Political Animal


April 10, 2013 5:15 PM What “Broke” the GOP?

By Ed Kilgore

It’s no secret that political scientists as a tribe tend to downplay the importance of ideology and even of “issues” as active factors in American politics. Elections, they say (as an often-welcome corrective to Game Change-style overinterpretation of campaign events), are largely determined by “the fundamentals,” especially economic conditions and the identity of the party in power. Partisan attachments by voters, they often point out, are far more durable than anything you can explain by the day’s, month’s, or year’s controversies and positioning.

So it didn’t totally shock me that in a Salon piece on the “broken” nature of our political system, my esteemed friend the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein issues a disclaimer about the role that conservative ideology plays:

It’s not partisanship. It’s not polarization. It’s not even extremism.
It’s the Republican Party. The GOP is broken. Not too conservative; not too extreme. I have no view of where the GOP “should” be ideologically, and I don’t think there’s much evidence that being “too conservative” per se is losing elections for Republicans.

Having ruled out ideology as an explanation, Jonathan ranges far in identifying the actual reasons for the dysfunctional habits of the GOP. Do GOPers sometimes act like they prefer obstinacy to electoral victory, or are forever insisting on “pure” candidates? Maybe the “conservative marketplace,” in which there’s money to be made by looniness, and plenty of money to back primary challengers, is the problem. Do Republicans seem to have no idea how to actually govern? Well, they’ve had some very bad role models, from Nixon to George W. Bush.

I don’t disagree with any of those insights, but when Jonathan comes up with his list of the GOP’s bad habit, I can’t help but notice ideology would explain every single one.

* An aversion to normal bargaining and compromise

That’s natural to rigid conservative ideologues who are not focused on government as a means to “bring home the bacon” (the bacon is brought home by corporate supporters who for the most part need little from politicians other than the destruction of taxes and regulations), and view “bargaining” over government policies as playing on the other team’s field.

* An inability to banish fringe people and views from the mainstream of the party.

The whole point to the conservative movement’s drive to take over the GOP is to redefine the “maintream” and identify “RINOs” as the fringe, which is exactly what has been happening.

* An almost comical lack of interest in substantive policy formation

When your ideologically determined goal is to restore the policies of the Coolidge administration, what sort of “substantive policy formation” do you actually need? That helps explain the constant confusion Republicans have distinguishing “policy” from “messaging” or packaging.

* A willingness to ignore established norms and play “Constitutional hardball”

Jonathan uses a felicitous term here: “constitutional conservatives” think their agenda is the only legitimate direction for the country; “established norms” are the lubricant that has made possible the destruction of constitutional government.

* A belief that when out of office, the best play is always all-out obstruction

When you view the enactment of positive legislation as inevitably adding to a Welfare State that went out of control fifty or seventy-five years ago, there’s rarely any downside to obstruction, and a lot of imputed virtue.

Are there non-ideological factors, Jonathan’s and others, that can explain Republican dysfunction? Of course. And there’s never one single “cause” for much of anything in politics. But my own personal Occam’s Razor sure keeps leading me back to ideology and extremism as impossible to ignore in the saga of the GOP’s, and thus the American political system’s, recent dysfunction.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Ronald on April 10, 2013 5:29 PM:

    No argument with that here. It isn't branding...it isn't the candidates even...it is what we've been saying here on this list for a long time- it is the message that the Right keeps on pushing that's the problem. And that stems from nothing but ideology.
    Perhaps Mr. Bernstein didn't really want to admit that they (poli sci types) have been utterly wrong all this time. ;)

  • LaFollette Progressive on April 10, 2013 6:10 PM:

    I agree completely, Ed.

    I'd argue that elections are usually determined by "the fundamentals" because parties usually tailor their ideological marketing to the median voter, and because the ideology of parties evolves over time in order to compete. And the ideology of the electorate evolves over time with demographic changes... and in response to the fundamentals.

    In other words, ideology matters a great deal, but usually only indirectly.

    What's changed now is that the Republican Party has been largely absorbed by an ideologically rigid movement that has its own news sources which tell them very different things about "the fundamentals" than the rest of us experience. This is why their party is broken, and why our entire system of government -- with its supermajority requirements and need for consensus-building -- is broken.

  • Doug on April 10, 2013 6:20 PM:

    Two things "broke" the Republican Party: the passage of the CRAs and Nixon's embracing that "Southern strategy".
    The first placed the Democrats as "the" party working for civil rights. The second gave all those Dixiecrats a new home.
    Which they are now proceeding to trash.
    All the tactics currently being deployed by the Republicans, whether on the national stage or on the state level, were all, or nearly all, used to prevent or delay the destruction of Jim Crow laws in the South.
    That "purity" so many Republicans worry about isn't just political...

  • seth on April 10, 2013 6:33 PM:

    Or maybe nothing is broken, they've consistently delivered core goal of concentration of wealth and everything else is a sideshow

  • T2 on April 10, 2013 6:43 PM:

    Doug is on track. And so is Bernstein.....but Doug says what Bernstein (for some reason) doesn't.
    As long as the GOP/TeaParty is for the most part pointedly a white man's club/cult (I'll resist the urge to use the word racist), the other "fundamentals" or any of the other bullet points Bernstein correctly identifies are secondary reasons why they will continue the downward spiral.

