The Root Of The Problem

Innumerable people have made the (obvious) point that any effort to cure a disease or solve a problem requires an accurate diagnosis of the ailment or problem first. In a recent essay in The Week, titled “The Republican Problem No One Knows How to Solve,” Damon Linker offers a diagnosis of America’s current woes that confirms my own, painful conclusion.

Most non-Trumpian Americans would agree with his opening paragraphs:

In the raging debate among Trump-critical conservatives over whether the goal in November should be merely to defeat the president or to pursue the more radical strategy of burning the Republican Party to the ground, I’m firmly on the side of scorched earth.

The case for maximalism is strong. The head of the party is a corrupt and malicious imbecile. Republicans in Congress are a mix of Trump enablers, obstructionist-demagogues out to maximize the wealth of their donors, know-nothing conspiracist loons, and a few reformers experimenting with the most politically palatable way to blend nationalism with socialism. All of them are primarily motivated by the drive toward self-promotion within the right-wing media complex. And when we move further down the Republican hierarchy to the state and local level, things only get worse.

Most of us would also agree that America needs at least two political parties that are reasonable, responsible and principled. Some of the “Never Trump” Republicans who have defected from the GOP’s current iteration hope that a sufficiently brutal defeat in November–up and down the ticket–will restore the party to what they remember as its former respectability. Others have looked back at the party that was –notably Stuart Stevens, whose recent book “It Was All A Lie”–and concluded that it never really stood for the principles it espoused.

Linker’s diagnosis suggests that Stevens’ analysis comes closer to the truth. It also presents us with a much more difficult problem than reconstituting an adult, center-Right political party,  because he locates the root of the problem as the Republican voter.

As Linker reminds us, every one of the Republican sycophants, fundamentalists and ignoramuses we regularly criticize was elected by those voters–and often re-elected over and over.  Even assuming a Democratic win–or even a Democratic sweep–in November, that result will come despite Trump’s continued strong support from an overwhelming majority of Republicans.

The voters who swooned for Sarah Palin in 2008; who seriously considered giving the nod to Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum in 2012; who four years later elevated a reality-show conman to the head of their party, cast ballots for him to win the presidency, and have rallied around him ever since — most of these voters remain undaunted in their conviction that politics is primarily about the venting of grievances and the trolling of opponents. The dumber and angrier and more shameless, the better…..Unless and until it changes, the Republican Party will continue to spew raw sewage into the country’s political system and public life.

The threat to American democracy isn’t the current Republican party; it is the Republican voter–the substantial number of people who are motivated by, and enthusiastically support, the racism, misogyny and xenophobia that the current party embodies.

If that’s true–and I’m very much afraid that it is–what can be done about it? As Linker argues, burning the party down won’t deliver an epiphany to voters whose support is founded on animus and nastiness; these are people who have proved impervious to facts and evidence.

It is also hard to dispute Linker’s observation that the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, Tucker Carlsons, Laura Ingrahams, and others wouldn’t be “hocking their pestilential opinions for profit if there wasn’t a large and appreciative audience for them.”

So once again, we’re back to the bedrock truth that what has turned the GOP into a political cesspool is the preferences, tastes, and convictions of Republican voters.

Could anything change these voters — turning them, not into liberals or progressives obviously, but into thoughtful citizens capable of engaging with reality, thinking about actual problems, and rewarding public servants who make a good-faith effort to respond to them? The honest truth is that I don’t have the slightest clue how to make it happen. Which also means that I have no idea how the United States might work its way back to having two civically responsible parties instead of just one.

He’s right, and this is what. keeps me up at nights.


Democratic Heresies

My husband and I have had a long-running argument about primary elections. (Hey–you argue with your spouse about whatever is important in your house, and we nerds will argue about what preoccupies us…)

My husband insists that primaries have contributed mightily to political polarization. It’s unarguable that the people who turn out for primary elections are more partisan and ideological than other voters, and he’s nostalgic for the smoke-filled rooms where party elders chose candidates more likely to appeal to the moderate middle.

My rejoinder has been that more democracy is good, and smoke-filled rooms had their dark side. We just need more competitive primaries, and more people voting in them.

Now, a respected scholar at the Brookings Institution has weighed in…on my husband’s side.

Noting the recent resignation of the Speaker, she writes

John Boehner became Speaker at a point in time when four different reform ideas—all enacted with the best of intentions—interacted in ways that made his job impossible. These are structural and will impede the job of the next Speaker as well.

Primaries. The United States is one of the very few democracies in the world that uses primaries to nominate the members of the legislative branch. That means, for all practical purposes, anyone can become the nominee of a political party simply by declaring, running and winning. It also means that defying the party leader, in this case the Speaker, has very few consequences. While Boehner has been able to strip some of his problem members of committee assignments that has not proven to be a very powerful tool. Unlike leaders in parliamentary parties, Boehner cannot decide to keep someone off the list for bad behavior. And primaries are notoriously low turnout events in which a small group of ideologically motivated voters can control outcomes. Thus it is no wonder that Members of Congress have come to fear being “primaried” more than they fear displeasing the leadership.

She identifies three other “reforms” and their unintended consequences: parties (actually, their loss of power; they have less clout than billionaires with SuperPaks), privacy (which has diminished, taking with it the ability to negotiate in relative confidence), and pork (eliminating the goodies that everyone criticized also eliminated the ability to wheel and deal and actually get stuff done.)

I hate it when my husband turns out to be right….