When cynicism works

WHEN CYNICISM WORKS…. I was watching a local public affairs show the other day when the host, a neutral reporter with no obvious ideological leanings, noted how upset many voters are that “Congress left town last week without extending unemployment benefits.” The other panelists on program nodded their heads. Not a word was spoken, however, about who, specifically, was responsible for the developments.

Kevin Drum noted a similar situation he saw over the weekend.

Last night we had some friends over for the 4th and I got to talking with one of them about politics. He’s a conservative-leaning guy, but he was pretty upset about the unemployment situation. “Congress just took off for the holidays leaving this mess behind,” he stewed. We went on to agree that everyone hates Congress. Its approval rating is somewhere between that of pedophile priests and Osama bin Laden.

But that’s as far as it went: Congress. Not Republicans. Just “Congress.” And that’s why obstructionism works so well for them. Partisans are partisans and are going to hate the other party no matter what. But then there’s the vast middle ground of people who lean one way or the other but don’t spend all day reading blogs or listening to talk radio. And as long as they view the problem as “Congress,” that’s bad news for whoever’s in charge at the moment.

Ben Nelson aside, there’s not much question which party is holding up unemployment benefits. You know it, I know it, reporters know it, and political junkies of all stripes know it. But lots of people don’t. They see a headline that says “Congress Adjourns Without Acting on Unemployment” and they don’t read much further. Every time that happens, it’s a big win for the GOP. And it happens a lot.

Greg Sargent writes about this dynamic fairly often, and it’s a persuasive, albeit frustrating, observation. Republicans deliberately create government dysfunction … which makes voters, who hate the dysfunction, angry … which leads them to vote for more Republicans since Democrats are the majority party and get blamed when the status quo breaks down.

Indeed, this goes further than just public perceptions about gridlock — the consequences fuel more public outrage. As Josh Marshall noted yesterday, “Republicans block any measures to buoy or resuscitate economy, call sputtering economy evidence of superiority of Republican policies, reap political benefit. Rinse. Restart.”

When it comes to exploiting public anxieties and frustrations, it’s about the most cynical scam imaginable, isn’t it? The goal is to get the public to throw up its arms in disgust and think, “To hell with the whole bunch.” Once that happens, Republicans are thrilled, creating an incentive for the GOP to do whatever it takes to make Washington even worse.

Best of all, there’s not a whole lot to be done since, institutionally, we have a system that gives the majority power and gives the minority the ability to stop the majority from exercising that power. Bringing majority-rule back to the Senate would no doubt help, but that’s not even on the table. An engaged, informed electorate, coupled with better political reporting from major media outlets, would make a huge difference, but that’s nowhere in sight, either. A more moderate, pragmatic Republican Party would transform Washington, but so long as the GOP is rewarded for its extremism, that’s a fanciful dream.

We’re left with a political landscape in which voters punish Democrats for Republicans’ actions.