There is much to commend in Thomas Schaller’s recent piece describing the built-in structural advantages that the Republican Party enjoys in the American electoral system. Some analysts believe this advantage derives from the systematic gerrymandering of legislative districts; others declare it a result of a voluntary demographic “sorting” of Democrats into metropolitan areas and Republicans to exurbia. Schaller sees that it is both and that the two phenomena reinforce one another.
Structural bias: It’s worse than you think.
That said, the structural imbalance in the American political system is even more pronounced than Schaller depicts. The “small state” bias in the Senate that he condemns derives from the Connecticut Compromise during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the agreement that gave each state equal representation in the United States Senate. It was initially favored by smaller Northern states, which were then growing less rapidly in population, but after incorporation of the infamous three-fifths rule allowing states to include slaves in their head count for representation in the House, it became a tool of the reactionary Southern oligarchy to block any tampering with slavery for the next seven decades.
Yet even after the three-fifths rule and slavery were abolished amid the greatest effusion of blood in American history, the same elements that controlled the antebellum Senate continued to have a lock on that chamber until the 1960s. Ira Katznelson has described in persuasive detail how the many reforms – sweeping in their scope – that President Roosevelt believed were necessary both to save capitalism from itself and to modernize the United States were delayed and watered down by the Southern bloc controlling the Senate. And it took another thirty years after that to end Jim Crow.
It’s not just the legislature.
One structural bias that Schaller omits involves the presidency. Perhaps he has fallen prey to the comforting illusion shared by many Democrats that while the GOP may have a lock on the House and a tailwind in the Senate, Democrats have the presidency, a “nationwide” office, sewn up. But the Electoral College system of voting for the president is inherently biased towards less populous states, a factor which serves as a brake on a Democratic strategy of running up presidential vote totals in states with very large metropolitan areas like New York or California.
Another feature of small states is that other things being equal, a candidate will pander to the concerns of special-interest voting constituencies in less populous states rather than more populous ones because just a handful of votes is more likely to make the difference. We have the Iowa caucuses to thank for the ethanol mandates that put food crops in gas tanks rather than on kitchen tables. The winner-take-all rule in 48 of the 50 states simply magnifies this effect in the Electoral College totals.
Some insist on the old pseudo-common sense notion that “the Electoral College has served us well.” Actually, it hasn’t. On three occasions, 1824, 1876 and 2000, the winner got fewer popular votes than the principal challenger. The corrupt bargaining to resolve the 1876 Tilden-Hayes election brought us the end of Reconstruction and a feudal South for the next century and Chief Justice Rehnquist’s fix of the 2000 debacle bequeathed us a $4 trillion (and counting) war on terrorism, a degradation of civil liberties and the worst financial meltdown in 80 years. That worked out well, didn’t it?
The fact that the electoral vote has usually followed the popular vote stems from the fact that Democrats and Republicans once were more evenly spread across the country. As demographic sorting by political identification intensifies, the likelihood of another Bush v. Gore debacle will increase.
It’s the Constitution, stupid.
All these structural handicaps arose from defects in our two-and-a-quarter-century-old Constitution. So what happened when people wanted to change it? One method was for Johnny Reb and Billy Yank to let fly at each other with musketry until one side prevailed. A more rational procedure was to amend it. When the Supreme Court declared the income tax unconstitutional, popular pressure resulted in an amendment to make it constitutional. When women demanded the vote, they got it via constitutional amendment. At the height of the culture wars’ commotion over dirty hippies, 18-year-olds somehow secured the right to vote – even as Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew presided over the country!
Yet nearly half a century after ratification of the amendment to permit 18-year-olds to vote, there have been no additional amendments to the Constitution, save for the 27th amendment on congressional salaries, which was ratified in 1992 but first proposed in 1789! This failure to adopt further change is a remarkable but barely noticed fact. Given the current political polarization and the requirement that three-quarters of state legislatures ratify an amendment, the Constitution has become for all practical purposes unamendable. Should a sufficient number of judges who are members of the Federalist Society or acolytes of the University of Chicago’s “Law and Economics” theology become federal appellate justices, they can legislate from the bench as they please with no recourse for the citizenry via the amendment process.
