Republicans will keep heading right!: What the media doesn't comprehend

Chattering classes are convinced Chris Christie will move GOP to the center. This totally misunderstands history

Published November 19, 2013 3:40PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Chris Christie                     (Reuters/Jim Bourg/Carlo Allegri)
Ted Cruz, Chris Christie (Reuters/Jim Bourg/Carlo Allegri)

Chris Christie's recent reelection victory has touched off a round of predictable nonsense in the chattering classes. Just as surely as it was obvious that groupthinking Democrats were foolishly giving Christie a pass in advance of the election, groupthinking elites across the spectrum are now touting variations on the idea that Christie — a supposed “moderate” — is just what the GOP needs to steer it back to the center, restoring its political relevance and winning the White House, just like Clinton did with the Democrats in 1992.  Of course, the notion that Christie's a moderate is absurd, as Elias Isquith quickly pointed out here at Salon the day after the election.

The media may eventually fall back to a more plausible take: that Christie, like George W. Bush before him, is a governing conservative, not a burn everything down conservative. It's a distinction that's not always easy to make when you look too closely at results (“Heckuva job, Brownie!”), and it's definitely situational in the long view, in light of Corey Robin's devastating demolition of the myth of “Burkean Conservatism” in "The Reactionary Mind," where he dwells and expands upon just how un-Burkean Burke himself became in "Letters on a Regicide Peace." But in the here-and-now, that difference certainly may register in terms of ability to soothe big business as a whole, and appeal beyond the base — especially when the media helps out, as it did during 1999 and 2000, painting Bush as a bipartisan Washington outsider (ignoring both President Pa, and Senator Grandpa) while falsely smearing Al Gore as a liar.

But it's a good deal harder to remake the other half of the narrative into anything close to reality.  Clinton definitely helped move the Democratic Party right (passing NAFTA, diminishing labor's influence in favor of Wall Street, signing onto Gingrich's version of “welfare reform”), no question about that — although his populist campaign, “putting people first,” sent a rather different message. But to the center? That's a mighty hard claim to square with the massive defeat the Democrats suffered two years later — losing the House for the first time since 1954, losing a majority of state governors for the first time since 1970 and losing control of a plurality of state legislatures for the first time since a 20-20 split in 1969 — losses that took more than a decade to fully recover from.  The Democrat's 1994 landslide losses ought to be enough to disrupt, if not refute the "move to the center" narrative. But for various reasons it's like catnip to the chattering classes. They just can't let go of it. Considering its attractiveness as a mirror-image narrative for what the GOP is facing now, a more critical look at what actually happened with the Democrats in the '80s and '90s is something that's long overdue.

To begin with, the “move to the center” narrative is implicitly based on the "median voter" school of political science analysis, which paradoxically assumes that low-information median voters are the crucial drivers in U.S. politics, while at the same time assuming they're sophisticated enough to move incrementally left or right, in careful calibration to how parties and candidate present themselves. The most potent, coherent counter theory comes from political scientist Thomas Ferguson, laid out in his 1995 book, "Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems." Ferguson builds on Mancur Olson's insight in "The Logic of Collective Action" that small groups with specific self-interested goals are more readily organized for political action than large groups representing broader, common interests.

Political action of any sort requires an investment of time and energy, simply to understand what's going on, Ferguson argues, building on the 1970s work of Samuel Popkin, a non-trivial investment whose burden for average citizens is routinely minimized, overlooked and/or ignored by most political scientists. A vibrant muckraking press or a vital labor movement can both lower those costs and make specific benefits more tangible, but even so, there is much more for small special interests to gain by investing not just time and energy, but also pots of money — which is why blocks of big donors play a much larger role in determining the contours of political power, forming the de facto core of political parties.

Among other things, Ferguson notes that if donor groups in neither party will invest in an idea, it will never be seriously debated, no matter how popular it might be.  Thus, when it comes to agenda setting, median voters need not apply. They do not create the cafeteria menu, they merely order from it.

A decade earlier, in 1986, Ferguson co-authored a book with Joel Rodgers, "Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics," in which they marshaled evidence showing that Democratic elites abandoned liberalism well before Clinton, during Carter's term in office. Among other things, they traced the rightward-shifting influence of those elites via precursors to the DLC, the vehicle that ultimately led Clinton to the White House. While the conventional wisdom portrays Mondale and Dukakis as liberal candidates, whose electoral failures pressed home the need for Democrats to move right “toward the center,” "Right Turn" helps to highlight how the rightward shift of Democratic Party elites contributed to those losses in advance, rather than following from them afterward.

