Thursday, January 17, 2013

Q Day 8: How Did Republicans Get This Way?

EJF asks:
[W]hat are the root historical causes of the current Republican Party dysfunction? When did things start going wrong? Was it 1993?
I don't think we really know, but I think there are two or three reasonable theories.

One is that it's demand-driven. Essentially, there's a very good market that responds strongly to The Crazy. They'll donate for it, they'll buy products of it, they'll listen to or watch shows about it. It's not a huge market, but it's big enough that it creates seriously goofy incentives for Republican politicians and other party leaders -- there's a lot of money in being Rush Limbaugh, so much so that third-rate talentless hacks can make a very good living as pale imitations of what he does.

A second theory is more elite-driven, and is based more or less on the concept of "learning" -- that people tend to copy those things that they perceive of as having worked. Alas for the Republicans, the two big winners over a half-century were...Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich. So if you emulate those two, you're going to wind up with a much worse type of politics than if you emulate, oh, FDR.

But wait -- isn't there also Ronald Reagan? Yup, there is. But for a variety of reasons, Reagan's pragmatism hasn't been much of a model for the GOP. The big thing that they took from Reagan, alas, was that detailed policy knowledge was a net-negative: thus George W. Bush. There is an impulse to find a Reagan -- thus the movement to draft Fred Thompson in 2008 -- but that's about it. Instead, they've invented an ideologue Reagan who never compromised his pure conservative principles, something that Reagan made easy to do because his particular political (and personal) genius was precisely an ability to constantly believe in his own purity regardless of what he had actually done.

As far as when they become dysfunctional, I don't know...I don't think I'd put a clear date on it (although the Gingrich defeat of the Bush budget summit agreement is surely a very big marker). Some of it goes back, perhaps even before Nixon; some of it appears to be much more recent.

24 comments:

  1. I'm curious: If I wanted to read scholarly literature on this subject (Party learning, cohesion, disfunction, etc), where should I start?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nixonland by Ron Perlstein

      Delete
  2. It seems to me that the early to mid-Nineties were the turning point, with the ascension of both Gingrich and Limbaugh. That was when the GOP started to demonize not just their Democratic opponents but the entire half of the country that supported the other party. And the rise of all the demonic fantasies about the Clintons showed that they could say literally anything, and the right-wing crazies would believe it.

    I don't believe there was anyone creating a list of 107 people that Jimmy Carter had killed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kevin Drum did an article a ways back about the similarities between Tea Partiers, anti-Clintons, Birchers as a reaction to JFK, and the right-wing reaction to FDR. And then there's Joe McCarthy.

      What that suggests to me is that there's a strain of this that's been present among conservatives for a long, long, time, but I do think it bled into the GOP mainstream much more in the 1990s and now than it used to.

      Delete
  3. Why do you think that the lesson the GOP took from Reagan was that "detailed policy knowledge was a net-negative"? Isn't it more like, "detailed policy knowledge is irrelevant"?

    ReplyDelete
  4. @TN Rick Perlstein has written some good stuff on this over the years in a variety of venues. Here's a good primer: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401495.html

    And I think JB is right that it really broke out into mainstream GOP politics in the 90's but wasn't invented then. So while there weren't a "The Clinton Chronicles" type movie for Carter, the late 70's saw the NRA change from a mainstream sporting organization to a hardline no compromises organization. You saw the rise of more extreme stuff like the survivalist movement and all sorts of predictions about doom and communism taking over the USA.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It increasingly strikes me that I need to have a fuller understanding of the days when the parties were more ideologically distinct before (ie, the 19th century) to better diagnose the current situation. Because, while I'm aware that our parties were about as polarized then (meant in the sense that each party was ideologically relatively homogenous and distinct from the other), I'm not as qualified to jump in on whether there was quite as much "crazy" or "extremism" or whatever you want to call it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. >Essentially, there's a very good market that responds strongly to The Crazy.

    The problem with that theory is that it fails to explain why nothing comparable has happened on the left, despite the big rise in left-progressive media in the last 10 years. Indeed, with a few exceptions left-wing media has strenuously avoided stuff like trutherism or the anti-vax business, whereas the right-wing equivalents (birtherism, global warming denial) permeate the right-wing media.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My sense is that the market on the left is both smaller and, well, less crazy than the market on the right.