In the face of a decision like Citizens United or a recent appellate court ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court) that makes Wall Street’s insider trading for all intents and purposes a constitutionally protected activity, the voter can only gnash his teeth and lament living in evil times. But to be fair, as Schaller points out, the shoe is sometimes on the other foot: Republicans everywhere are spinning cartoon-version Tasmanian Devils over the Supreme Court’s gay marriage and Obamacare rulings.
Schaller notes that the GOP is better able to profit electorally from court decisions they cannot change than Democrats are, but does not really explain why, other than making a perfunctory nod to the intensity of the GOP base. But why is it that Democrats cannot make electoral hay over Citizens United or a decision sanctioning insider trading? Could it be that Republican career politicians, however much they may privately roll their eyes at the Tea Party, feel the need, on pain of losing office in a primary, to do whatever it takes to satisfy their voters? By contrast, is Hillary Clinton sufficiently incensed over the fundraising sanctioned by Citizens United to try to get it overturned? Is the difficulty that New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer would face raising funds on Wall Street if he introduced legislation to ban insider trading greater or less than the likelihood that his constituency would punish him if he didn’t introduce such legislation? The questions answer themselves.
Are Republicans conservative?
The contrasting political behaviors of the two parties over issues important to their bases hint at a difference beyond structural imbalances in the Constitution: their subliminal worldview, regardless of how they publicly present themselves. That worldview can be an advantage or a hindrance, particularly in times of crisis or widespread mistrust of government.
Here I believe Schaller errs when he depicts the GOP simply as the obstructionist Party of No. True, that is what they have been for the last seven years and they certainly showcase themselves as the party that is reflexively against government. They have been doing variations on this since 1980, when Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem. But it’s not quite that simple.
To be a Party of No or at least, after long delay, a heavily qualified Yes, is to be conservative in the classic tradition of 18th century statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke. It is respect for tradition and the status quo and a thoughtful belief in patience, prudence and the law of unintended consequences. (In Switzerland, where I resided for a time, there was a hoary maxim about deciding public referenda: when in doubt, vote no – a profoundly Burkean sentiment.) It is President Dwight Eisenhower not repudiating but accepting the New Deal as established history and even consolidating it. Writing to his brother, Milton, he said the following:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again . . . There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt . . . a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Contrast that with any number of statements by the current crop of Republican candidates and we can understand that the GOP is no longer in spirit the party I remember in my youth; that is, the party of local bank vice presidents, chartered accountants, and Midwestern brick church Presbyterians. The (now virtually extinct) country club Republican, long a figure of mockery for his shallowness, would stand out like John Quincy Adams at an Arkansas tent revival compared to the present-day zealots who are the heart and soul of the party. It is now a party of revolutionary reaction that is indifferent to statecraft, negotiation or compromise.
Color them radical.
A seemingly trivial but telling clue that the Republican Party is no longer traditionally conservative but rather a radical right wing party lies in the popular choice of colors to denote the two parties. It may not have been a conscious decision, but it is in retrospect appropriate that during the 2000 election all the television networks settled on red for the GOP and blue for the Democrats.
Since the French Revolution, red has consistently been the emblem of upheaval and disruption in Western nations. Blue was just as surely associated with conservatism and tradition. The traditional psychology of colors in areas of life outside politics would seem to confirm this choice. Corporate directors do not wear red pinstriped suits to connote solidity, trustworthiness, and a reliable dividend for shareholders. Only blue will do, for red is the color of instability and change.
How is it that the media upended this social convention with its selection of colors to designate states in their studio graphics? Why do self-described conservatives now proudly proclaim themselves as “red,” or “red staters?” By the 2000 election, and certainly after 9/11, the Republican Party was no longer a conservative party, as that word had been understood in traditional, Western political culture.
The GOP’s belief in polarizing language and tactics, a militant and militarized foreign policy and a constant search for mortal enemies, foreign and domestic alike, qualifies the current GOP as a radical right wing party, not a conservative one. In his flawed but occasionally insightful book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, historian John Lukacs reminds us that “right wing” is not a synonym for conservative, and is not even a true variant of conservatism, although the right wing will opportunistically borrow conservative themes as the need arises.
Republicans love to govern – on their terms.
