THIS IS NOT A BUG…IT’S A FEATURE
On Inauguration Day 2009, when the rest of the country was celebrating an historic Democratic electoral landslide, members of the Republican elite met at the Caucus Room Inn at the behest of political strategist Frank Luntz. Their purpose was to figure out a direction for a party that was, as MSNBC host Rachel Maddow took no small pleasure in pointing out, “lost in the political wilderness.” They could have come up with any number of strategies. They could have put together a platform of goals that they felt were possible to turn into legislative victories despite minority status. They could have developed a process by which they could reach out to voters and expand their constituency. They could have taken a rational, hard look at the values and policies they stood for and updated them for the new century. They could have said, “Wow! We really fucked up! Maybe we should change our ways.”
They could have come up with any number of strategies as a governing, albeit very minority, party.
But they didn’t.
Their agreed upon strategy as they walked out of the room was brilliant and sinister in its simplicity. They would do everything they could to make sure that the United States government was incapable of accomplishing anything. They would obstruct every measure. They would deny every opportunity. They would bottleneck every avenue by which the federal government served the American people. At that moment, the Republican Party ceased to be a governing institution. They remained a party in the strictest sense of the term. Indeed, they were very disciplined in their lock-step approach to non-governing. Even legislation once lauded by the GOP, such as…oh, I don’t know…a health care plan inspired by Republican Governor Mitt Romney…couldn’t get a single Republican vote.
At this point, the Republican Party gave up any pretext of being a governing coalition. It instead became a organization dedicated to the cynical pursuit of power for its own sake. At first, this strategy wasn’t clearly interpreted by the Obama Administration. In those early years of the Post Caucus GOP those of us on the outside looking in could tell that something was wrong, something had changed. We thought, and it was clear that the nascent Obama Administration thought, that after the election the Republican Party would follow precedent as a minority party, willing to offer some bipartisanship in exchange for some recognition for their constituency. It didn’t take long for us to realize that this was not going to be our father’s bipartisan politics. Gone were the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill preening their feathers before the cameras then sitting down and hammering out policy when the lenses were turned.
It took even longer for the Obama Administration to figure out that the GOP was no longer in the governing game? President Obama frittered away the Democratic Party’s super-majority with vain attempts to “reach across the aisle” only to have his hand swatted away time and again. He and the Democrats brushed aside their progressive base by watering down a crucial stimulus with useless tax cuts and debilitating fiscal conservatism. Consequently, the stimulus didn’t go far enough to turn the recession around. They offered up a convoluted financial regulation full of loopholes without addressing the realities of a renegade shadow banking system, let alone the needs of desperate homeowners who needed bailouts much more desperately than stockholders. Most disappointingly, he watered down his signature campaign promise of affordable health care when he and the Democrats abandoned the public option for a more complicated and conservative compromise. All without winning a single Republican vote.
Then the worst possible combination of events happened. First, Ted Kennedy died and his seat was taken by a conservative Republican, Scott Brown. That was the end of the Democratic veto-proof majority in Congress and the opportunity for Mitch McConnell to kick the Caucus Room Strategy into high gear. Secondly, progressive disillusionment with the Obama administration and a bad structural year for Democratic electoral politics resulted in a “shellacking” in 2010. This shellacking did not just hit the Democratic Party, however. It was also the end of any semblance of moderate conservatism in the Republican Party as the Tea Party and the radical right caucus filled more seats and demanded their tribute.
Regardless, the Caucus Room Strategy and the brutal obstructionist maneuverings of Mitch McConnell (my candidate for most awful human being of the century) was validated. Obstructionism and non-governing went from being a cynical political strategy to an institutional ethic in and of itself.
It was a matter of survival: The First Two Laws of Institutions
So, why did the Republican Party make such a radical and cynical turn? After all, it seems discrediting for Republicans to turn their backs on the best interests of their constituents, increasingly working class white men, for the sake of petty electoral politics. Blocking economic stimulus, health care, federal relief during a recession, among other regressive policies are all specifically harmful to the very constituents that the Republican Party claims to represent. Why would a party dedicate itself to making their own voters miserable?
