In trying to explain how Washington got into its current mess, some have focused on ideology. Pundits and politicians note that the country has become more polarized, as have the political parties, particularly the GOP. That diagnosis is accurate, but another distinctive cause of today’s crisis might have even more long-lasting effects: the collapse of authority, especially within the Republican Party, which means threats and crises might be the new normal for American politics.
On the surface, the behavior of Republicans today looks a lot like that in 1995 and 1996, when the party took a strong, ideologically oriented position, stood its ground and shut down the government. But that movement was inspired, shaped and directed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich from start to finish. Speaker John Boehner, by contrast, is following rather than leading. In the 1990s, the crisis proved easier to resolve because Gingrich had the power to speak for his side. Boehner, by contrast, worries that, were he to make a deal, he would lose his job. And he is right to be worried: Tea party members repeatedly warn Boehner not to cut a deal on Obamacare, the budget or immigration.
What’s happening today is quite unlike the “Contract With America” movement of the 1990s. The tea party is a grass-roots movement of people deeply dissatisfied with the United States’ social, cultural and economic evolution over several decades. It’s crucial to understand that they blame both parties for this degeneration. In a recent Gallup survey, an astounding 43 percent of tea party activists had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party; only 55 percent had a favorable view. They see themselves as insurgents within the GOP, not loyal members. The breakdown of party discipline coupled with the rise of an extreme ideology are the twin forces propelling the current crisis.
This explains why the Republican Party has seemed so unresponsive to its traditional power bases, such as big business. Part of the problem is that businesses have been slow to recognize just how extreme the tea party is. (They remain stuck in an older narrative, in which their great fear is Democrats with ties to unions.) But even if big business got its act together, it’s not clear that the radicals in the House of Representatives would care. Their sources of support, funding and media exposure owe little to the Chamber of Commerce.
This is a remarkable reversal. The GOP used to be a party that believed in hierarchy. The Democrats were the loose coalition of assorted interests with little party discipline. For the past three decades, Democrats have nominated outsiders — George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Republicans, by contrast, always nominated the guy who had waited his turn — George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney. And today, the Republicans are dominated by the tea party, which has no organized structure, no platform, no hierarchy and no leader.
This story began in the 1970s: As political primaries proliferated, party establishments declined. (It happened first to the Democrats, which might be why we are seeing this delayed reaction on the right.) But more recent technological and organizational changes have accelerated the shift, making it easier for outsiders to raise funds, get access to free media and establish direct connections with voters. In his book “The End of Power,” Moises Naim points out that traditional parties are declining everywhere. In Europe, for example, the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest political party, are a shell of their former self, and new groups and parties have emerged.
At some point — probably after electoral defeat — Republicans might come to their senses. Ideological shifts come and go, but the “decay” of power (in Naim’s phrase) is moving in one direction and will continue to transform politics. The design of the American political system allows many opportunities for gridlock and paralysis, and these will only multiply unless there is a dramatic change. Without organization and leadership, government becomes difficult, and self-government becomes close to impossible. The legendary political scientist Clinton Rossiter once proclaimed, “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation.” Let’s hope he was right about the last part.
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