A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll tells us what most of us already know: from an electoral perspective, the Republican Party’s meticulously planned partial government shutdown has been a disaster. The poll results have – quite predictably – prompted much gloating and taunting in the Democratic Party’s corner of the twittersphere and cable news universe. But lost in the red-versus-blue prognostication are two concrete – and lamentable – facts.
First and foremost, the trends documented by the new survey are hardly a huge problem for most of the Republican Party’s powerbrokers. That’s because the GOP is now a largely regional party that has effectively gerrymandered itself a separate country - one that is politically insulated from national public opinion.
Second, and as important, regardless of the partisan implications of the shutdown, the government shutdown and budget standoff are huge ideological victories for the conservative movement, because they have so successfully yanked the political discourse even farther to the right.
One way to see this latter reality is to behold the changing perception of sequestration. Only months ago, those draconian budget cuts were seen as way too radical an expression of the right’s drown-government-in-the-bathtub agenda. But then the conservative movement pushed the envelope even further by engineering a shutdown – not of the whole government, mind you, but only of the specific parts of the government it loathes. That quickly pulled the budget debate to the far right by making sequestration spending levels the “moderate” compromise position – the one that the Democratic president is now willing to accept as the new normal.
An even better way to see how the government shutdown is a conservative ideological victory is to read between the lines of this New York Times report about the alleged tension between the GOP’s corporate wing and its Tea Party wing. Democratic partisans no doubt read this piece with glee, because the GOP country clubbers’ anger at the Tea Party extremists may augur disunity – and that may mean problems for Republicans in the relatively few locales which still host competitive general elections. But when looked at as a reflection of ideological trends, the Times piece is actually a report on how the manufactured center of America’s political discourse is now lurching even farther to the right of the true center of mainstream public opinion.
That shift was summarized in this passage of the Times piece (emphasis added):
(Corporate executives’) frustration has grown so intense in recent days that several trade association officials warned in interviews on Wednesday that they were considering helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington…
Joe Echevarria, the chief executive of Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, said, “I’m a Republican by definition and by registration, but the party seems to have split into two factions.”
While both parties have extreme elements, he suggested, only in the G.O.P. did the extreme element exercise real power. “The extreme right has 90 seats in the House,” Mr. Echevarria said. “Occupy Wall Street has no seats.”
Echevarria is correct that those representing the Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist have almost no power in Congress, but that’s primarily due to a moneyed election system which prevents most corporate-challenging progressives from raising enough cash to win. As polls show, it isn’t due to a lack of mass public support for a progressive agenda.
This is where the manipulation of the word “extreme” comes in. For years, surveys have shown broad public support for Occupy Wall Street’s core agenda of higher taxes on the rich, stronger regulation of Wall Street and policies to combat economic inequality. At the same time, polls show barely any public support for the Tea Party. Yet, despite all that, the political vernacular in Washington now equates the two sides as similarly “extreme,” thus pretending the genuinely fringe Tea Party agenda has at least as much public support as a widely popular progressive economic agenda. PR and credibility-wise, that distortion unto itself is huge net win for the right.
But, then, the shift to the right also goes beyond mere language and to political mechanics. As the Times documents, the new center of gravity in American politics – the place that ultimately determines policy outcomes – is no longer the place where a right-leaning Republican Party does battle with a more moderate Democratic Party. Because the filibuster and Hastert Rule have allowed the GOP to thwart national election mandates and unilaterally commandeer public policymaking, the new center of gravity is largely within the Republican coalition – and that has fundamentally altered public policymaking.
In this new arena, the Democratic Party is the far “left” edge of the political spectrum, despite it being – by recent historical comparisons – an economically conservative party reminiscent of the GOP ten or twenty years ago. At the same time, the new mainstream right is Tea Party extremism. Meanwhile, the supposedly sensible center is what you might call Chamber of Commerce Conservatism – aka the reliably conservative agenda of Corporate America.
Though the Times quotes Chamber of Commerce types feigning despair about the Tea Party, that is almost certainly all part of a kabuki theater production that gives the corporatists what they’ve always dreamed of: a political arena that portrays their unpopular right-wing agenda as the mainstream center, and depicts the widely popular agenda of genuine progressives as not even part of the conversation. In this arena, even though corporatism is an ideologically conservative force, it is no longer seen as even conservative. It is seen as apolitical centrism – the normal by which everything else is judged, framed and marginalized.
So, sure — outside their gerrymandered strongholds, Republicans may pay some sort of price at the polls. And sure, you can go ahead and ridicule the GOP for that. But keep in mind that however fun that may be and however reassuring it may feel, it is a defense mechanism – one that allows you to ignore the inconvenient fact that there is, indeed, a method to conservatives’ madness. They have successfully pushed the political conversation farther to the right than ever before – and that will probably have terrible consequences long after the government re-opens.