Much of this can be answered using what I call the Three Laws of Institutions1. When we think about organizations like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the Roman Catholic Church, the United States Government, we make some assumptions about them. We believe that these institutional orders are dedicated to the stuff they claim to be dedicated to. Sociologist Robert Merton referred to these as Manifest Functions. We assume that the manifest functions of an institution are the primary goals of the institution. This is incorrect. According to the First Law, the Primary Function is much more basic than that. The Primary Function of an institution is to perpetuate itself. Nothing else really matters. If a political party can completely turn its back on its constituents and perpetuate itself without a single vote…it will (and often prefers it that way).
This begs the question, how does an institution perpetuate itself? An institution in and of itself does not have power. Only individual human beings have power2. In order for an institution to perpetuate itself it must make use of this individual human power by incorporating as many people as it can to do the work required for the institution and its associated organizations to function. This is the Second Law. The institution can do this in a couple of ways. It can use external motivators. In other words it can either coerce (force or the threat of force) or incentivize (pay or remunerate) individuals to participate. More effectively, however, the institution can use internal motivators. Internal motivators are the stories the institution tells about itself, the knowledge it creates, about its importance and centrality in the larger society and the lives of individuals. The stories told by the institution become the stories participating individuals tell about themselves. In other words, they become incorporated into individual human identities. People motivated by the story are more likely to participate in the institution. This is especially true of political parties, but also religions and other reference groups. If they are telling you a story that appeals to you, you may be inspired intrinsically to participate in the work that the institution requires by, say, voting, advocating for, even volunteering your labor to promote its goals.
In 2008, however, it was difficult for the Republican Party to tell a convincing story about its value to the larger society. For thirty years up to that point, the GOP told a story of an institution that represented conservative American values defined as Christian, fiscally responsible, and patriotic, emphasizing “real America” (small town and, let’s face it, white), and a national pride based on free market capitalism and military might. This philosophy was personified by Ronald Reagan, but reached its peak with the Neoconservative incursion of the W. Bush Administration. Party leaders started talking openly about an American Empire creating its own reality. In 2004, this story seemed to be the immutable discourse of the New American Century as George W. Bush was and remains, believe it or not, the only Republican President to win a majority vote since his father in 1988.
This all came crashing down starting in 2006, but culminating in 2008. By this time Americans had had enough of the Noecon vision that created stagnation in Middle America, a rust belt, soaring deficits, a rising and emboldened plutocracy, let alone quagmires in two wars and the complete collapse of the global economy causing over 6 million Americans to lose their homes. American conservatism and its repository in the Republican Party was so discredited that one of…you know…those people actually became President of The United States of America.
A profound fall from grace from which it must have seemed impossible to extricate from the rubble.
Since the conservative movement and the Republican Party could no longer tell a satisfying or compelling story about itself in the face of such calamity, it was left with only one strategy. To completely discredit its only real political competition.
Red in Tooth and Claw: The Third Law
Here’s where things get a little dicey. Why did this strategy work as well as it did? After all, people want their government to work–don’t they? Among the biggest complaints of our government is that it can’t get anything done. Among the biggest complainants are Republicans. Furthermore, many of the bills blocked by Republican intransigence are very popular even among Republican voters. How can a governing party achieve political success and governing authority by making governing impossible?
That’s where the Third Law comes into effect. There is a social and historical context in which the strategies adopted by the institutional elite must be placed. After all, power as defined above is a limited resource in any society. Human beings have limited time and energy with which to dedicate to the functioning of any given institution. We tend to dedicate ourselves to our families, to our workplace, perhaps organizations by which we enjoy leisure and recreation. Maybe we go to church. As individuals we pick and choose which institutions to dedicated our energies and how much of that energy and time we give. This is true when it comes to coercive and remunerative motivation, but it’s especially true when it comes to internal complexes. Therefore, systemic power can be analyzed as taking place within a socio-historical ecosystem in which institutions must compete for access to human effort.
The Republican Party, despite the egregious failures of the previous decade, had some social resources that they could draw from that made an obstructionist approach to politics possible and successful. The most obvious of these resources is the right-wing media complex that was willing to uncritically report and promote the conservative narrative adopted by the Republican Party. According to this story, the GOP wasn’t bottle-necking much needed legislation. It was obstructing Obama’s far left socialist agenda.