“Basically the GOP moved steadily to the right; Dem elites followed right along, pretty much, on economic issues,” Ferguson said of this period, when I asked him to comment for this article.  (Indeed, his latest work on the 2012 election  shows this same basic dynamic still at play.) “Democratic financing in that period never varied,” he added. “Always led by investment bankers, high tech types, defense.”

Thus, what actually happened — and continues even now — was a rightward shift of the entire political class, regardless of public opinion generally. The “center” elite journalists are talking about is not the center of public opinion, as it pretends to be, but rather, the self-referential center of elite opinion, which they are tasked with helping to construct, legitimate, normalize and ultimately present as existing without any conceivable alternative.  This is particularly true on economic issues, where the public is far to the left of both political parties, as I discussed here recently.

Since that center was (and is) moving consistently to the right — except on a few key social issues, such as GLBT rights — Democrats who remained (and still remain) committed to long-standing majoritarian positions by definition were re-presented as being “partisan,” “out-of-touch,” “inflexible,” even “left,” “ideologues” and worse. Only Democrats who moved rightward along with everyone else in elite circles were deemed “centrist,” “pragmatic,” “willing to make tough choices,” etc., etc., etc.  Since the political elite as a whole was untethered from reality, no one ever noticed what bunk this all was.

Meanwhile, back in reality, over this same time period — despite Ronald Reagan's supposed prowess as “The Great Communicator” — the general public became steadily more liberal, rebounding from a conservative trend in the 1970s, as measured by the  broad, multi-issue measure of policy mood developed by political scientist James A. Stimson, who wrote, in "Tides of Consent":

Conservatism peaked with the election of Ronald Reagan; it was not produced by him. The 1980s did see pretty fundamental change in Washington, but even more than the 1960s, we can date it precisely. The first 100 days or so of the Reagan administration produced it all. The spring of 1981 saw Reagan's tax cut, his one serious effort to limit domestic spending, and the buildup of defense. The rest of the Reagan years, and the 1980s generally, were a time of conservative retreat.... Reagan was in command of teh budget battle of 1981, they key time in which priorities were reshaped rightward. Seven subsequent Reagan budgets were labeled "dead on arrival" when sent up to the Hill.

You might ask, “What kind of a price did House Democrats pay for defying Reagan like that?”  The answer is simple and quite revealing: Absolutely none.  Over the four elections in which Reagan was on the ballot or in the White House, Democrats won an average of 256 House seats to 179 for Republicans, a 77-seat margin. What's more, their smallest margin during this period was the first two years, before they had had a chance to square off against Reagan. That margin was 51 seats (the next smallest was 71), which was two seats more than the largest margin the GOP has ever managed since, in the 2010 midterms.  If the nation had moved sharply to the right with Reagan's election, and the House Democrats had failed to adapt, then surely there would have been at least some erosion of the Democratic majority over this time. But in fact, we see no such erosion at all.

Nor did anything change very much after Reagan left office. The figures were similar for the entire period 1980 to 1992, right up until the 1994 election: Democrats averaged an 82-seat margin in the House, with a 7-point margin in the popular vote during this period: 52.4 to 45.4 percent. It's simply impossible to square this record of consistent political dominance with a narrative casting Democrats as somehow out-of-touch with the American public.  Nor was there any significant trend: In 1992, the Democrats won an 82-seat margin, precisely the average of their previous six elections.  There simply was no evidence whatsoever that House Democrats were anything but in tune with the American electorate prior to Clinton's election.

The picture was similar among the nation's governors: Democrats dominated by an average 30-20 from 1981 to 1994, with a 36-15 high and a 26-24 low. Democrat's dominance of state legislatures was even more pronounced: an average of 29-10 with 10 split over this same period. In the Republicans' best year, 1981, they controlled 15 state legislatures to 28 for the Democrats. GOP control of state legislatures was in single digits every year from 1987 up to 1994. There was no need for Democrats to “move to the center.” They were already there.  In fact, they owned the place. It was the “center” of the political elites and the donor blocks they represent and reflect, which was moving away from the Democrats — and away from the American people as well.

It's worth noting that in the next six elections the Republicans won, from 1994 to 2004,  their average margin of victory was 2.6 points and 20 seats — far smaller than the margins that Democrats previously enjoyed, while their average vote share was under 50 percent: 49.2, to be exact.  That period of House Republican dominance depended on much smaller margins than the Democrats enjoyed. If anyone's House majority was built on shaky foundations detached from the center of American politics, it was not the pre-“move-to-the-center” Democrats, but the Gingrich/Hastert Republicans.

