WASHINGTON, May 25, 2013 ― Politics in the U.S. is steadily devolving into a form of consumer entertainment. The corrosion of basic civic interest has hit the Republican Party particularly hard because of institutional factors that leave the organization bent toward extremes. It will be difficult to stop the GOP from nominating cartoon characters like E.W. Jackson without examining and addressing the institutional characteristics that have made the Party America’s choice for the politically weird.
A glance across the aisle at the Democrats might yield some insights. Ideology is a secondary concern in Democratic politics. Since the mid-19th century, the party has been organized around the skillful manipulation of patronage.
That style of organization has been a weakness at times, blocking efforts to update the party’s policy priorities (think of the Civil Rights battles or the ’68 convention). However, it breeds a rock-hard pragmatism that acts as a persistent check on the extremes.
That structural difference between the Republican and Democratic organizations helps explain why the GOP has been more severely damaged by the crazy wave. In structural terms the Democratic Party is inherently more conservative in the sense that it is more protective of the status quo than the GOP.
Extra-political groups form the backbone of Democratic Party politics. The term refers to organizations with strong political interests, like a state teachers’ union, whose main purpose is not inherently political. These groups cannot live on activism alone. They have jobs to do, jobs which depend on effective government.
In the Democratic Party, you can push ideology all you want until it bumps up against patronage demands. If the machinery of government stops working the impact will be deeply felt among the people who control the party’s ground operations. Government effectiveness matters to interests at the core of Democratic politics.
The difference this makes can be seen by comparing the styles of two predominantly Democratic organizations, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women. NOW is an issue advocacy group. Its grass-roots activities consist mostly of tracking legislation of concern and mobilizing members to voice support or opposition.
Planned Parenthood operates women’s health clinics all over the country. Those clinics rely heavily on public funding and often provide abortion services in areas that are deeply hostile to Democratic politics. While NOW’s structure requires it to motivate a base to action, Planned Parenthood must do more than influence politics. It has to perform a function in the day to day world that depends heavily on public support.
Groups like NOW can afford to be as unreasonable as their most generous donors will tolerate. The organization itself is not threatened by any failure to accomplish a practical objective. Advocacy groups feed on controversy. Achieving their policy goals would be like a dog catching the car.
NOW, for example, took a hard line on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Alito, threatening to campaign against otherwise choice-friendly Senators from both parties who refused to obstruct his nomination. Planned Parenthood recognized the obnoxious irresponsibility of subverting the democratic process purely to activate a political base.
They backed down from a filibuster of the Alito nomination, angering activists on the extremes but preserving their vital policy influence on Capitol Hill. Planned Parenthood is no more “moderate” on the issues than NOW, but they are forced to be vastly more pragmatic.
The dominating presence of extra-political organizations like unions, Planned Parenthood, and other groups performing public functions checks the pressure from Democratic activists to pursue irrational extremes. The GOP political universe, by contrast, is made up of dozens of major advocacy groups comparable to NOW, but Republicans have almost nothing like Planned Parenthood or the unions.
There are hardly any traditional Republican interests, apart from perhaps Chambers of Commerce, who have a vested material interest in government effectiveness. That leaves no structural force to press back against the entertainers who would motivate turnout in primaries and caucuses with appeals to rabid Id.
There are sensible people involved in Republican politics who sacrifice time they could devote to family or work to participate in politics out of a sense of civic duty. The game is rigged against them. They are outgunned and constantly on the retreat. They have been walking away from day to day engagement for decades when they aren’t being actively chased to the margins.
We can talk about solving the problem by encouraging greater grassroots participation by “moderates,” but that is a fantasy. The kind of people who care about rational, pragmatic political outcomes are in large part the same people who are busy taking care of their families, their businesses, and the increasingly intense demands of successful American life.
Even if they, somewhat heroically, chose to carve out time from their jobs and their kids to battle for months for the opportunity to spend all day at Virginia’s GOP nominating convention, would they ever choose to do it again? How many of the sensible people who form the backbone of American life would consistently volunteer to spend weekends in the crowd that nominated E.W. Jackson?
This has created a rift between the Republican activist base and the Republican electoral base. If the mechanics of Republican politics continues to favor people with more time than sense, we’ll nominate fewer and fewer candidates that general election voters will accept. Worse, the traditional core values of the conservative movement will be swamped beneath layers of paranoid muck.
Replicating the Democrats’ emphasis on patronage is not the answer. In fact, that tactic is already losing its punch, likely exposing the Democratic Party very soon to the same forces of weirdness that have ravaged the GOP. The best structural response lies in adapting Republican nominating and decision-making practices to make them open to broader involvement by otherwise busy successful people ― the GOP’s alienated, traditional electoral base.
Here are a few ideas that might help.
1) Abandon the sanctity of the nominating process
There is little hope for meaningful improvement in the Republican Party until pragmatic conservatives openly reject the extremes. That means organizing internal institutions that will allow rationalists to coordinate general election challenges to outrageous nominees. It is a decade too late to work this out behind the scenes in conventions or in local party meetings. We have to leverage the frustration of general election voters to force a change.
2) Forge new institutions that support pragmatic goals
Rational conservatives need organizations that allow them coordinate their activities and lend material support to candidates who would challenge the extremes. Jon Huntsman just launched one such effort. We need hundreds more.
3) Drain the influence from deeply anti-representative organs like caucuses and conventions
After weakening the hold of extremists by taking decisions directly to general election voters, use the influence gained from the process to strip power from unrepresentative processes. Caucuses are crazy-factories. They require far more investment of personal time than most reasonably competent people in the prime of life can afford. Our emphasis on in-person institutions is constructing a Republic of the Bizarre. We must blunt their influence.
4) End the practice of primary runoffs
A primary is already a low-turnout process. Primary runoffs are a cruel joke. Without the anti-representative dynamics of a runoff, David Dewhurst would be Texas’s Senator.
5) Explore communications technology to expand participation
There is a quality to in-person political involvement that cannot be replicated online. That said, this is not the 19th century. People do not have months of downtime waiting for the harvest season. Our in-person grassroots institutions are no longer the engines of quality representation that Tocqueville observed. We need to explore alternatives enabled by communications technology that can keep people connected with a smaller investment of personal time.
Solving the GOP’s nutjob problem is more than a partisan issue. The techniques that succeed in restoring the Republican Party’s sanity may provide the key to adapting representative government to succeed in a new century.
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