The 2012 Election and the Laws of Institutions
Two years ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a surprisingly forthcoming and honest statement. He stated outright, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This statement has, on and off, been a centerpiece of Democratic criticism of the Republican Party. After all, shouldn’t service to the nation, making responsible decisions in the best interest of the country and faithfully executing one’s duties in the best interests of the constituency be primary for any elected official? One might even forgive McConnell if he said, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is the promotion of Republican values.” To state that mission one is to take down the President, however, is way out of bounds, or at least should be.
Well, perhaps, but it is not surprising from a sociological interpretation. As a leading member of a powerful institution, McConnell was expressing nothing more than what I call the Second Law of Institutions. Institutions, like the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, can be looked at as singular actors within a social matrix of power relations. As such, it is the primary function of any institution to perpetuate itself (The first law) and to expand its power (the second law).¹ An institution expands it power by increasing its control and access to the productivity of individuals, hence government institutions, among the most powerful in any given society, are locked in perpetual conflict with each other to maximize their own power. Party control of the executive institutional apparatus of the American government is one of the most powerful positions in the world. So it comes as no surprise that McConnell, with the backing of the Republican Party, wants to unseat President Obama. As it stands, doing so would vouch this vast power conveyance to the Republican Party, as no other institution is in a position to fulfill that role.
It has nothing to do with ethics. This is a purely rational, institutional strategy. It must also be pointed out that the Laws of Institutions holds true for all institutions. They are equally true for Republicans and Democrats, governments and religions, families and businesses, etc.
To accomplish this goal, the Republican Party developed a strategy of complete obstructionism. The gist of this strategy is that all failings of government are attributed to the President, the head of the institution. Shutting down congress, specifically the Senate, may result in the lowest popularity ratings for Congress in history, but the reality is that there is only one Congress. Barring a revolutionary movement that destroys Congress and establishes a new legislative authority, Congress, as an institution, is secureso far! The President, unlike the presidency, however, is fungible. It’s impossible to replace every member of Congress. It’s relatively easy to replace the President. So the President bears the brunt of responsibility for the state of the government.
So Republicans could, with relatively little sacrifice (though there will be some associated costs), gridlock the national government with the hope of unseating the incumbent president. The best data to demonstrate the existence of the Gridlock Strategy is in the number of filibusters in this congress as compared to past congresses. (Click the graph for the source). What we see here is an institutional strategy of gridlock. Because of the filibuster and Republican intransigence the Senate is where ideas go to die. It has gotten to the point that it is understood that a bill must have sixty votes to even be considered in the Senate. And Republicans guarantee that no bills supported by the President or Democrats fulfill that requirement.
Based on the latest polling results, this strategy might just work. Granted, based on Electoral College projections, Obama will likely win on November 6th; it’s a coin toss, however, for him to win the popular vote. A slight nudge one way or another in some key statesindeed in some key countiescould change the course of the election and hand it Gov. Mitt Romney.
My biggest fear, should this happen, is that a Romney win would be the end of effective governance in the United States. Given the laws of institutions, if the Gridlock Strategy works, Democrats would be foolish not to use it for their own advancement. If Democrats lose the Senate, which will almost certainly not happen (a cost to Republicans for the Gridlock Strategy) they could use the filibuster just as effectively as Republicans. Republicans would be foolish to allow the filibuster to continue into the 112th congress under such conditions. With Republicans in control of the House and White House, Democratic proposals go nowhere. So the United States reaches an impasse in which the federal government is incapable of action. How long can such a destabilizing culture last before the nation faces a severe political crisis?
Government, as an institution in the modern world, perpetuates itself through a veneer of legitimacy. Once this veneer is torn away, the results can be profoundly destabilizing as citizens feel that they are on their own facing an uncertain future. Republicans embraced a strategy for institutional empowerment, but may well have torn the very fabric of legitimacy which they need to exercise the power that they win.
¹ I am currently working on a project called “Democracy is of the Streets” in which I elaborate the Laws of Institutions. I might even finish it. For now, the Laws of Institutions are as follows: 1. The Primary Function of an Institution is the perpetuation of the institution. 2. The Secondary Function of an Institution is to empower itself. 3. All other goals, including the expressed manifest function of the institutions (eg. Good governance) is tertiary.