Nor was the House an anomaly, as I just noted above. These charts of raw numbers and percentages present the combined pictures of House, Senate, state legislatures and governorships, vividly illustrating how dramatically uncharacteristic the 1994 landslide losses were. This consistent evidence from every level of governance is hardly a sign that Clinton had successfully moved Democrats "to the center." In fact, it's the exact opposite: a portrait of a party that's lost its own center, as well as its connection with the center of the electorate.  The story after 1994 is strikingly similar at all levels: similarly slow recoveries, accelerating rapidly only in the 2006 cycle.

Contrasting this picture with presidential politics is most illuminating, once we set aside the tired clichés, and recall what the candidates actually said and focused on.

Mondale, for example, ran a frustrating campaign in 1984, pledging to raise taxes to balance the budget in response to Reagan's massive budget deficits.  There was relatively little focus on reprioritizing what government was spending money on — primarily a massive military buildup, which only had popular support for about a year in 1980/81 — and no focus at all on raising taxes specifically on the wealthy: Mondale told people bluntly that he would raise their taxes.

In 1988, the supposed “liberal” Dukakis explicitly disavowed ideology entirely.  "This election is not about ideology. It's about competence," Dukakis declared in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.  It's hard to discern any significant difference between this framing and that of Clinton or Obama. If anything, Clinton's language about “putting people first” represented campaigning to the left of Mondale and Dukakis, explicitly speaking the language of economic populism — though governing was another matter entirely.

“Let's begin with the obvious: Clinton's most immediate step in that move to the center was to abandon attempts to support employment coming out of the Bush recession,” Ferguson told me. “Though trashing Bush for that recession, his economic advisers were saying over and over that they did not support the traditional stimulus plans for combating unemployment. And that's what he did; raising taxes. None of that was particularly endearing to median voters, which is why he got creamed in 1994, rather like Obama.”

Another factor in 1994 was NAFTA. Toothless side agreements on labor and the environment were merely cosmetic. In passing NAFTA, Bill Clinton did what no Republican president could, so long as Democrats held the House.  He arm-twisted just enough Democrats to get it passed.  But he not only further depressed the Democratic base as a result, he also alienated Ross Perot and his supporters, creating an opening that Republicans were already looking to exploit. As Ronald Rappaport and Walter Stone explain in "Three's A Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot and Republican Resurgence":

Beginning with the February 1993 Republican postelection retreat, a group of Republican leaders, spearheaded by Newt Gingrich and John Kasich, established close ties with Perot and his UWSA organizations. Despite initial reluctance form other party leaders, including Bob Dole and Haley Barbour, Gingrich and his colleagues brought the Republican Party into line behind a Perot-base strategy. Most impressive in this effort was the Contract with America, which reflected both the form of Perot's checklist for candidates at the end of his book United We Stand America and many of the same issue priorities of Perot and his supporters, while ignoring issues—such as abortion and free trade—where differences between the GOP base and the Perot movement were sharp."

This strategy succeeded brilliantly.  While the Democratic base was depressed — as it would be again in 2010 — angered Perot voters provided Republicans the margin they needed to take over the House.  There was a  clear relationship between Perot voting strength in 1992 and Republican vote share and gain in seats in 1994 [chart here].  The authors went on to do a further analysis, based on the observed relationship and discovered:

Had Perot won the same popular vote as he captured in 1996 (8.4 percent, less than half of what he actually received in 1992), we estimate that the Republicans would have picked up about twenty-nine seats over what they held in 1992, leaving Democratic control intact. If the Republicans had gained twenty-nine seats, their performance would not have been exceptional for a midterm election--the average number of seats lost by the president's party between 1946 and 1990 was twenty-six.

These were not voters who were naturally attracted to the Republicans — they were, in many cases, voters whom the Democrats had abandoned when they lined up with Clinton to embrace NAFTA.  A simplistic left/right spectrum analysis simply cannot capture the choices presented to them — although it does capture the choices of politicians who abandoned them by moving to the right — not to the center.

It was only after the Contract With America that Republicans returned to nurturing their traditional voter base, expanding their majorities in the South over the next several cycles, while losing a number of the non-South districts they won in 1994.  Ferguson also mentioned the South to me. “In the South, especially, the Democratic decision to drop most economic issues, especially taxes, has led to steady losses,” he said, and cited, for a narrative account, Lynn Parramore's story at the time of the Democrat's 2012 convention, "The Secret of the Sauce: What Democrats Need to Know About North Carolina's Kick-Ass Populism," which traces North Carolina's Southern populist tradition all the way back to the Colonial Era. That's a very long history for supposedly savvy politicians to keep on ignoring.

