Since the GOP regained the House and the Tea Party faction took over the party four years ago, House Republicans have refused to compromise at every turn. This is a problem.
Consider the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, the latest victory for the no-compromise camp. Make no mistake, Boehner resigned because he knew the most conservative members of the House Republican caucus – the members most closely associated with the Tea Party – were gunning for him. He quit before he could be fired.
Boehner was and remains one of the most conservative speakers in history, maintaining a lifetime conservative score of 94 out of 100 from the American Conservative Union. Still, Boehner was targeted because he was willing to cut deals with Democrats.
Compromise is key if democracy is to function effectively. Tea Party Republicans' unwillingness to compromise has already had significant consequences for the nation.
Their steadfast refusal to compromise resulted in the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, despite an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the Senate. Further, the GOP’s refusal to recognize the Affordable Care Act led to a government shutdown in 2013. And now they’ve threatened another shutdown over the funding of Planned Parenthood.
Of course, House Republicans have defended their refusal to compromise by citing conservative principles. The proposed immigration bill, with its path to citizenship, would have rewarded those who have broken the law, they say. Not compromising on the ACA is an essential expression of conservative opposition to an expansion of state power. Defunding Planned Parenthood is an essential battle based on their belief in the right to life.
The problem with all these sensible-sounding propositions is that they don’t explain why conservative icons agreed to compromise in the past. Consider the Founding Fathers, a group often invoked by House conservatives and revered by many in the Tea Party.
While the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had sharp disagreements, they eventually compromised. Each side respected the other’s commitment to the good of the nation, and together created the model of modern democracy.
Beyond the Founders, the other icon of today’s GOP is President Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most revered figure among American conservatives. Yet he cut many deals with congressional Democrats, not least of which was a law granting amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants.
History shows that John Boehner was simply following in a grand tradition by negotiating compromises across the aisle. So, why was Boehner forced to surrender his gavel? Why is the Tea Party faction so dead set against compromise? The late historian Richard Hofstadter provides a clue. He argued that in the 1960s, some on the right found a changing America deeply frightening; they opposed the civil rights movement and wished to hold fast to the status quo.
Political scientist Matt Barreto and I have argued that the Tea Party is similar to what Hofstadter observed in the 1960s. Tea Party House members represent Americans who are anxious about the social changes that have taken place in the United States in the last few years. These changes include the election of the first non-white president, the increasing visibility of women in positions of power, the gay rights revolution, and the push to increase the rights of undocumented immigrants.
Healthy democracies require a loyal opposition – an opposition that fights against the policy priorities of the majority party, but that places the good of the nation above its own political goals, and is willing to make compromises when the good of the nation is at stake. But a constituency riven with anxiety about a changing society cannot easily compromise. And so House Republicans who represent Tea Party-dominated districts cannot compromise, either, lest they suffer the same fate as former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was defeated by a Tea Party insurgent in a Republican primary.
For now, it seems the reactionary faction of the GOP has prevailed by forcing a voice of moderation—the leader of the party--out. Ironically, Boehner did in his departure what many politicians fail to do: he sacrificed political ambition for the common good. Yet it wouldn’t take much for Republicans to reform into a loyal opposition (and thus gain a much stronger likelihood of regaining the presidency). To do so, they need look no further than traditions of compromise of the Founding Fathers and Ronald Reagan.