Buffalo Supply, a Colorado medical equipment company.…

The experience of the Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups, may best illustrate the new tensions between Republicans and the business community.

The chamber spent more than $60 million in 2010 and 2012, helping elect tea party Republicans and winning GOP control of the House.

But while there have been signs of fraying in the relationship for several years, the GOP’s willingness to defy its strongest business supporters became clearest Tuesday with the shutdown.

The Chamber had led more than a hundred business groups in urging Congress to keep the government open.

“With the U.S. economy continuing to underperform, the federal government needs to maintain its normal operations,” a Chamber-sponsored letter said Monday, hours before the shutdown. “It is not in the best interest of the employers, employees or the American people to risk a government shutdown that will be economically disruptive and create even more uncertainties for the U.S. economy.”

A Chamber spokeswoman played down the differences between Republicans and the trade group, saying businesses don’t back candidates based on a single issue. But other conservative groups were happy to highlight the new wedge dividing the Chamber and the GOP.

So it would seem that groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have waning influence over GOP House members. In part, however, this also reflects the fact that those GOP House members have less that they can offer these interest groups. In an interview with Ezra Klein, National Review's outstanding congressional reporter Robert Costa explained a key dynamic within the House GOP caucus:

What we're seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power. It’s not so much about Boehner. It’s things like the end of earmarks. They move away from Tom DeLay and they think they're improving the House, but now they have nothing to offer their members. The outside groups don't always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members. And so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn't exist in a normal environment.

Mark Schmitt makes a similar point in the New Republic:

[T]he modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who BusinessWeek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House. Many of its politicians have deliberately cut themselves off from all the incentives that traditionally moderate and stabilize politics—earmarks, constituent service (many offices say they won’t help constituents maneuver the ACA), and infrastructure spending. With safe seats, and hearing little dissent at home, they are able to do so. Cutting themselves off from the incentive to build and maintain a strong and viable party is part of the same story.

What's remarkable is how quickly this transformation of the GOP has been. A decade ago, we were reading about ambitious initiatives like the "K Street Project," designed to ensure that powerful material interest groups strengthened ties with the Republican Party. Now it's the ideological interests that are ascendant -- and this poses enormous challenges to the American body politic.

The thing about standard interest-group politics is that bargains could be struck. Any member of Congress or interest group that didn't like the contours of a deal could be assuaged with a tax loophole here or a public works project there. Now, taken to its extreme, this leads to an incredibly corrupt system of government. At a low level, however, this kind of corruption is the grease that allows governments to do things like pass budgets and honor its debts.

Ideological interest groups are much harder to buy off, however. Their reason for existence is to push their ideas, and most of them will not accept half-measures. This leads to a situation where they benefit more from deadlock than from a bargain. Which is great for the Club for Growth … and lousy for the rest of the country.

The fact that this transformation of the GOP's internal organization took place in under a decade suggests that it could also reverse course just as quickly. That said, it's becoming harder and harder to talk about what's happening in Washington as "politics as usual." Because the dynamics of American politics now look very different than they did even a decade ago.

Am I missing anything?

Comments

Load More Comments