      My brother talks about how the equivalent market on the left prizes intellectualism rather than the crazy, so you get stuff like Maddow's book. Obviously there's *some* market for rabid partisanship among Democrats, but it may not be big enough to distort everyone's incentives.

      Delete
    2. Unfortunately, that sounds a bit tautological. The left-wing media isn't crazy because there's less of a market for "the crazy" on the left? Why? And if the left "prizes intellectualism," while the right doesn't, how did it get this way? Yeah, I know there was Reagan, but that's not really much of an explanation; it's more revealing to me that that's what the right took from Reagan, in the years since his presidency. Just as they ignored (or willfully forgot) his pragmatism, they could have chosen to overlook his anti-intellectual side.

      I know the history, and I'm aware what happened to lead the right down this path, but I'm still not so clear why it occurred. (Also, being "rabidly partisan" isn't the same as embracing the crazy; as far as I know, Olbermann has never spouted conspiracy theories or questioned scientific orthodoxy.)

      Delete
    3. I don't think it's tautological. It's just saying that Dems and Republicans have different tastes, and that gradually that's come to have some problematic consequences for Republicans.

      Mind you, I'm not claiming that as a hard fact; it's just my sense of things (plus my brother's explanation). But I can imagine that it had no important consequences at one point, but thanks to various changes it began having weird effects.

      Delete
    4. I think that Republican policies are a matter of faith. One doesn't probe it, or question it. So Reaganism is more compatible with religious fervor.

      Delete
  7. Replies
    1. Couves, that makes no sense. You had vastly more liberal policies coming out of the Democratic Party 40 years ago, and yet the GOP at the time was led by moderates in the mold of Everett Dirksen. Nothing that the more right-wing Democrats of recent years have done lately explains "teh Crazy."

      Delete
    2. And what would you say to the conservative gun owners of New York, some of whom have lost their gun collections overnight?

      I think it's fair to say the Federal government is more intrusive than it was 40 years ago. Of course, that's not all Democrats' fault, not by a long shot... hence the need for a Tea Party insurgency.

      It may be that the Democratic party was more liberal at one time, but the powers granted to government are, with rare exceptions, cumulative.

      Delete
    3. Couves is definitely right that gun control policies from 1789-2004 were almost exclusively liberal "wins." Of course, there really wasn't ANY gun control of any kind prior to the 1930s, and those were fairly ineffectual and weak. Really, liberals pushing for (and moving the needle on) gun control is a story from the late 1960s on. In that sense, one could easily argue that 1789-1968 represented a long, continuous conservative "win" on gun control, provided one assumes that there were sides, a debate, ideologies, etc....DICEY assumptions.

      Since the 1960s, gun ownership rates have declined. Looking at the stats, it looks to be by about a 10-20 percentage point drop (from about 50% to 30-40%--Gallup and GSS's numbers have diverged in the last 10 years, but agreed earlier). However, guns per capita in the US has risen, as near as I can tell (having trouble finding a nice, clean look at historical data: I can definitely say that the number of background checks done by the FBI for purchases has gone up, and that we own about .9 guns for every one person in the US). So, what this indicates to me is that gun ownership has become rarer, but those who own guns are much more likely than in the past to own multiple guns.

      Now, it's very possible that liberal gun control (whether efforts or fears, as the spikes in gun sales after Obama's elections and Aurora would indicate) has pushed towards this. But, it also seems to suggest that every time the spectre of increased gun control comes up, gun owners decide they need to own MORE guns. We don't create more gun owners; we just create more gun concentration.

      I don't want to make anything of this. But, it's an interesting phenomenon, to say the least.

      (Oh, and as a good liberal, I'd tell the conservative gun owners of NY "too bad." But, I'm one of those "ban them all" types, so you're not going to find any sympathy with me there)

      Delete
    4. Couves, you should know better than to fall back on the "What would you say to...?" argument. The libs will just answer with, "And what would you say to the parents of the little kids shot to pieces at Newtown?" At best, that argument is a draw.

      Delete
    5. Matt,

      For a number of reasons, I think people are increasingly less likely to admit to owning a gun when being polled by a stranger. So I’m not convinced that the number of gun owners has gone down, although it probably has in the states with the strongest gun control.

