The Republican Party is officially broken

Washington's problem isn't partisanship or a fatally flawed system. It's that one party is massively dysfunctional

Published April 6, 2013 10:00AM (EDT)

                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The American political system is not broken. What’s broken is the Republican Party. And it’s not clear how it will recover.

What’s wrong with American politics and what can be done about it is the question that election law expert Rick Hasen sets for himself in a fascinating new paper. In particular, he asks whether American politics is so broken that the only cure is to chuck the Constitution and replace it with a parliamentary system or some other radical systemic reform.

Hasen lays out the well-known case of dysfunction (perhaps best set out in Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein’s recent "It’s Even Worse Than It Looks") and considers, but mostly rejects, three possible rejoinders: that gridlock is actually what voters want; that gridlock is to some extent an illusion, and the system is more productive than frustrated partisans believe; and that dysfunction is real but could be cured by less-drastic measures such as Senate reform and electoral reform.

He concludes, however, that a fourth rejoinder — that it’s still too soon to tell and perhaps the current problems are transitory — may have merit. It’s certainly true, as he writes, that a 1970s belief that the presidency was broken yielded in the 1980s to presidential competence under Ronald Reagan. He could have added, too, that concern about impenetrable gridlock in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years was forgotten after the legislative triumphs of 1964 and 1965.

On all of this, I’m with him. The system does seem dangerously dysfunctional, but it’s not clear that it’s a long-term threat.

The key question, however, is the nature of the problem. Hasen sees it, as many do, as a mismatch between partisan polarization on the one hand and the U.S. Madisonian system on the other:

The source of these deadlocks over budget reform is hardly a mystery: It is the mismatch between highly ideological political parties and our divided form of government, which makes passing legislation difficult even in the absence of partisan deadlock. The partisanship of our political branches and mismatch with our structure of government raise this fundamental question: Is the United States' political system so broken that we should change the United States Constitution to adopt a parliamentary system, either a Westminster system as in the United Kingdom or a different form of parliamentary democracy? Such a move toward unified government would allow the Democratic or Republican parties to act in a unified way to pursue a rational plan on budget reform on other issues.

I think the emphasis on partisan polarization is misplaced. There’s nothing about strong partisanship that makes effective government in the U.S. impossible. That Hasen highlights budget problems makes this, in my view, especially clear. Budgets are, by their nature, fairly easy to cut deals on! Indeed: I suspect the game theorists might actually find that it should be easier for two well-organized parties to cut those deals, even if their ideal points are quite distant, than it would be to reach a deal between unstructured, factionalized parties, even if there are no extremists among them. During the current 113th Congress, all that should be needed is for the captains of both teams to find an agreeable midpoint, and budget issues can be solved.

And yet: dysfunction, crises, threats of shutdown and irrational outcomes no one claims to want.

My conclusion? It’s not partisanship. It’s not polarization. It’s not even extremism.

It’s the Republican Party. The GOP is broken. Not too conservative; not too extreme. I have no view of where the GOP “should” be ideologically, and I don’t think there’s much evidence that being “too conservative” per se is losing elections for Republicans.

But broken, nonetheless.

I can talk how and why. Unfortunately, what I don’t have is a fix — other than to say that a parliamentary system would, under current conditions, be even more of a disaster than the current very real consequences.

How did the Republican Party come to be broken?

Perhaps the biggest cause is the perverse incentives created by the conservative marketplace. Simply put, a large portion of the party, including the GOP-aligned partisan press and even many politicians, profit from having Democrats in office. Typically, democracies “work” in part because political parties have strong incentives to hold office, which causes them once they win to try hard to enact public policy that keeps people satisfied with their government. That appears to be undermined for today’s Republicans.

A second and related cause has to do with a spiraling insistence on ever-more-pure candidates in party primaries. To some extent, this is perfectly healthy. Party actors are able to use nominations to fight for their interests and for their preferred positions on public policy; in a healthy party, those fights are one of the best sources of real democracy in the political system. The danger in even the healthiest parties is that participation in nomination contests tends to be highest among those with the most extreme views, which can leave a party too far from median voters. In the GOP, however, there are strong incentives to constantly create new levels of purity, in many cases by creating purely symbolic differences and attempting to exploit them. Knowing of that threat, candidates don’t even need direct threats in many cases to make themselves easy marks for cranks attempting to pressure them.

In both of these causes, what seems to be at the root of it is a fairly enormous amount of money available to those who are willing to exploit it, whether it’s selling books or funding rogue candidates, as long as they present themselves as more-radical-than-thou.

The third cause is different, since as far as I can tell it’s simply caused by bad luck. Winning parties have a tendency to overlearn the lessons of their campaigns; winning candidates become role models for the party in the future. And the Republican Party, which has produced many impressive and honorable politicians over the years, has been unlucky in its winners — especially Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich, but also in many ways Ronald Reagan. The lessons they learned from those politicians and from the 1968, 1980 and 1994 victories have reinforced the worst instincts of party actors (even though the victories actually mainly had to do with economic and other fundamentals that had nothing to do with the lessons “learned”).

The result? A massively dysfunctional party, as they amply demonstrated over the last decade —think Iraq, Congressional corruption, economic collapse, and on and on. Just to give the basics:

  • An aversion to normal bargaining and compromise
  • An inability to banish fringe people and views from the mainstream of the party
  • An almost comical lack of interest in substantive policy formation
  • A willingness to ignore established norms and play “Constitutional hardball”
  • A belief that when out of office, the best play is always all-out obstruction

As I said at the beginning, I really don’t have any great solution to any of this. My guess is that while in theory it could be solved from the bottom up by activists or party-aligned groups who get fed up with it, the more likely solution will be that they’ll get lucky and win a presidential election with a nominee who somehow is able to handle the job and reform his party, in part by example. But it could take a long time for that to happen. Far more likely is that the next time Republicans win they’ll prove even more incapable of governing than they were during the George W. Bush presidency.

What I am confident about is that a political system in which the views of the majority party can easily and rapidly be translated into public policy would be extraordinarily dangerous under these conditions. In real-life parliamentary parties, all sorts of norms and rules tend to be put in place to dampen the extremism of an incoming government. For example, many nations have strong bureaucracies that can push back sharply against wild ideas from the incoming government; others have well-established corporatist systems that prevent extremism regardless of who is elected. Without those constraints — and with a tenuous connection to the healthy incentives for remaining in office — it’s not hard to imagine a catastrophic result.

At any rate, there’s no way to solve the problem unless the diagnosis is correct. The problem isn’t partisanship or polarization. The problem is the GOP.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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