Monday, November 9, 2015

Two Disturbing Tastes that Taste Terrifying Together

On the overall subject of partisan politics, I see a lot of articles on two basic subjects.

(1)  The Republican Party is stark raving nuts.
(2)  The Republican Party basically controls all levers of government except the White House, has an excellent chance of adding the White House as well, and the Democrats are powerless to stop them.

So far as I can tell, these are both true.  Republicans responded to their sweeping losses in 2008 by making the conscious, calculated decision to go insane.  They have been on a roll ever since.

Consider:  Republicans control both houses of Congress.  While the Senate appears to be up for grabs, the general consensus is that the House is solid Republican territory for a long time. This is not just the result of gerrymandering.  Any district system contains a subtle but inherent bias giving greater weight to rural and suburban districts over urban ones.  Democrats have no plan for overcoming this built-in advantage at any time in the foreseeable future.  Currently Republicans have unified control of 25 state governments while Democrats have unified control of only seven. And this is important.  National leaders grow out of state leaders.  One of the reasons Democrats maintained their dominance so long following the New Deal was their deeper bench at the state level.

Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue the the Republicans' advantage in superior organization, greater turnout in off-year elections, and well-oiled outrage machine are so strong as to give them dominance for the next 50 to 60 years.   

Possibly.  But I distrust predictions that far out into the future.  Republicans have two disadvantages as well.  One is the matter of demographics.  The share of the population that is white is declining and the share that is Hispanic is growing.  Younger voters are more Democratic and older ones more Republican.*

The other is that Republicans are stark raving nuts.  If they actually win control of all levers of government they are going to be faced with the dog catching the car problem.  When you have been handed the government on a promise to destroy it, what do you do?  Granted, insanity has been highly successful so far.  Republicans have made the government utterly dysfunctional, almost to the point of being non-functional, and then run on their opposition to that ungodly mess.  But what do they do when placed in charge of that ungodly mess?  Sure, people favor massively shrinking government -- unless they are personally inconvenienced by the process, in which case all bets are off.

But, some might argue, it is obvious that no degree of Republican misgovernment can possibly harm their political fortunes.  After all, the Bush Administration fought a ruinous war and ended with economic catastrophe, but that caused only short-lived damage to the Republican brand.  Governors Sam Brownback of Kansas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana basically sought to destroy the public school systems in their states, and while that proved unpopular enough to spark a legislative revolt, it was not so unpopular as to cost them any elections.  Nor did Republican misgovernment cost them any elections in less ideological states like Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, or Maine.

Still, if Republicans win full power at the federal level, they are more or less pledged to do some very unpopular things.  The activist base demands a root-and-branch repeal of Obamacare.  That will mean stripping ten to twenty million people of their health insurance.  Republicans are also more or less pledged to start phasing out Medicaid and Medicare, also very unpopular actions.  And the donor class would really like them either to cut Social Security or to turn it into a 401-k, either of which is generally seen as political suicide.  And they seem determined to start another war in the Middle East, with very poor prospects of a successful outcome.

All of which means that whenever the Republicans win the White House, they are going to be faced with a choice.  Either recover their sanity, or suffer the consequences.  Or, as Kevin Drum puts it:
This is the fundamental problem. British conservatives, in theory, could turn back the clock if they wanted to, but they don't. Their parliamentary system allows them to do it, but public opinion doesn't—which means that if they want to retain power, there's a limit to how far they can fight the tide. If American conservatives were in the same situation, they'd probably end up in the same place. Once they actually got the power to change things, they'd very quickly moderate their agenda. 
It's in this sense that our system of governance really is at fault for our current gridlock. Not directly because of veto points or our presidential system or any of that, but because these features of our political system allow conservatives to live in a fantasy world. They dream of what they could do if only they had the political power to do it, and they really believe they'd do it all if they got the chance. Thanks to all those veto points, however, they never get the chance. Full control of the government would disabuse everyone very quickly of just how far they're really willing to go, but it never happens.
Except that it very well could, if the Republicans win the White House next year.  And in that case they will be faced with a choice -- disappoint the base by moderating, or incur the outrage of most of the country (including much of the base!) by proceeding.

*These trends are related.  One reason Hispanics are a growing demographic is that they are younger that average.

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