Everything in Moderation: Part II

At the top of the show today, we talked about the myth of bipartisanship, the futility of Democrats, including the president, wasting time trying to persuade Republicans to go along with them on policies that are good for the country.

It totally makes sense in the abstract if people can agree on what needs to be done to solve the country‘s problems than those policies, even if they‘re big policies, should get votes from everyone who‘s in agreement.

In the abstract that‘s how it works. In Washington, that is not at all how it works…

None of this is a secret, which is the most important thing to understand about it. Republicans right now do not care about policy. By which I mean, they will not vote for things that even they admit are good policies…

And they are unembarrassed about this fact. They are not embarrassed. Charging them with hypocrisy, appealing to their better, more practical, more what‘s-best-for-the-country patriotic angels is like trying to teach your dog to drive.

It wastes a lot of time. It won‘t work. And ultimately the dog comes out of the exercise less embarrassed for failing than you do for trying.

–Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, February 9, 2010.

I was reminded of this Maddow monologue as I read David Roberts’s recent outstanding pieces on the economic logic of taking action on climate change, and why such economic logic has been rejected by the right. Roberts observes:

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist

Last year, Ezra Klein wrote up some interesting new research on enduring differences between the Democratic and Republican parties in the US. Here’s how the researchers summarize their findings: “The Republican Party is dominated by ideologues who are committed to small-government principles, while Democrats represent a coalition of social groups seeking public policies that favor their particular interests.”

As Klein writes, “The word ‘ideologue’ is a technical term within political science but an insult within American politics. There is nothing wrong with approaching politics ideologically — and that’s particularly true when you compare it to the major alternatives, which are approaching it transactionally or as a pure partisan.” So perhaps a simpler way of putting the conclusion is that the Republican Party is motivated by a general philosophy while Democrats are motivated by specific policies they want to achieve.

These motivations, the researchers argue, are entirely rational given demographic realities (more on that in a second), and help explain quite a bit about the workings of modern politics. New policy, even when it’s passed by Republican presidents, tends to “expand the scope of government responsibility, funding, or regulation.” So it’s no wonder that Republicans are more content with gridlock and more likely to punish compromise.

But the differing natures of the two parties often lead to confusion based upon projection: Republicans often assume Democrats are being more ideological than they are; Democrats are often baffled by Republicans’ refusal to accept half a loaf in policy negotiations.

The parties are not mirror images at all. They are different beasts entirely. And it’s important to understand how they got that way.

In postwar, mid-20th-century America, there was a period of substantial bipartisanship, and it powerfully shaped the way political and economic elites think about US politics. The popular picture of how politics works — reaching across the aisle, twisting arms, building coalitions behind common-sense policy — has clung to America’s self-conception long after the underlying structural features that enabled bipartisanship fundamentally shifted.

What enabled bipartisanship was, to simplify matters, the existence of socially liberal Republicans in the Northeast and Democrats in the South who were fiscally conservative and virulently racist. Ideologically heterogeneous parties meant that transactional, cross-party coalitions were relatively easy to come by.

Over the past several decades, the parties have polarized, i.e., sorted themselves ideologically (that’s what the GOP’s “Southern strategy” was about). Racist conservative Democrats became Republicans and social liberals became Democrats. The process has now all but completed: The rightmost national Democrat is now to the left of the leftmost national Republican.

Crucially, however, the process of polarization has been asymmetrical. While almost all liberals have become Democrats and almost all conservatives have become Republicans, far more Republicans self-identify as conservative than Democrats do as liberal, and consequently the GOP has moved much further right than the Democratic Party has left.

Part of the explanation is that there has been a demographic sorting as well. The demographics that tend Democrat — minorities, single women, young people, LGBTQ folks, academics, and artists — cluster in the “urban archipelago” of America’s cities. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has increasingly become the voice of white people who live around other white people in rural and suburban areas, where they have been radicalized by burgeoning right-wing media and a network of ideologically conservative think tanks and lobbying groups.