To be sure, congressional Republicans have been relentlessly obstructive during the presidency of Barack Obama, recently pausing only to prevent a government shutdown and credit default. But the reason for that was purely tactical – it would look bad going into a presidential election year; it was not the result of some sudden outbreak of Burkean conservatism and a reacquired sense of the responsibility to govern. And it cost Speaker John Boehner his job and his anointed successor his own speakership before political self-preservation overcame the urge to purge.
But is obstructionism the instinctive reflex of the GOP or only when the executive and legislative branches are divided? I would contend that it is less that Republicans hate government on principle (regardless of what they say to agitate their base) than that they hate any government not completely in their hands and serving their exclusive purposes.
Congressional Republicans certainly were not a do-nothing or obstructionist caucus during the presidency of George W. Bush. From budget-busting tax cuts for the rich, to making bankruptcy more onerous for people (but not for corporations, which on other occasions Republicans claim are people); from the Patriot Act that dismantled constitutional protections, to doubling the Pentagon’s budget, to creating the third largest cabinet agency, the DHS, to respond to the tragedy ensuing from Bush’s refusal to take his CIA briefings seriously, Republicans were the very model of activist governing. They turned a $236 billion budget surplus in 2000 into a $459 billion deficit in 2008, while in those same eight years doubling the national debt.
While many will blanch at this catalogue of horrors and respond that it was not responsible governance, that reaction dodges the question: responsible governance for whom? In 2010, the incoming Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus, memorably expressed the Republican philosophy of public service as follows: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.” Talk about constituent service!
Frankenstein’s laboratories of government.
Being Washington-centric, Democrats underrate the importance of state governments, not only for their intrinsic significance, but as hatcheries of ideas that can be used at the national level and as farm teams for political talent. With the exception of Martin O’Malley, all the Democratic presidential candidates for 2016 have been long-time creatures of Washington. Right or wrong, at this time the public mood is not favorable to such a resume.
Out in the states, Republicans have been anything but indolent slugs with their feet propped up. According to a January 2015 study, since 2011, when a Republican wave assumed power in state legislatures, the states enacted 231 abortion restrictions. So much for preventing the nanny state from getting between an American and her doctor, a charge we heard incessantly during the Obamacare debate. States have also enacted laws criminalizing unauthorized photography of industrial farms that engage in animal cruelty or violate food safety procedures (so rather than punishing criminality, the laws punish those exposing the criminality).
Republican legislators in North Carolina introduced a bill to make it a felony to disclose the chemicals (some of which are toxic to humans and animals) employed in fracking. The bill also authorized drilling companies to oblige emergency responders cleaning up chemical spills to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to disclose to the public the names – or the toxicity — of the chemicals in their proprietary stew. So it is that even duly authorized state authorities may soon be unable to carry out their public health and safety duties if it inconveniences corporations. Again, this is conscientious and responsive governance on behalf of constituencies, even if its furtherance of the commonweal is dubious.
Republican governors like Scott Walker and Sam Brownback are not snoozing in their offices like Calvin Coolidge; rather, they are hyperkinetic in furthering their agenda, regardless of the dictum that the government which governs least governs best. While they are certainly interested in getting government off the backs of the people when it comes to items like infrastructure or education, they are not averse to using public money for goals they deem worthwhile.
In 2015, the same year his budget slashed $250 million from the University of Wisconsin, one of the nation’s premier state universities, Scott Walker handed over $250 million of public money to two hedge fund managers who own the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team so they could build themselves a new arena. Walker rationalized the deal by saying that keeping the team in Milwaukee would garner an annual $6.5 million in state tax revenues. But it will require almost 40 years for the state to recoup Wisconsin taxpayers’ initial outlay and we can be sure the Bucks’ owners will be clamoring for another new, publicly financed arena decades before the state’s expenditure on the 2015 deal is amortized.
Walker’s math skills would seem deficient, but the evidence that Jon Hammes, a major investor in the sports franchise, is also a heavy political contributor to the governor and that only a month before the arena deal was appointed co-chairman of Walker’s presidential fundraising committee, suggests that rather than poor political judgment on Walker’s part, it’s just another element of constituent service, Republican-style.
