But if you were a serious-minded Republican who really did want to spend your time carefully studying issues and meticulously crafting legislation to address them, what would you think your party actually values right now?
The answer is pretty clear: What sells in today’s GOP is performative lib-owning. If you can find issues that activate grievance and tribal identification on the right, then put on a show of angrily channeling what the base is feeling, no matter how misinformed or absurd those beliefs, that’s how you draw attention to yourself.
The most ambitious Republicans, even those who are themselves quite smart and well-educated, see their path to success as pandering to the dumbest and most deluded people in their party. Witness Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas (Princeton, Harvard Law) and Josh Hawley of Missouri (Stanford, Yale Law), who made themselves leaders of the effort to overturn the presidential election, promoting what they absolutely, positively know are lies about widespread fraud.
But wait, you may say, aren’t there equivalents on the Democratic side? Don’t they have their own extremists? There’s a profound difference, which is that the people in Congress who are far to the left — especially those who get the most attention — spend more time thinking about policy in a given week than the likes of Cawthorn and Boebert have in their entire lives.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y), for instance, is a social media star, but she also has a lengthy policy agenda, including workers’ rights and the Green New Deal. Rep. Katie Porter (Calif.) has gone viral with videos in which she wields her whiteboard against hapless corporate executives in hearings, but those are confrontations in which she uses her deep understanding of economics and finance to show — with math! — how profiteering hurts consumers and workers.
This is particularly notable given that in the House these days, members who haven’t been around for long usually have very little input on legislation — pretty much everything is up to the leadership and committee chairs. But AOC and Porter found ways to do high-profile policy advocacy anyway, because it’s what Democrats care about.
Think back to the 2020 presidential primaries, where Democrats had a long discussion about whether their policy agenda should expand the welfare state or restructure government and its relationship to business. They spent months arguing vociferously about the merits of single-payer health care versus the public option. Can you even fathom something like that happening in the 2024 Republican primaries?
There are some Republican members of Congress who care a great deal about policy and would love to become media stars by showing off their creative ideas for trade agreements or tax reform. But that’s not going to get you on Fox News, because their voters don’t really care.
Which means that every Republican, no matter their true inclinations, winds up acting like the grifters and nutbars who keep winning seats in deeply red districts. Whatever happens to a party currently grappling with the legacy of Donald Trump, there isn’t much reason to think it will get any more sane or serious.