Yet, as political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue convincingly in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, there are scant public opinion data to suggest that is so. They cite political scientist James Stimson, who’s been recording the “national mood” through a survey of over 200 questions for over two decades and finds Americans no more conservative today than they were in 1972. National Election Survey data reveals that Americans are less likely than they were in the ’70s to say that the government is “too powerful,” and the percentages of the electorate that identify as liberal and conservative respectively have remained unchanged for nearly three decades. “It is striking,” they write, “that across all of the major left-right issues, one is hard pressed to find any evidence that Americans are markedly more conservative today than they were in the recent (and even relatively distant) past.”
So what gives? That, of course, is the big question occupying progressive writers, academics, and public intellectuals of all stripes, and if Off Center’s answers aren’t entirely novel, the book’s detail, specificity, and comprehensiveness make it a vital contribution. Two key trends are at work according to Hacker and Pierson: the growing numerical and financial strength of the Republican base and the GOP’s refinement of a variety of tactical gambits–unified mostly by their reliance on subterfuge–to subvert the normal mechanisms that prevent majority coalitions from pushing through a radical agenda. All of this combines to produce “a systematic weakening of the institutional bonds that connect ordinary voters with elected politicians to ensure that American politics remains on center.”
One standard view of the American constitutional system is that its checks, balances, diffuse power, and obstacles at every turn invest the most power in those closest to the center of the political spectrum: the independent voters and centrist legislators who can tip the scales in favor of a candidate or piece of legislation. According to this view, when the “the public and the base conflict,” Hacker and Pierson write, “the public wins.” But in the last several decades, the economic base of the GOP–the top fifth of income earners (which vote for and contribute overwhelmingly to the GOP)–has become far wealthier and far more politically involved than it once was. At the same time, the migration of the South into the Republican column has removed what was once a kind of centrist anchor. Southern politicians were generally extreme, even viciously conservative on social issues, but often downright liberal on economics; when Barry Goldwater floated the idea of privatizing the Tennessee Valley Authority, Southern supporters rushed to denounce the idea. The conversion of Southern conservative Democrats into free-market crusaders and Republican partisans has created such a large conservative base that Karl Rove and Tom DeLay need to poach only a relatively small number of independents and moderates in order to win elections or pass legislation.
If there’s a wicked genius in the GOP strategy, it’s in understanding that they can get enough of these moderate votes without actually moderating the content of their policies. Take the first set of tax cuts pushed through by the GOP in 2001–even before, the authors note, the president gained the political capital of a wartime leader. At the time, dozens of polls showed that tax cuts were simply not a priority of the American public. As Bush was sworn in, just 5 percent of voters polled said that taxes were the nation’s “most important problem,” and when given a choice between spending on programs like Social Security and Medicare or tax cuts, tax cuts garnered support from barely a quarter of those polled. The administration knew all this full well. Treasury official Michele Davis wrote in a memo to then-secretary Paul O’Neill (reprinted in the book): “The public prefers spending on things like health care and education over cutting taxes.”
Here, then, was the first time the administration was faced with the fundamental obstacle to implementing the Gilded Age governing vision of its benefactors and leaders: The policies that would enrich its wealthy base were not those the general public wanted. But the Bush administration understood something profound about public opinion, something Hacker and Pierson only implicitly allude to but don’t quite seem to grasp. Polls might be the best way of figuring out the public’s stance on a wide variety of issues, but insofar as they carve the world into issue categories, they build in a way of thinking about politics that isn’t necessarily reflective of what motivates people when they actually cast their ballots. If you ask the public if the growing deficit is a problem, they say “yes” overwhelmingly, but in the words of one Bush aide “Name me one person who has lost an election because of the deficit.” In other words: It doesn’t matter what people think about issues, it only matters what they vote on. In this respect, Bush is telling the truth when he says he doesn’t listen to the polls. He realizes that on a whole host of issues, he doesn’t have to.
And the tax cuts are another perfect example. Tax cuts are a kind of political junk food. If you ask Americans if they want them, they may say no, but when they’re actually right there in front of the voter on the plate, they’re hard to resist. Instead of choosing between its wealthy paymasters and the public at large, the GOP figured out a way to have their tax cuts and eat them, too. They just had to muddy the waters long enough to get them passed. So they lied about both the intentions and the effects of the policy–Davis told O’Neill it was “crucial that your remarks make clear that there is no trade-off” between the tax cuts and spending on other programs. And more insidiously, they structured the cuts themselves in such a way as to hide their intent and effect. Republicans front-loaded the few benefits there were for the middle class while slowly phasing in the porcine pay-offs for the uber wealthy. And they inserted sunset provisions to reduce the putative cost of the tax cuts despite the fact they knew they’d be able to browbeat enough legislators into making the cuts permanent. Once it was all done, despite the outcries from progressive critics, the public simply shrugged it off.
The process that produced the 2001 tax cuts has been repeated ad nauseum in the years that have followed, resulting in–just to name a few–three additional successive tax cuts, the Patriot Act rammed through under the cover of night, and the Medicare boondoggle. In all these cases, the problem, Hacker and Pierson argue, is not that policies are complex but rather that the policy features “are designed to hide what policies are really doing while deliberately restricting the scope for future democratic choice.” To those who have been following politics for the last several years, this is nothing new. But the authors do a fine job of documenting the extent to which the GOP, rather than using its political power to create policies, uses its policies to advance its political agenda.