It is not surprising that small-government ideology appeals to people who view government as a mechanism whereby special interest groups make claims on their resources, values, and privileges. Conservative whites, freaked out by hippies in the ’60s, blacks in the ’70s, communists in the ’80s, Clintons in the ’90s, Muslims in the ’00s, and Obama more recently, are now more or less permanently freaked out, gripped by a sense of “aggrieved entitlement,” convinced that they are “losing their country.” (If only someone would come along and promise to make it great again!)

As the GOP has grown more demographically and ideologically homogeneous, it has become, in the memorable words of congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, “a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

As the ongoing Republican primary is revealing in gruesome detail, asymmetrical polarization seems a long way from burning itself out.

Roberts notes that the radicalization of the GOP poses an obvious problem for those who argue that a bipartisan solution to the climate crisis—specifically in the form of federal revenue-neutral carbon tax legislation—is within reach:

I see this kind of political naivete among carbon tax supporters quite a bit. A revenue-neutral tax is “politically moot” only if you envision politics as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides’ criteria are met. It makes sense that every politician “should” support any policy in those sweet spots.

It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever. (Ezra Klein once asked Grover Norquist about a revenue-neutral carbon tax, actually. Norquist warned that “a Republican Party which creates a new tax would not be long for the world.”)

And it’s a coalition that draws substantial support from companies involved in fossil fuels and suburban sprawl — though, side note: Big oil is less likely to oppose a carbon tax than big coal.

It also ignores the fact that the Democratic Party is a fractious coalition of interest groups, many of which, especially in key electoral states, are highly invested in fossil fuels.

In fact, the failure of a revenue-neutral carbon tax to gain support beyond wonk circles (and, uh, British Columbia) is the most predictable thing in the world if you have a tree trunk of knowledge about US politics.

Will the politics of climate change shift in the United States anytime soon? Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) suggests that the GOP will have to move from sarcasm to solutions sooner rather than later:

For those who worry that pricing carbon will drag down our economy, here’s the other part of the equation: Return the revenue from the carbon fee back to the people, either through direct payments or by lowering taxes.

A study by Regional Economic Models Inc. (REMI) looked at this type of policy, factoring in an annual increase of $10 per ton on the carbon dioxide content of fossil fuels. REMI found that after 20 years, emissions would be reduced by 52 percent. More impressive, though, was that the policy would add 2.8 million jobs over 20 years because of the carbon-fee revenue being recycled into the economy.

Leading conservatives like George Shultz, who was secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, have endorsed this solution, calling it an “insurance policy” against the risk – whatever it may be – posed by climate change.

Now that President Obama has released new Environmental Protection Agency regulations to reduce carbon emissions at power plants, conservatives will step up opposition to a plan they view as big-government overreach. Expect lawsuits, threats of a government shutdown, and heated rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail.

Do opponents really want or need to go down this path?

In previous standoffs, public opinion proved very harsh for the GOP. With opinion polls showing two-thirds of Americans supporting the new EPA rules, attacking them seems like a strategy that’s all risk and no reward.

The problem is that congressional Republicans haven’t come to the table on the climate issue, and if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. By not being engaged, the GOP has ceded climate-change policy to an executive branch that is imposing more government regulations, the least desirable solution Republicans can imagine.

But just saying “no” to EPA regulations is not a viable option, either politically or environmentally. Why not, then, offer an alternative solution that adheres to conservative values? Tell the American people, We have an effective solution that…

Uses the power of the free market, rather than the government, to drive both innovation and reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Does not increase the size and control of government.

Protects American businesses and expands the economy.

As Republicans cast about for a new talking point on climate change, the ones who come to the table with a revenue-neutral plan to price carbon will eventually be hailed as visionaries, preservers of a livable world, and saviors of their party.

One of them might even win the White House.

Roberts and Inglis cannot both be right. Either the Republican Party and the conservative movement will reject climate science and climate solutions in perpetuity, or this right-wing storm will soon pass and the GOP will come back to policy-based rationality. I don’t know the answer. I fear that it will be decades before denialism fades from the Republican Party and the conservative movement. I hope I’m wrong. I sense I’m not.

UPDATE: Do economists Greg Mankiw and Yoram Bauman really believe that “the left” is the biggest obstacle to federal carbon-pricing legislation in the U.S.? Where’s the evidence for that assertion?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.