What “Broke” the GOP?

It’s no secret that political scientists as a tribe tend to downplay the importance of ideology and even of “issues” as active factors in American politics. Elections, they say (as an often-welcome corrective to Game Change-style overinterpretation of campaign events), are largely determined by “the fundamentals,” especially economic conditions and the identity of the party in power. Partisan attachments by voters, they often point out, are far more durable than anything you can explain by the day’s, month’s, or year’s controversies and positioning.

So it didn’t totally shock me that in a Salon piece on the “broken” nature of our political system, my esteemed friend the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein issues a disclaimer about the role that conservative ideology plays:

It’s not partisanship. It’s not polarization. It’s not even extremism.

It’s the Republican Party. The GOP is broken. Not too conservative; not too extreme. I have no view of where the GOP “should” be ideologically, and I don’t think there’s much evidence that being “too conservative” per se is losing elections for Republicans.

Having ruled out ideology as an explanation, Jonathan ranges far in identifying the actual reasons for the dysfunctional habits of the GOP. Do GOPers sometimes act like they prefer obstinacy to electoral victory, or are forever insisting on “pure” candidates? Maybe the “conservative marketplace,” in which there’s money to be made by looniness, and plenty of money to back primary challengers, is the problem. Do Republicans seem to have no idea how to actually govern? Well, they’ve had some very bad role models, from Nixon to George W. Bush.

I don’t disagree with any of those insights, but when Jonathan comes up with his list of the GOP’s bad habit, I can’t help but notice ideology would explain every single one.

* An aversion to normal bargaining and compromise

That’s natural to rigid conservative ideologues who are not focused on government as a means to “bring home the bacon” (the bacon is brought home by corporate supporters who for the most part need little from politicians other than the destruction of taxes and regulations), and view “bargaining” over government policies as playing on the other team’s field.

* An inability to banish fringe people and views from the mainstream of the party.

The whole point to the conservative movement’s drive to take over the GOP is to redefine the “maintream” and identify “RINOs” as the fringe, which is exactly what has been happening.

* An almost comical lack of interest in substantive policy formation

When your ideologically determined goal is to restore the policies of the Coolidge administration, what sort of “substantive policy formation” do you actually need? That helps explain the constant confusion Republicans have distinguishing “policy” from “messaging” or packaging.

* A willingness to ignore established norms and play “Constitutional hardball”

Jonathan uses a felicitous term here: “constitutional conservatives” think their agenda is the only legitimate direction for the country; “established norms” are the lubricant that has made possible the destruction of constitutional government.

* A belief that when out of office, the best play is always all-out obstruction

When you view the enactment of positive legislation as inevitably adding to a Welfare State that went out of control fifty or seventy-five years ago, there’s rarely any downside to obstruction, and a lot of imputed virtue.

Are there non-ideological factors, Jonathan’s and others, that can explain Republican dysfunction? Of course. And there’s never one single “cause” for much of anything in politics. But my own personal Occam’s Razor sure keeps leading me back to ideology and extremism as impossible to ignore in the saga of the GOP’s, and thus the American political system’s, recent dysfunction.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.