Right-wing propaganda was reinforced with what amounted to a codependent discourse that assured viewers that conservative media was the only source that could be trusted. The so-called “liberal media” was nothing but lies. It could not be trusted. And any source that contradicted what right-wing radio and the FoxNoise Machine was saying was, ipso facto liberally biased lies. Since the rise of Goldwater, movement conservatives mastered the process of “working the refs” in the media. Even mainstream outlets feared over-zealously critiquing right-wing media for fear of being labelled “liberally biased“. They went out of their way to present “both sides” of the debate uncritical of the fact that often one side was empirically wrong. Ironically, they were labelled liberally biased anyway. Everyone knows that the New York Times is nothing but a liberal rag. And ultimately, there’s no difference between liberal and socialist.
Having an institutional complex expressly designed to produce the discourse, the stories, your party wants told about itself helps to reinforce party discipline. And the Republican Party has a proud tradition of party discipline to begin with. Any dissent among GOP loyalists resulted in being labelled a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. Such traitors to the cause were reviled. Their careers ruined on Fox and Friends and every other right-wing outlet. They could count on facing a primary by “real” conservatives. At one point the Republican Party even became bold enough to play with the idea of purity tests for candidates. Such a formal process lost steam, but a de facto process remains in place. Even Republican stalwart John McCain was attacked as a secret liberal.
Being able to access the power, the human effort, of an entire media complex is a huge advantage. Furthermore, focusing the discursive range of that media while at the same time discrediting any possible critiques only amplifies the story the institution wants to tell of itself. In this case, the GOP had an established paradigm going back to the Goldwater Conscience of a Conservative days. Movement conservatives perpetuated a story about the dangers of big government (drawing from Hayek’s Road to Serfdom), American first patriotism and exceptionalism (a la William F. Buckley), and a distorted understanding of freedom as being exercised in the market (Milton Friedman) rather than the political sphere. Ronald Reagan honed this concept of “government is not the solution…government is the problem” into an unquestionable mantra. And, frankly, in the seventies, in light of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, and the Church Commission Report among other factors, there was something to say about this story.
The right-wing media complex, what I call The FoxNoise Machine, also echoed what may be one of the oldest choruses in American discourse–The Manichean “Us Against the World”, or what I like to call the “Those People” Paradigm. According to this story, the United States is not the pluralistic melting pot we all teach our children about every November in elementary school. Rather, the United States is an ongoing contest between “We People” who believe in God, freedom, hard work, family, and our country, and “Those People” who hate and want to destroy everything we know and love. We can trace this story back to the Know Nothings and their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant focus.
This kind of in-group/out-group discourse is grist for politics as it can distill otherwise complex socioeconomic issues into, “your problems are entirely attributable to ‘those people.'” Party solidarity based on opposition to an enemy is a powerful and simple bond. This is especially true in a media universe that feeds on soundbites. These soundbites are almost scientifically designed to motivate the movement right. This is a coalition of John Bircher’s and their descendants, and white nationalists in all their array of twisted identities.
The Republican Party has long cultivated a special relationship with the most monstrous elements of the conservative movement. Historically, the GOP has played a semi-sophisticated balancing act. On one side is elite corporate interests represented by market libertarians lobbying for lower taxes, deregulation, a dis-empowered labor market, and a policing authority able to maintain law and order on the lower classes while at the same time ignoring the trespasses of the wealthy. This caucus also has global interests in expanding markets and investment opportunities through free trade agreements that open borders for capital, but strictly close borders for labor. This caucus was well funded by the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess, and their ilk. On the other side are the social conservatives, interested in shaping an America in God’s image as a Shining City on a Hill based on a Puritan Ethic and traditional Protestant values related to race, ethnicity and gender. Among this later group is the extreme right, interested in racial purity, masculine ascendancy, who see any attempt to create a more tolerant and inclusive nation as a conspiracy to destroy everything that is good and right about America. This latter group is dedicated to the complete dismantlement of anything that smacks of liberalism…because liberalism is nothing but the key to the door of socialist tyranny.
