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The Stranglehold on Our Politics

Struggling once more to convince his far-right caucus members to take a less self-damaging route than the shutdown, the beleaguered Speaker John Boehner suggested that instead of shutting down the government unless Obamacare is defunded or postponed—anything to keep it from going into effect by the 2014 elections—they delay passing an increase in the debt ceiling. Holding up the debt ceiling in 2011 brought all kinds of obloquy down on the heads of the House Republicans and also stupidly hurt the credit standing of the US. Boehner has been leaping from ice floe to ice floe, each one more dangerous. So far his strategy of postponing calamity has worked—but what happens if he runs out of ice floes?

The agony of the current Republican Party is that most of the far right isn’t concerned about the possible effects of their tactics on the national party—on its ability to win not just the next presidential election but also other offices down the line. The Tea Party members of Congress are responding to their districts. But the mainstream Republicans are panicked that they have lost four out of the last six presidential elections, and they have yet to figure out how to placate their base in the nomination process and still win the general election. But the far right has its own version of reality. Some even plan to run for president on it.

As a result of the centrifugal forces that have taken over our politics, we have ended up with warring political blocs, not with the federal system envisioned by the Founders. Instead of cooperative interaction among the states and the federal government, we have a series of struggles between them. Federal laws are blocked or degraded in many of the states, and state obligations are unmet. After the country reelected a Democratic president in 2012, the Republicans continued to refuse to recognize his legitimacy and they opposed virtually his every policy proposal. (Whether immigration will break this pattern is up in the air.) Meanwhile the most sweeping changes in domestic policy are taking place in states dominated by Republicans. As it turns out, 56 percent of the population, and 60 percent of poor children, live in these states.

The new turbulence between the federal government and the states and between the president and Congress has been exacerbated by midterm elections. The turbulence has been spreading across our governing institutions—putting the very workability of the American political system in jeopardy. With the House in the grip of the very far right, the wreckers have made it almost impossible for Boehner to lead—and Obama to govern.

The madness has been seeping into the usually more staid Senate, to the point where freshman radicals—Rand Paul, Cruz, and Rubio, with the Tea Party at their backs and a presidential gleam in their eyes—can break with longstanding precedent and courtesies and presume to define the national agenda. Minority leader Mitch McConnell is being challenged for renomination by a Tea Party member, which has limited his leadership capacities and his judgment. The turbulence has spread into the Supreme Court. Our federal organism is a delicate instrument, one that can work reasonably well only if its caretakers proceed on the basis of understandings and restraint.

The seeds of this situation were planted in the 1994 midterm election that swept the former back bencher Newt Gingrich into the Speakership of the House. Gingrich rashly maneuvered himself into a government shutdown that ended in disaster for the Republicans. (Bill Clinton outmaneuvered Gingrich, and the public didn’t at all appreciate the shutdown of federal services.) There is no evidence that Gingrich had thought through the consequences. He thus spawned the consequence-free politics that is now bedeviling our system of government. In 2009, for the first time, defeat of the incoming president in the next election became the opposition party’s explicit governing principle. If that meant blocking measures to improve the economy, or preventing the filling of important federal offices to keep the government running, so be it. Wrecking became the order of the day. Confrontation became the goal in itself. Now the rightward trend in Republican politics is feeding on itself, becoming even more extreme until the preposterous becomes conceivable.

Can this chokehold on our politics be broken? Several states are considering the possible removal of the power to control redistricting from the politicians who stand to benefit from their own decisions. Arizona and California have adopted independent commissions to redraw districts.

Theoretically, Congress could pass legislation requiring the states to reform their redistricting practices for federal elections; but that would require a sufficiently powerful movement—of which there is no sign—to put pressure on members of Congress to act against their own perceived interest.

The citizens of a state have it within their power to press for such changes in the nature of their state governments and the consequent effects on their immediate lives as well as the functioning of the nation’s political system. By rousing themselves to vote, they could have a stronger voice in filling state offices that may not seem so exciting but are highly consequential. Is it possible that the off-year elections could be taken almost as seriously as the presidential ones? The radicalism of the right has become so extreme that it may have unintentionally provided an impetus in that direction.

In the end only the members of the electorate can restore the institutions and procedures that make our democratic system work, starting with the next chance they get.

—August 27, 2013

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