When John Boehner stepped down, he became just the second speaker since the beginning of the 20th century to resign mid-session, and the only one to do so without an ethics investigation looming over his head. The ensuing rise of Speaker Paul Ryan has been historic in its own right, but not enough attention has been paid to what precisely led Republican activists and primary voters to demand that their own party leadership resign. In one poll, an astounding 72 percent of GOP voters said they were dissatisfied with then-Speaker Boehner’s and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s performance in Congress. That’s not all that different from how Democrats felt about those same Republican leaders.
How did we get here? And where is this strain of Republican anger coming from?
After years writing and researching this topic, my official answer is this: There has been a massive “deleveraging” of the economic, political and social power that a coalition of predominately white, male and Christian individuals and allies have enjoyed for a very long time, and that because congressional control can never restore more than a fraction of the old guard’s former power, a broad majority of these individuals—today’s Republican activists—now suspect that their own leadership must be the true reason why things haven’t changed for the better.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but essentially, the thrust of the past 50 years of American history has been the expansion of economic and political rights for women, people of color, LGBT Americans, immigrants and even citizens of foreign countries through free trade agreements and global economic competition. In other words, power that was once artificially “leveraged” to give outsize economic and political advantage to the few has been dispersed to broader swaths of the country and the rest of the world.
In reaction to these trends, Republican activists have quite intuitively mobilized to restore their old power and to “make America great again.” The election of our first African-American president, a massive economic recession, and the creation of a new entitlement through healthcare reform brought these Republican activists to the political forefront and gave the movement tremendous energy.
But as most of us realize, the drivers of the deleveraging are here to stay. Global economic competition isn’t going away, women aren’t going to withdraw from the workforce, and the continued diversification of our nation is only going to speed up. So as Republican activists have demanded that their elected representatives “releverage” their old power, they’ve butted up against the reality that the old America is long gone.
All of this makes Republican activists quite angry: They keep winning elections, but their day-to-day power doesn’t seem to have increased. And of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones who are angry about broader economic and political changes. By plenty of survey measures, Democrats are angrier about the government than Republicans. But for some reason, Republican anger doesn’t get foisted just on the opposing party—it somehow metastasizes and lands on the Republican Party as well. Democrats are just as angry, but they’re not threatening to shut down the government and send Nancy Pelosi into an early retirement. What makes these two forms of anger different?
The key difference is that Democratic anger is fueled by government inaction due to perceived corporate power and money, and this creates an entirely different set of behaviors and norms for Democratic voters. Democrats understand that under our system of checks and balances, the only way you can make progress is by forming coalitions and compromising with potential opponents. It’s why survey after survey shows that the most liberal Democrats are most in favor of political compromise:
But look who opposes compromise the most: conservative Republicans. These are the folks who are most active in the party, who turn out in the greatest numbers in primary elections, and who provide the decisive support candidates need to get to Congress in the first place. And these Republican primary voters simply do not want their elected officials compromising with Democrats or even moderate Republicans.
But why such hatred of political compromise? Why deny reality and insist on shutting down the government or defaulting on our debt when our system of government demands compromise at some point?
The answer isn’t all that remarkable: Republican activists rightly recognize that political compromise has propelled the deleveraging and will continue to propel it in the future. Congress more than ever has to incorporate the policy demands of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT Americans and religious minorities. The very act of legislating means these groups have a seat at the table. For them, working with them in any capacity prevents a unilateral releveraging of the old guard’s power. Compromise just benefits the enemy.
This inability to releverage even with congressional control maddens Republican activists and primary voters even more than when they didn’t control it. After all, they’ve done their job. They’ve taken back Congress and given their representatives strict orders to take back the country. And yet, the releveraging hasn’t occurred. To these primary voters, somebody clearly isn’t doing their job.
This is how Republican anger gets transferred from Democrats and onto their own party leadership. If Republican primary voters have won, and things haven’t gotten any better, it must be because someone has sold them out. This conclusion is reinforced almost daily for anyone who consumes conservative media.
As a result, the majority of Republican primary ballots cast today end up conveying a kind of protest message: give me back my power, or nobody else gets anything. Obamacare isn’t going to be repealed? We’ll shut down the entire federal government. Planned Parenthood isn’t going to be defunded? We’ll take down our own speaker. You want us to compromise? We’ll make sure you never work in Congress again.
And that’s where Republican anger ultimately comes from: You are told that your demands will not be met. You are told that you can win every election you want, but eventually, you’re going to have to compromise your beliefs. You see your status in America and in the world being diminished, and you are told by the leaders of your own party that your fixes are unrealistic, and that they will prevent the party from attracting moderates and winning back the presidency.
And you, as a voter, hear all of this, and you proudly stand up and shout with all of the emotion you can summon, “You know what? Fuck that!”
Normally, activist movements like these burn out as the rest of the electorate wakes up and pushes back. But thanks to an incredibly successful Republican gerrymander following the 2010 midterms, the rest of the electorate has nowhere to push. Democrats and moderates can’t make a difference in 90 percent of the congressional districts in the country. These are contests strictly between candidates vying for the support of Republican primary voters.
When all of these forces are taken into account, it’s no wonder Congress looks the way it does today. It’s why Congress still only gets a 14 percent approval rating, even though it is completely run by one of the majority parties. It’s why so many members of Congress are willing to shut the government down, even when they have no chance of winning the underlying policy fight. And it’s why John Boehner felt compelled to resign his position despite leading his party back to power in both chambers of Congress, and why Kevin McCarthy couldn’t secure the votes necessary to succeed him.
What will bring an end to the cycle of Republican anger? Circle Nov. 8, 2022, on your calendars. This is the next election that will take into account the next nationwide redistricting, perhaps finally making these congressional Republicans susceptible to overriding voter opinion on political compromise. But if the gerrymanders remain, don’t be surprised if—even in 2030—Republicans keep saying that Congress isn’t listening to the people, even if they control the whole damn thing.