      Gun sales are definitely up, mostly because of people reacting to gun control. The AR-15 wasn’t popular until Bill Clinton tried to ban it.

      Delete
    6. Jeff, my point was that conservatives aren't entirely crazy, because liberals ARE taking away their liberty and property. You may agree with that course of action, but that's a different discussion entirely.

      Delete
  8. Aren't you kind of overlooking the influence of the Dixiecrat and Wallace elements on the party over the last 40 years? Two of the ugliest and most reactionary, resentment-driven elements of our political culture -- both actively courted by the Republican Party, starting with Nixon and solidified with Reagan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or to state it somewhat differently, understanding the "market-driven" Crazy of the Republican party today can't be done without understanding that the Republican party made a more-or-less conscious decision over the past two generations to become the party that welcomed the votes and politics of racists, racism and racial resentment.

      Delete
  9. Maybe another approach to this would be not how the extremists became so strong, but how the non-extremists, call them Establisment for the sake of argument, became so weak. If the crazy has always been there, then what we see is not an increase in the water level, or not just that, but a failure of the levee. And yes, apologies to residents of Louisiana but the Katrina analogy really is too delicious to resist.

    I think the problem is that the establishment over the last twenty years has been connected to the Bush family, not in the sense of a dynasty but in the sense that the Bush Presidents, rightly or wrongly, are seen as the personifications of the Establishment, and their failures left that part of the GOP too weak to resist the crazy.

    This leads to a non-testable thought experiment. Suppose that the recession of the early nineties had benn frame-shifted to hit in early 1993 rather than 1992, and recovery began to be felt in early 1996 rather than 1995. Papa Bush would have won reelection, rode out the recession, and probably been pretty popular by the end of his term. Who would then have won in 1996? I do not know. But there would have been no Gingich, no shut-down, no impeachment, no 60 vote Senate at that time, and the Andrews agreement would be seen as a GOP triumph. Am I saying we would all better off if Clinton had gone home to Arkansas is defeat? Who knows? I am saying that life is complicated, bad goes with good, and 1992 was the founding trauma of the modern GOP just as 1980 was its founding myth.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is a fascinating topic for speculation, especially since the safest answer is that it's overdetermined--a number of factors interacting, including race, relative incomes, how cities and suburbs and towns have changed in terms of who lives there and how they live, how states have changed, clustering of similar people in separate places, changes in media and how people get information, tabloid TV, decline in average standards in schools, changes in what political parties do, decline of union membership, etc.

    If I had a simple formula I guess I'd know what to do about it. But the result is very scary for this country's future. Check the climate--and not just the political climate. Very scary.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Speaking of thought experiments, the following occurred to me in response to the Ginsburg question for liberals last weekend: there may be a temptation for liberals not to have urgency due to Obama's popularity, plus electoral, demographic, and GOTV advantages. So what, the liberal thinking might go, if we nominate a poor-man's Obama in 2016 to run against a Republican fool? We can't lose. So went 2000.

    I was recalling the signature idiocy of Gore, that ridiculous prosody around "lock box" in the first debate, and how that was a source for such parody for SNL (and so many others!), but not, at least not famously - I was startled to recall - on Fox News.

    If Megyn Kelly and Brian Kilmeade and the rest took shots at the implications of Gore's lock box; namely, a government surplus should be withheld by the Feds to shore up entitlements, I can't recall it. I think you would, don't you? You can imagine it pretty easily, you can visualize those guys ranting about the presumptiousness of the government "keeping" the peoples' money to grow government, you can imagine that meme quickly going viral.

    Heck, you can even imagine reasonable and influential liberal commentators like Kevin Drum picking up the meme, and without endorsing Fox News at all, nevertheless promoting the idea, saying "Cmon Gore, its the money of little people! Social Security will take care of itself, how can it fail? Give the money back man!" But none of that happened, at least not in a widespread manner.

    We don't like to think that the explosion of right-wing media has influenced much, because we don't like the idea that thinking is so influenced by language, especially the obviously stupid language in which those media outlets traffic.

    But reflect on the lock box a second. Its an interesting cultural reference illustrating the vast, and largely unnoticed, influence of those media outlets in defining discourse, not only on the right, but often across the politcal spectrum.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?