Cynical exploits of cynicism

CYNICAL EXPLOITS OF CYNICISM…. After taking note of Martha Johnson, whose GSA nomination was held up for nine months by one far-right senator, only to have her win unanimous confirmation, Matt Yglesias raises an important point that’s often overlooked.

The public is always a bit skeptical about the capacity of the government to deliver effective public service. And obstructionist senators are doing everything possible to feed that skepticism. Finding a way to fight it effectively is critical to the progressive cause.

Right. At its core, the conservative Republican ideology is built around the notion that government is an inherently unreliable tool that doesn’t work and isn’t to be trusted. What’s more, they realize that Americans are, almost by nature, cynical about the process. So, when conservative Republicans are elected to top government posts, they have an incentive to exploit that cynicism.

How? By doing everything humanly possible to present government as an unreliable tool that doesn’t work and isn’t to be trusted.

When Republicans take obstructionism to levels unseen in American history, it’s tempting to think the public would be disgusted and Republicans would be punished. But it doesn’t work that way — the public only recognizes the broader dysfunction, grows more cynical about government, concludes that politicians “can’t deliver” on their promises, and concludes that the whole system has been corrupted.

And it’s that antipathy that, ironically, ends up rewarding the very people who are responsible for undermining the political process in the first place. Ezra Klein touched on this earlier:

What Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole proved was that you could make the people angry at Washington if you ground all business to a halt and raised the volume of the partisan bickering till it deafened voters. If Americans were dedicated students of the congressional process, they might respond to gridlock by punishing the people who’re responsible for it. But only a quarter of Americans can identify 60 votes as the number needed to break a filibuster. Another 25 percent think it’s 51 votes, and the rest don’t really know. When people are angry at Washington, they do the logical thing and take it out on the folks who’re putatively running the place.

That congressional rules give the minority the power to decide the success of the majority’s agenda is so unintuitive that it’s pretty much impossible to run elections based off the concept. Even when the voters do turn on incumbents, the majority of the incumbents come from whichever party holds the gavel, so the election is looks like a repudiation of the majority.

Voters don’t know or care about procedural hurdles, cloture votes, secret holds, or filibusters. They know when things are working, when bills are passing, and when their leaders are delivering. The GOP minority, then, has no qualms about abusing institutional norms and preventing the governing majority from functioning, since the dysfunction suits their purposes.

As far as I can tell, the only way to change the dynamic is to introduce electoral incentives that discourages the cycle. Unless voters punish obstructionism, voters inadvertently encourage it.