Once upon a time, the GOP was able to pander to the social conservatives come election time, then put them on the back burner when it came time to write policy. Indeed, the GOP was so successful, that the a significant caucus of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, followed suit and, for a while, maintained what was for all practical purposes a government controlled by a single caucus of corporate interests in both parties. When this arrangement fell apart in first decade of the millennium, however, it was the Republican Party that found itself discredited while the Democrats slowly disassembled its Blue Dog ranks. The Republican Party had no choice but to mobilize and empower the monsters of their caucus, certainly with the hopes of pushing them back into their political cages when the time came.
When the time came, the monsters could smell blood and were not inclined to return to the old status quo that left them hungry and wanting. No. They broke the cages and took power. Under the mantel of the Tea Party Patriots, the right-wing caucus sent its Young Guns to Congress and took over statehouses all over the country. When this first wave of conservatives didn’t send enough red meat to the far right, the monsters didn’t hesitate to eat their own. When a demagogue arose from the ranks and promised to make America Great Again by building a wall to keep “those people” out and empowering the police to keep “those people” in their place and by a single minded focus on “owning” the libs, the feminists, the socialists, and the atheists and bringing down all the standard enemies of Real Americans, the monsters had their leader, their figure head. And they carried him mindlessly to the White House.
Furthermore, this coalition of market libertarians, movement conservatives and far-right extremists has no problem with obstructionist political cynics like Mitch McConnell. Their theory of government is that government is bad, government is incompetent, government is tyrannical, and the government in the hands of the liberals is dedicated to taking away what they, the real Americans have worked hard for, and giving it to “Those People” who refuse to work. Any story that “owns the libs” and explains political obstruction in terms of the Manichean struggle between socialism and Real Americans will be rewarded. In essence, the Republican Party has built itself on a social and historical foundation that leaves it immune to the expectations of governing.
The GOP does not have to be a governing party. And they make no pretext to being one.
So Now What?
The Republican Party that exists today has long since stopped being the Party of Lincoln. It evolved like all institutions by strategically locating itself within the socio-historical ecosystem. When that system was dominated by the Great Depression and the New Deal, the Republican Party survived by becoming the Party of Eisenhower. When the New Deal and the Great Society was discredited by Vietnam and the Stagflation of the seventies the Goldwater wing of the GOP seized a strategic opportunity to take control and became the Party of Reagan and a rising tide of Neoconservatives that reached its apex in 2004 under President George W. Bush. The Great Recession and the election of America’s first black president shook up the political ecology in much the same way as did the Depression, Vietnam, Watergate and the Seventies Stagflation. It was a conflagration.3
The party that has emerged from the ashes is no longer a governing party. It is more closely aligned with a Cult of Personality that borders precariously on the edge of movement conservatism and fascism.4 That being said, the GOP is still a Party in the Weberian sense in that it is an association by which members seek to achieve some kind of ideal or material advantage.5 Its turn away from governing to the cynical exercise of power and obstruction is an intentional, strategic decision made by its elite and exercised by those who do the work of the institution. So long as this strategy works, it is unreasonable to believe that we’ll see any significant changes to how the party functions going forward.
That being said, social and historical context changes, and institutions, guided by their elite, must adapt to these changes or go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs. On one hand, there are elements of the socio-historical ecosystem that are outside of our control. For instance, the advent of social media just happened to be especially conducive to spreading a conservative discourse emphasizing simple, Manichean messages and memes as opposed to more complex liberal or even leftists paradigms.6 Nobody intended for this to happen. It is just the way the route opened through social environment.
On the other hand, people create the socio-historical environment and people can make decisions through which to change that environment directly. The best example is the filibuster. The filibuster was consciously created by people and was, at one time, attenuated by norms and values that made its use relatively rare. In today’s environment, however, the filibuster is a weapon wielded by the cynics for nothing more than raw power requiring very little sacrifice on the part of the Party. It doesn’t have to be that way. It can change with a single vote (all it would take at this point is for two people to change their minds). A strategic and intentional decision to change the filibuster by either doing away with it entirely or by making it more costly to exercise, would make a significant change in the governing environment and would force the GOP to change its strategy.