Yet, the Perot voters who played such a pivotal role, but were soon left behind, were symptomatic of something far deeper — the repeated pattern of rising and falling party systems, whose driving forces are the complex of economic interests that serve to group businesses into competing party blocks.  When Republicans, for various reasons, stopped being the party of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility with the election of Ronald Reagan, they threw the everyday policy world into a period of prolonged, multifaceted chaos, as the decades-long pattern of rising average incomes came to an end.

But elites of both parties were ultimately responding to a changing world, with rising new challenges from abroad and the rapid erosion of forces constraining them from below — which had never been all that strong to begin with.  Together, these are forces that both reflect and reinforce the rapidly growing phenomena of economic inequality — income, wealth and political purchasing power.   The left-right spectrum for median voters is increasingly more like a holographic projection cast down from on high by competing elites with the means to control the illusions presented to us as everyday politics, or more commonly, simply as spectacle. This is why, for example, there are very real parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, right alongside vast differences.

If the “move-to-the-center” narrative of the Democrats' past is false, what does this say about the future?  For one thing, there's no sign that elites of either party are ready to start moving left, except on gay rights, as they already are, and perhaps guns and one or two other niche issues.

Before going further, a reflection on where we are now is in order — caught in the aftermath of a 1994 repeat, the 2010 midterms in which Republicans won more state legislature seats than any time since 1928. The mass-elite split in Obama's politics are particularly instructive here. He ran with a relatively detail-free message of “hope and change” for the masses, combined with a strong reliance on donors who helped cause all our problems in the first place. In fact, Ferguson called attention to this in April 2008, drawing on fundraising data from before the first primary vote was cast. In a brief note at Talking Points Memo, titled “Financial Regulation? Don't Get Your Hopes Up,” he noted that Obama got 36 percent of his funding from the financial sector, compared to 28 percent for Clinton and 57 percent for Dodd.  McCain lead all Republicans with a matching 36 percent.

The results — leading directly to the 2010 disaster — were entirely predictable. As Harvard law professor Larry Lessig wrote in August 2010, he wasn't criticizing Obama as a lefty, for “failing our Lefty test,” but for failing his own test. “[H]e is not delivering the presidency that he promised,” Lessig wrote, quoting Obama himself from the campaign:

[U]nless we're willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change. And the reason I'm running for president is to challenge that system.

Instead, Lessig noted, “Obama's strategy as president has not been to 'change the way Washington works.' Rather, he has pushed reforms in the same old way, with the same old games.” While endless attention has been focused on Obama's failed efforts to build consensus with nihilistic Republicans, it's amazing how little attention has been focused on this other aspect of the change he promised—unless, of course, you see it as one more piece of evidence of just how completely the donor classes shape our political discourse.

With this in mind, it's no surprise Ferguson would find that "Firms in many of the industries directly involved in the surveillance programs were relative bastions of support for the President," as he wrote in "Who Buys the Spies? The Hidden Corporate Cash Behind America’s Out-of-Control National Surveillance State," the first of a series of co-authored stories running on AlterNet, based on his 2012 findings.  So much for hope and change.

On the GOP side, Ferguson told me, “The Tea Party has had substantial big business support” — a point that seems to elude most commentators — “Mostly industries with obvious beefs against Obama over regulation, including environmental regulation. But there is also evidence that big business somewhat mistrusts the Tea Party. I am not sold yet that there is a decisive break with the Tea Party among the GOP. That may be happening, but if the issues veer back to budgets and taxes, the Tea Party reps will again be useful. Somebody, after all, has to throw Grandma over the side if you want chained CPI. Moderates may hesitate.”

He went on to cite immigration and “the willingness to build up and use power abroad” as two other dividing lines that are likely to emerge as important — on the latter issue, “Christie there is at one end; Rand Paul at the other,” he noted.  While not news to anyone, the donor dimension to these divisions is rarely the subject of discussion.

What's most notable, for present purposes, is the complete lack of any GOP donor block that would work to steer the GOP “back to the center” in any sort of coherent way. It's hardly surprising. The more unequal that wealth and power become, the less and less likely it is that any donor block on either side would act to move either party to the left — where the disenfranchised median voters of America have been left behind.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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1990s Bill Clinton Centrism Chris Christie Democrats George Bush Gop Media Criticism Republican Party