GOP learns the hard way: Turning the base up too high blows out your Speaker
Plus, my take on Independent Sinema, and: why do we all feel like political losers these days?
Hello, and Happy New Year. It’s 2023, and the Republican Party is in disarray.
In this third edition of Undercurrent Events, I give you three big-picture takes on why the far-right chaos agents have so much power. I also give you a poll result from 2022 that sticks with me, and my extended take on Kyrsten Sinema, beyond my recent article in The Atlantic. A holy trio of sections for this third edition, indeed.
Once again, this is a newsletter that 1) may surprise you; 2) may make you feel smarter; and 3) may be worth sharing with a friend or a colleague (how else will I meet my quarterly earnings numbers for this free newsletter?)
Why Republicans are struggling to elect a leader in the House.
Turning the base up too high blows out your Speaker. Who knew?
Lots is being written about the blow-by-blow of Republicans' inability to choose a House Speaker.
Since this newsletter looks under current events at the broad undercurrents that brought us here, I’m taking a step back to think about the institutions and history that brought Kevin McCarthy and Republicans to this mess. I have three big thoughts here.
Thought #1 — The two-party system limits the potential for governing coalitions
When I explain the differences between two-party and multi-party systems, I often describe them in terms of when governing coalitions form.
In two-party systems, governing coalitions form before the election. In multi-party systems, governing coalitions form after the election.
That is, in the two-party system, Democrats and Republicans are both broad coalitions. Voters’ expectation is that if Democrats win the majority, Democrats will govern. If Republicans win the majority, Republicans will govern.
By contrast, in a multi-party system, it is extremely rare for a single party to get a majority of seats in a legislature. Rather, parties have to form majority coalitions after the election, with the plurality party getting the first shot at leading the coalition.
The long-standing argument for a two-party system is that voters know what kind of government they are voting for because they know what kind of coalition will govern if their preferred party wins. They also can hold the party in charge accountable.
Of course, this theory assumes a unified government and unified parties. Divided government, however, has been the norm in the United States for more than a half century. And US political parties are not very unified, as the current conflict between McCarthy and a faction of his own party makes clear.
If the US elected a multi-party Congress, no party would have a majority of seats. Instead, party leaders would need to work out a governing agreement. That governing agreement would almost certainly have to include a broad political center. A far-right or far-left faction would have very little leverage, because a potential House speaker would have different possible coalitions to choose from. This is how it works in mult-iparty legislatures around the world.
By contrast, here in the US, Kevin McCarthy — or any Republican Speaker — has only one coalition to choose from. It involves winning 218 of 222 Republican votes. That limits his options tremendously and gives leverage to the far-right faction. McCarthy has no potential support outside his coalition. That is why he already had to concede so much to them.
Still… for those who would argue that the two-party system makes governing coalition formation clear, I give you… current events.
I also give you the reality of divided government. By selecting a Democratic Senate, a Democratic president, and a Republican House, all by narrow margins, and overwhelmingly re-electing incumbents, voters made nothing clear.
And whatever the US government does over the next two years, it will be unclear who to hold accountable. The US governing system is not designed to deliver clear mandates for one party to govern. It is designed to make governing broad-based, which doesn’t work at all under our current narrowly hyper-polarized system.
And this takes me to my second thought…
Thought #2: Divided government encourages Republican recklessness
A long-standing Republican opposition strategy with a Democrat in the White House is to sow chaos in Washington, on the thought that dysfunction and chaos in Washington hurts the party in the White House. If Washington is in chaos, perhaps voters will think it’s time for a change.
Thus, rather than forcing the parties to work together, divided government encourages the party out of the White House to make the party in the White House look bad.
And while enough Democrats ultimately want to keep governing functioning so they will make deals with a Republican White House, enough Republicans want to force the government to shrink in size and believe that chaos is the only way to make it happen.
Are there political limits? Forcing a government shutdown can backfire. And nobody knows what happens if you don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling — which is, of course, the big looming crisis that could turn this clown show from dumb-and-dumber comedy to costly tragedy.
But far-right Republicans presumably see the looming debt ceiling as their point of maximum leverage, in which they can make outrageous demands and dare Democrats to deny them.
It’s hard to imagine any Republican speaker surviving a debt ceiling fight. Ultimately, they will need Democratic votes to pass the raise the debt ceiling. And when a Republican Speaker does that without extracting significant concessions, the revolt from the far-right will bring their downfall.
The problem is that Republican leadership has so demonized Democrats that much of its fired-up voter base sees compromise as submission to evil. But the rhetoric of opposition never lives up to reality. And enough current members of Congress, and their supporters and benefactors, now believe the conflict really is a fight to the death.
The fight is over the size and scope of the federal government. These are existential times. America is at stake. Enough people in Congress either genuinely believe it now, or they have earned so many psychic and financial rewards from saying so that they can’t tell whether they believe it or not, but they are conflict-seeking and attention-seeking enough to keep fighting to the end.
It is a 90-year fight, though one that has intensified into final battle status since a black man was elected president and White Christian America became a demographic minority. Which takes me to thought #3…
Thought # 3: It’s hard to manage a 90-year opposition party at the cranky old age of 90.
For nine decades, American politics has been defined by the macro-conflict over the role of the federal government. FDR’s New Deal was a Democratic Party program. Truman’s Fair Deal was a Democratic program. LBJ’s Great Society was a Democratic Program. Broadly, Republicans have spent nine decades now opposing the federal government’s role in American life.