Furthermore, as progressives have been preaching, if the GOP is no longer acting as a governing party, there’s no reason to treat it as a governing party. It does appear that the Biden Administration is trying to straddle this reality. Nobody personifies Senatorial tradition quite like President Biden. It looks like he is still convinced that his erstwhile Republican colleagues can still be nudged into governing if given the right incentives. He is trying to provide that opportunity by reaching across the aisle, but the right incentives thus far elude him. This dedication to a bi-partisanship that has not existed since the Caucus Room Strategy twelve years ago has slowed his legislative strategy significantly.7 However, he does seem to be giving some credence to the more progressive critics who see the GOP as the non-governing body that it is. He and congressional Democratic leadership are only willing to pursue bipartisanship so far.
It must be understood, however, that a strategy taken up by one party changes the socio-historical ecosystem. These changes must be met by adaptations from the other parties, in this case the Democratic Party. It is incumbent upon the Democratic Party, including and especially the Progressive Caucus, to adapt in such a way as to create a better, more democratic environment overall. This is not currently happening. The 2016 election made clear the wages of a Manichean mindset of the right. This clarity came into sharp focus on January 6th. The right does not see this competition in terms of advocating policy and sincere differences in governing ideology. Instead, the empowered right understands politics in terms of us against them, and they are willing to advance a scorched earth strategy to effect a victory against those people even when such a strategy burns their own homes.
Democrats are responding in kind. Four years of a dangerous, potentially sociopathic demagogic President and the unrestrained violence of right-wing extremism has convinced many of us that our very survival as a nation depends on beating the GOP. What started out as a partisan strategy justified by Manichean rhetoric has shaped perceptions on both sides of the political spectrum. As W. I. Thomas said, what people define as real becomes real in its consequences. The Caucus Room Strategy rested on defining “the other” as a danger to our very existence as a nation. It now may be that if we cannot find ways to govern in this new, polarized, political environment, the perception may very well become reality.
- I know. I know. For the sake of clarity, I am being mostly tongue-in-cheek when I use the term “Laws” to describe what is admittedly a “soft-science” theory.
- An explanation of what I thus far call “Foundational Power” is beyond what I want to discuss in this post. Suffice it to say that Foundational Power is the ability of individuals to make physical changes in their environment.
- This changing political infrastructure also forced changes in the Democratic Party, from the fall of Tip O’Neill to the rise of the Blue Dogs, the election of Barack Obama to the ascendancy of the Progressive Caucus, AOC and the Squad, the Democratic Party is a different institution to the one I came of age with back when I cast my first vote for Gov. Michael Dukakis (thank God). In many ways it is a party trying to find its way. An examination of the Democratic Party using the Three Laws discourse is beyond the scope of this post, but would make for an interesting study.
- Suggesting that the Republican Party is a fascist party would be an exercise of hyperbole. After all, fascists are interested in governing. That being said, it would be a mistake to completely ignore the clear proto-fascist discourse that has been embraced by and has become ascendant in the GOP. That proto-fascism is now part of the socio-historical ecosystem within which both parties must now adapt. Either party can make the strategic decision to incorporate fascism into their rhetoric, their internal motivator or institutional story. From there, it’s not a stretch to think that any party that selects such a strategy can cross the threshold into becoming a fascist party.
- Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society. University of California Press. Berkeley. (page 284)
- The one counter example is the relatively simple class message of exploitation at the hands of the millionaires and billionaires that Senator Bernie Sanders was able to wield to significant advantage. This is, in many ways, analogous to “Those People” discourse of the right. In this case, “Those People” are the wealthy. First, we have to understand that such a discourse is potentially just as dangerous as the race-based and bigoted discourse of the right. We on the left who accept the validity of this discourse (as I do) must be wary of how this story is told. Asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share is one thing. Debating whether anyone should even be a billionaire is an important debate. But this discourse can become bleak very quickly. Secondly, this simplistic message often breaks down, as it did for Bernie, when the covalent complexities of race, gender, and globalization get added to the mix. Quod complicatus est.
- Let’s not forget the confusing fealty of Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to the filibuster despite its clear disadvantage.