Watching the budget and debt ceiling saga unfold, I have reluctantly concluded that the Republican Party is not corrupt and power-hungry enough. While there have always been protest parties that have the luxury of embracing abstract principles, actual ruling parties have only one overriding goal: to gain and maintain power. And I mean this in a very precise sense. If the Republicans are a ruling party — which means an opportunistic, unprincipled assemblage of incoherent interests — then their overriding goal is to maintain the power and privileges of party insiders, who form a self-selecting elite.
The problem, of course, is the existence of primary elections, wherein loosely affiliated voters get to select candidates. In some states, any resident can vote in a primary regardless of affiliation, and in no state (to my knowledge) is there even a moderate cost to declaring membership — you put down on the form that you’re a Democrat or Republican, and you’re a member for primary voting purposes. Clearly the system was conceived as an empty gesture to create the appearance of greater democratic legitimacy and grass-roots support for the corrupt two-party system. The problem is that some crazy right-wingers started taking the empty gesture seriously as a strategy for disciplining and even replacing corrupt, opportunistic party insiders.
A party where any self-selecting yahoo can come off the street and replace a powerful incumbent is not a party worthy of the name. In a real political party, these “primary challengers” would not be feared and placated — they’d be derided and expelled. It’s not as though we don’t have models for what that looks like. Remember the primary challenge to Lieberman? Even though the challenger was technically the Democratic candidate, he was effectively a third-party candidate and lost easily to Lieberman. That’s the way you make sure people know primary elections are an empty gesture. The fact that Lieberman was one of the most hated figures among the party’s “base” only reinforced the message.
That’s how a proper ruling party conducts itself. It doesn’t embrace some random candidate endorsed by people on the internet — the party decides who’s in the party, and the base can either accept it or go vote for the other guy. This is incredibly simple and basic. If you want to be a ruling party, you have to go for the self-perpetuating elite model. Otherwise you’re just a pointless protest party.
Even the existence of protest candidates is a betrayal of American values, however. The Founders, in their infinite wisdom, gave us the gift of a political system so convoluted as to evade all popular accountability. Every two years, you can vote only a few of the bastards out of office — and the more powerful the bastards are, the less often the public gets to chime in. One benefit of this system is that nothing like a coherent political agenda or program can be implemented. The only policies that can get passed are those that are already supported by a broad consensus of the American ruling class. Out of respect for local control, the Founders also made room in their system for corrupt local interests to be bought off rather than bowled over in implementing these consensus decisions. This allows for greater buy-in across a wider range of elites and has the further benefit of increasing opacity and thus diminishing the possibility of popular accountability. In short, it’s a really robust system.
If we had to pick a date when this comfortable arrangement started to show some strain, surely few would dispute the importance of the 1994 “Republican revolution.” In that election, a self-selecting group of Republicans nationalized the mid-term elections by creating an ideologically driven political program known as “The Contract With America.” Everything that the American political system was designed to avoid was forcefully asserted there — actual ideas with some pretense of being coherent, a national debate on the issues that sidesteps local political elites, etc., etc. It was as though we actually had a functioning political system where a government could be elected and implement its agenda. A deeper betrayal of the Founders’ lack of ideals cannot be imagined.
The whole thing soon ran aground in the government shutdown and the reelection of Clinton, and so the Republicans should have gotten the hint and gone back to the time-honored practice of opportunistically brokering corrupt backroom deals. Instead, we got the impeachment debacle. What’s more, Republicans began campaigning against one of the pillars of American politics — the system of earmarks, whereby local interests are bought off. To his shame, Obama has embraced that policy, even though the stimulus could have been twice as large if he’d honored the traditional approach.
Deprived of the means of placating the local elites they represent, members of Congress have increasingly been forced to advocate ideas and, even worse, principles. The result has been the absolute deadlock that now threatens the to disrupt the operations of the government and even the state’s special role in propping up business elites via the national debt. Obama has tried to tap into the Zeitgeist by elevating his party’s opportunism to the level of a principle in itself, yet without the means to buy votes by making sure important contributors get no-bid contracts, the whole exercise is hopeless. The whole point of priciples is that you don’t compromise them — which is why the Founders created a constitutional system in which compromise was mandatory and principles were decidedly unwelcome.
In short, establishment Republicans must reassert their power by expelling the Tea Party protest candidates. They should consult with their Democratic colleagues on how best to crush populist hopes and inculcate an attitude of resigned hopelessness in their “base.” Ideally, of course, primary elections would be entirely abolished, but failing that, the Democrats have a rich array of techniques for ensuring that they remain the empty gesture they were intended to be. It will take real resolve to overcome the idealists and reclaim the party for corrupt insiders, but at this point, the Republicans owe it to themselves and to the American people to revert to being the kind of opportunistic nihilists the American constitutional system was designed for.