Maybe something won’t turn up.
In the wake of structural imbalances even more pervasive than Schaller describes and more deeply entrenched than most people imagine, because their constitutional basis makes them all but irremediable, the reaction of many Democrats is like that of David Copperfield’s Mr. Micawber, who is always hoping something will turn up. That “something” is usually demographics, but demographics failed spectacularly in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Republicans’ numerical dominance in the House is their biggest since the election of 1928; on the state level, Republicans control 31 governorships and both houses of 31 state legislatures. And despite all the demographic tipping points that Democratic operatives claim to see, there is no guarantee for the future.
Likewise, internet bandwidth has stretched to the maximum by the flood of articles prophesying the imminent crackup of the GOP, mainly because it is too rigidly sectarian, too crazy or both. Unfortunately for that theory, I suspect Republicans have captured the mood of a large portion of the electorate better than the Democrats. The trifecta of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the financial meltdown of 2008 unhinged a lot of people, turning them angry, belligerent and receptive to political messages dressed up as calls to combat. And Republicans’ steady, disciplined repetition of simplistic themes has had an effect even on voters outside the partisan tabernacle of the GOP faithful.
Their unceasing, drumfire barrage against the Affordable Care Act has resulted in even proponents of the measure arguing from the defensive. Polls also demonstrate that the provisions making up the bill are popular among the public, but that the name “Obamacare” is not. As the midterm elections revealed, these things matter.
Likewise, the GOP managed to fan the IRS’s investigation of a Tea Party group into a scandal, when the real issue is that there are more than a million 501(c)3 organizations enjoying tax exempt status and they receive far too little scrutiny as to whether their activities are legitimately charitable or educational. But uncommitted voters are likely to see the smoke of sensational hearings and assume there is fire, rather than political operatives behind the scene with smoke machines. The Republican Party, with its comprehensive media operation, is well suited to wage this kind of information warfare.
Although tens of millions were damaged by the 2008 financial collapse and had blood in their eyes, the GOP’s dedication to spreading anti-knowledge succeeded in diffusing the blame toward so many targets (all of them longtime Republican bugaboos) that it took a lot of the heat off Wall Street. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, allegedly becoming suddenly lethal during the 2000s, was to blame; or Fannie Mae (which had been operating on the same business model since the 1930s). Or too much regulation of Wall Street (as opposed to too little) or accusations that the very victims of predatory loans themselves were to blame for their misfortune. But not guys like Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein or Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide Financial.
Hope and change or revolution?
The comprehensive national failures of the last decade and a half have contributed to a pre-revolutionary mood in America. Obama’s 2008 campaign tapped into the Zeitgeist, but the president repudiated the very mood that elected him. Occupy Wall Street was another sign, but it fizzled out when Democrats distanced themselves. The Tea Party is yet another indication and has endured longer because of better funding and its incorporation into the GOP’s tactical infrastructure. And while the two figures are certainly not equivalent, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders show that there is a deep hunger for something different, something – at least within the framework of the contemporary American political system – revolutionary.
But revolutions are just as likely to breed radical reaction as rational progress; even more so, if the history of twentieth-century Europe is any guide. Ironically enough, the Democrats are now the stand-pat, conservative party. With the exception of a miniscule number of marginalized individuals, the organizational structure of the Democratic Party is dedicated to preserving the status quo and not upsetting its contributors. The Wall Street wing of the party, led by former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley, is now organizing to torpedo Sanders’ candidacy.
Because of its militant rhetoric, Manichean worldview, demand for ideological purity and bare-knuckle Leninist tactics, it is the GOP that fits the bill of a revolutionary party. To the erstwhile party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, politics is now war in all respects except the shooting. In a post-9/11, post-financial meltdown atmosphere of lingering crisis, the GOP is well positioned to wage such a war.
As I finished this piece, news broke that Republican Matt Bevin (described by CNN as “controversial,” a press euphemism for far-right wing), won the governorship of Kentucky by a surprisingly large nine-point margin. This brings the number of governorships in GOP hands to 32. Those who still imagine the election of Donald Trump or Ben Carson to be a metaphysical as well as demographic impossibility may have lost touch with the mass psychology of the country in which they live.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.