With the government open and the debt ceiling lifted, one could be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, what President Obama famously called the GOP’s “fever” has been broken. After all, the whole two-week drama was by any reasonable standard a political disaster for the GOP, one that resulted in their gaining essentially nothing while, in the process, losing quite a lot. If ever a political party would have its “come to Jesus” moment, you’d think it would happen right after it saw a second consecutive poll showing favorability ratings at an all-time low. In most cases, you’d probably be right. But when it comes to the contemporary Republican Party, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong.
“See, we’re going to start this all over again.” That’s what John Fleming, the Tea Party-aligned congressman from Louisiana, promised the New York Times at the end of the government shutdown debacle. And while it’d be easy, and even reassuring, to chalk Fleming up as just a wing-nut back-bencher, the fact is that 144 of the House’s 231 Republicans voted against the shutdown deal and for national default. So did Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz — all likely presidential aspirants. Fleming, in short, is hardly a wild-eyed aberration. He’s in the current GOP’s mainstream.
It’s tempting to believe that these members of Congress are beholden to a small fringe of activist ideologues and big money zealots, and that they are consequently less than entirely legitimate representatives of the public will. Lord knows it’s not hard to link back most of their funding to the Koch brothers or other hyper-rich and socially isolated members of the plutocratic class. But the truth is more disturbing. In reality, these Republicans, while no doubt extreme in their tactics, represent a significant segment of the population. When they say they’re merely living up to the promises they made to their constituents on the campaign trail, they’re not lying or being self-delusional. They’re telling the truth.
Yes, gerrymandering plays a huge role in all of this. But while gerrymandering certainly has more than a whiff of artificiality about it, it’s the districts it creates that are suspect — not the voters within them. On this score, a recent New York Times article offers a useful case-in-point. In the piece, the Times’ journalist travels to Georgia’s blood-red 14th district, a recent creation of the state’s legislature, to find out what the voters there thought about the government shutdown. What they found is that these voters — who are real people and not astro-turfed activists in disguise — strongly supported their intransigent congressman, Tom Graves. If anything, they worried he wasn’t extreme enough. “If he backs off, then I would say absolutely I’d be inclined to look for someone else,” one told the Times.
You don’t have to rely on mere anecdote, either. Public opinion polling has shown repeatedly that Republican voters value prefer politicians who will make an ideological stand over those they perceive as more willing to bite the bullet and strike a compromise. A September Gallup poll, for example, found that while only 25 percent of adults said it was more important for a politician to “stick to beliefs,” that number ballooned to 33 percent for conservatives and 36 percent for Republicans. A January Pew poll, too, found that while 59 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Independents chose politicians who would make compromises with the other side, only 36 percent of Republicans did the same.
So when Republicans threaten armageddon rather than compromise on their fundamental beliefs — and make no mistake, opposition to Obamacare has indeed become a fundamental GOP belief — it’s not an example of the system breaking down. It’s not a case of the Koch brothers thwarting the general will. It’s not about a bunch of crazy politicians acting like spoiled children. It’s something that’s arguably much scarier than that. It’s democracy in action, ensuring that for today, tomorrow, and well into the future, the fever that’s consumed Barack Obama’s presidency, and the nation with it, will not break.