Why does this matter? Because after 90 years of fighting the same fight against government, generation after generation, the Republican Party has become a thoroughly anti-system party. And it is very hard to lead an anti-system party when leadership means being part of the system.
Obviously, this oversimplifies. At various times since 1933, Republicans have held responsibility for governing through unified control — for a brief period under Eisenhower, and then briefly under George W. Bush. In both periods, a governing wing of the party began to emerge, in some cooperation with Democrats.
But starting in 2010, a new generation of Republicans entered Congress in hostility to the Obama administration. In the 2010s, this long-running crusade against government took on a new urgency. It was now a fight not just against “big government.” It was also a fight to preserve “traditional” American identity against the globalist, multicultural, cosmopolitan, socialist Democratic Party, which was using the federal government to impose tyranny. The civil war talk became more loose, and the guns more visible.
To the extent a “governing wing” still remains in the GOP congressional delegation, it is a governing wing that wants to restrain the role of the federal government, but doesn’t want to jeopardize our entire economy and governing system in the fight. But this governing wing continues to shrink.
What’s new in the last decade or so, however, is the rise of a new “chaos wing” in the Republican Party that not only wants to limit the role of the federal government, it wants to throw everything into disorder, to heighten the conflict, and then watch it burn till its rotten core explodes and something new can come out on the other side. There’s also a strong Millennialist vibe here, the last battle before the final judgment. In a fallen world, perhaps, all one can do is fight to smash the false idols.
If the point is indeed to bring chaos and smash the system, there’s nothing McCarthy can offer, simply because of who he is. He is a compromiser, not a fighter. He represents leadership, and therefore the system.
Is this the logical conclusion to 90 years of being an opposition party? That opposition is no longer the means; it is now the ends.
If so: Maybe nobody can lead the Grand Old Party anymore.
And if so, maybe it’s time for a new party system, in which a small group of far-right extremists no longer has the leverage to hold the entire system hostage. Back to thought #1… In a multi-party system, leaders have many more ways to build governing coalitions.
Are we a nation of political losers?
It sure feels that way.
Thinking about the way things have been going in politics over the last few years on the issues that matter to you, would you say your side has been losing more than winning…?
If you answered “losing” you’re in good company.
Almost three quarters of Americans (72 percent) agreed last September. Only 24 percent thought they were on the winning side. This is a record low since 2016, when Pew started asking this question.
But perhaps more interestingly, both Republicans (81 percent) and Democrats (66 percent) think they are on the losing side — A bipartisan consensus on loss. In 2016, when Obama was in the White House, Democrats were at least split on whether their side was losing. By 2020, with Trump in the White House, Republicans thought they were winning. Now, everyone feels they are losing.
Why do so many Americans feel like they are losing, even when their side is supposedly “in power”?
Maybe because we are all so much more focused on the negative than the positive in politics, because so much political campaigning and rhetoric focus on threats rather than gains. The nature of our contemporary hyper-partisan polarization, after all, focuses primarily on the threats of the other side.
Still, this level of dissatisfaction doesn’t feel sustainable. Something has to give.
And yet, nothing seems to change. We’re in this very weird moment in which incumbents get re-elected at overwhelming rates, while dissatisfaction dominates.
Sinema Goes Indy. Oh please.
Anti-party politics can’t fix a broken party system
Over the holiday “break”, I published an Ideas piece at The Atlantic, “Kyrsten Sinema and the Myth of Political Independence: Pretending to be independent in a partisan system won’t improve America’s politics. But more parties might.”
While I certainly get Sinema’s dissatisfaction with the two parties, declaring herself independent is meaningless.
In declaring herself an Independent, she claims to be rejecting partisan politics. But what, exactly, is she for? Therein lies the problem of political independence. Independence exists only in relation to the existing alternatives, in a weird negative space. It does not build. It only rejects.
Sinema makes an instructive lesson in the confusing contradictions of political independence. Like most independents, she thinks politicians in Washington should work together more, though she is personally unwilling to compromise her own principles and affiliate with a party. Like most independents, her declaration of independence is primarily about self-image, though she will continue to vote almost entirely like a partisan.
As a candidate, an “Independent” label conveys no meaningful policy commitments. It is an empty container for blank-slate phrases like “results” and “common sense” and “compromise” that fracture under the weight of actual specifics. Political parties cohere policy alternatives and vet candidates, so voters have some idea what they are supporting from election to election. Independents come and go, building nothing beyond themselves.
I drew some inspiration for this piece from an excellent book by political scientists Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction. As their subtitle hints, they see independents as mostly problematic, though they can sympathize with the desire to hold oneself apart from nasty partisan fighting. But while independents hold themselves above and outside partisan politics, they also hold politicians to unrealistic standards, like a heckler who shouts “you’re doing it wrong” and then walks away. For anyone who wants to understand the confusing and growing category of “political independents,” I highly recommend their book.
More broadly, while the two-party system is obviously broken, modern democracy requires a functioning party system with healthy parties. Anti-partisanship only makes democracy worse. We need more parties, not more independents.
Read my full Atlantic piece here.
And don’t forget to press all my buttons…
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“A far-right or far-left faction would have very little leverage” OK, I give you … Israel. The governing coalition is only far- and farther-right parties.