It would be nave to assert that this is entirely novel: All effective politicians use policies for political purposes. But Hacker and Pierson point out just how totally the aims of governance have been subsumed in the aims of furthering GOP hegemony. John DiIulio, who directed the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and whose critiques are heavily cited in the book, pointed out in a 2002 letter to journalist Ron Suskind that the total domination of politics over policy in the Bush White House is completely unprecedented: “In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussionsthe lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking.”
What DiIulio describes is the inner workings of a classic political machine, the guiding ethos of which, in the legendary phrasing of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, makes no distinction between politics and policy. “Good politics is good government,” Hizzoner used to say, “and good government is good politics.” The Rove/DeLay/ Norquist machine, in this respect, is no different than its predecessors. It seeks what all machines seek: to discredit, manipulate, intimidate, or marginalize any source of power outside the machine itself.
The second half of Off Center describes in detail how the “Republican Machine” works, how it rewards friends and punishes enemies, and how it has neutered or annihilated the moderates in its midst. Broken up into clear subsections with apt coinages like “backlash insurance”–the ways party leaders protect legislators from constituent disgust with the party’s radical direction–Hacker and Pierson lay out in sober detail the various ruses the “New Power Brokers” employ: robbing committee chairs of their independence by instituting term limits, using the House Rules Committee (which has nine Republicans and four Democrats) to quietly kill threatening amendments, utilizing obscure administrative rules to institute broad policy changes, holding floor votes open while arms are twisted to pass legislation, shutting Democrats out of conference committees where corporate pork can be larded onto already-passed legislation away from the minority party’s prying eyes, tightly coordinating different factions of the right, and– as Nicholas Confessore first reported in these pages–bullying lobbying firms into hiring only Republicans.
Most pernicious are the “time-bombs” GOP lawmakers insert into legislation, whereby they intentionally ignore or exacerbate emerging policy problems, such as the Alternative Minimum Tax, with the hope of creating future crises that can serve as cover for further radical measures.
As lurid as the details are, one can’t help but ask: Why didn’t previous majorities do this sort of thing? Tip O’Neill was a smart guy. Why didn’t he provide his members with “backlash insurance,” or change the Ethics Committee rules so that the majority party could single-handedly stop an investigation? While Off Center never explicitly addresses this question, the implicit answer is a simple as it is disturbing. Much of what kept prior governing coalitions in check were informal, generally agreed-upon norms rather than black-letter law or immutable rules. Consider that for years state legislatures have, as a matter of custom, redistricted congressional districts only every 10 years, following new census data. There was nothing stopping a majority party from engineering a mid-decade redistricting for its own partisan advantage other than a generalized sense it would be cheating to do so. Such considerations mean little to Tom DeLay and Karl Rove.
The picture of the GOP’s leadership that emerges from Off Center resembles nothing so much as Louis XIV, who was able to consolidate power in the French monarchy by recognizing that much of what limited the king’s political power were ultimately social and cultural norms, norms which Louis ingeniously undermined. He was, in short, an innovator, a power entrepreneur who recognized that the “rules” that kept the king in check could be subverted and altered, and that the fractured nature of the aristocracy could be leveraged and manipulated to his advantage.
But there’s a structural aspect to the GOP’s dominance as well. Machines thrive on a dearth of information, which is why they are so effective in electing “downticket” candidates. You may be able to make up your mind about who you want to vote for mayor, but when it comes to the 12 names on the ballot for Water Reclamation District or circuit judge, you’re likely to pull the lever for whomever’s on the palm card your precinct captain slipped you because that’s simply the only thing you have to go on. In Washington today, it is the information “haves”–most notably corporate America and interest groups on both sides–who hold policy makers to account, while the information “have nots”–the majority of the American populace–have literally no idea what the hell is even going on. The GOP’s repeated and brazen give-aways to the powerful, the connected, and the super-rich are like crimes committed in broad daylight in front of a blindfolded crowd.
The blame for this can’t all be laid at Tom DeLay’s feet. If there’s a gap in Hacker and Pierson’s account it is the glancing treatment they give to the parallel stories of how oppositional forces such as labor unions, the press, and most obviously the Democratic Party have either withered or failed to hold the machine accountable. The GOP didn’t rise to power in a vacuum, and despite the body blows the party has landed to the mechanism of self-governance, the nation remains a democracy in which citizens choose between alternatives by means of elections. If people are voting for a party with which they fundamentally disagree on a whole host of issues, then the opposition party has more than a little bit to do with that.
While some of the reforms Hacker and Pierson propose in the book’s final chapter are no doubt warranted, the first step in any structural reform is to pry the machine’s fingers off the steering wheel of power. In this case, the destruction of the GOP monopoly and the restoration of accountable governance fall to progressives, liberals, moderates, and a whole host of other coalition members in the big dysfunctional tent that is the Democratic Party. We had better get our act together soon because as Off Center suggests, the longer a machine stays in power, the harder it is to beat.