  • Neil B on April 10, 2013 7:41 PM:

    Bernstein is getting as drippy as the other one. Note the irony that goes right over his head (and maybe, sorry, the OP's as well): even if voters aren't highly motivated by ideology (misleading anyway, since all it takes is a few percent to change majorities, also amplified in districts), that doesn't stop a Party from being too extreme. Jonathan is pulling something rather close to false equivalence.

    And, I can't take anyone seriously as a true thinker who puts out flabby, equivocating lines like "I have no view of where the GOP “should” be ideologically" etc. If you don't have the balls and the brains to critique stances, especially as looney as our current God-awful Party, just be a cocktail circuit schmoozer. You have little of importance to say.

    "Fine minds make fine distinctions."

  • emjayay on April 10, 2013 8:18 PM:

    Today Obama offered a conservative way to reduce the cost of Social Security - a way of calculating cost of living that results in lower percentages - as an olive branch indicating willingness to compromise wih Republicans. Check out the Yahoo! News comments. Not even a specifically right wing site. All about the guvmint stealing our money and wasting it on welfare queens and SSI (which doesn't come out of the SS fund) and Obama the liar and dictator and how he needs to be impeached or whatever, plus the usual racial slurs. And it's only a budget PROPOSAL. Which most Democrats don't support.

    A big piece of the picture of the lunacy of the current Republican party is that instead of taking the old time more patrician we're-rich-guys-who-went-to-college-and-we-know-what's-best attitude, Republicans have simply decided to say any damn thing they know the stupids (low-information voter is just too weak) will buy and the money will like. And encourage candidates that are just as stupid as the voting stupids.

    It's all powered of course by rich guy and corporate money. There is no such thing as business ethics or business morality. Doesn't exist. Whatever works to put money in your pocket or raise the stock price or improve profits is entirely what matters. This is simply doing politics on the business model. Nixon wasn't a business guy, but he opened the door to the same kind of total cynicism for future Republican governance.

  • Th on April 10, 2013 9:00 PM:

    More than the ideology, I think the Republican party really turns off large sections of voters because R's are openly contemptuous of them. Why should African-Americans vote for a party that is constantly disparaging them? How about Hispanics when Republican leaders talk about immigration reform in terms of losing the white majority? And then there are the women who wussified the men but can't decide their own medical treatment without men telling them.

    Bottom line, I think Republicans believe deep down that they are clearly right and only stupid people disagree with them. Pretty hard to convince undecideds to vote your way when you start from the premise that they are stupid. Bruce Bartlett had a great column how the Clintons would chase him down with notebooks full of charts and figures when he disagreed with them and the Bushies banned him from gatherings when he questioned them.

  • PTate in MN on April 10, 2013 9:04 PM:

    A thoughtful column, Kilgore. I like how politely you dismantle Bernstein's main arguments. But we certainly agree that the GOP is broken. That's pretty obvious.

    But why is the GOP broken? I think emjayay is on to the answer: "It's all powered of course by rich guy and corporate money. "

    The GOP is broken because it has become the wholly owned subsidiary of America's billionaire class. The Tea Party stupids, the racists and the religious extremists are just along for the ride. A billion dollars, shrewdly invested, purchases ~6500 loyal, well-placed employees at $150K per year. That's 100-150 loyalists in every state. Select the pretty ones (George Bush, Michelle Bachmann, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker) and pay for the campaigns that get them into positions of power. Get them to appoint loyalist judges (Scalia, Thomas, Alito) to dismember legal threats. Get them to pass your conservative legislation. Buy yourself some newspaper outlets and pundits on local talk shows to keep the ill-informed in the dark.

    The GOP wears the trappings of a political party, but Bernstein is just another gullible fool who can't believe what is obvious. The GOP is not a political party. It is a sham, a cabal, a bunch of anti-American thugs. That is the reason it seems "broken" to people who think it is a political party.

  • Altoid on April 10, 2013 10:07 PM:

    Good post and good discussions. I'd extend and restate in a slightly different way that starts with the difference between what us folks think of as policy and what they seem to think of as policy.

    On the level of _actual_ policy, I agree with PTate-- it's what the money wants. The gop exists to dis-govern. Liberating money from all restraint is what they're really about. Of course they can't say so directly, but that's a real policy that they really care about.

    On the level of what _we_ generally think of as policy, the gop exists to emit tribal-identification markers-- the culture war, the war on women, the war on open voting access, the war on environmental responsibility, the jihad on anything to do with guns, etc.

    What matters about these things isn't what effect they have in the real world and on real people. What matters about them is that they give people the chance to stand with the tribe we might call "red-blooded 100% real Americans who know what's right and who's right and what everybody should be saying is right." As we seem to agree here, this tribe provides the votes; they're needed so the party's _actual_ policy can be implemented.

    So the gop's problem is really two problems. The _actual_ policy, dis-government, the one the party's real movers care about, is odious, even when it's disguised and prettified. Most people just won't go for it, and the party's movers know this.

    And second, the strategy of tribal identification, the one that's provided the votes to enable dis-government, is exclusionary and therefore self-limiting, and the tribe cannot be increased by trying to convince people who have already been excluded that they should feel like they're somehow members anyway. Everything the party does to underline the tribal message just drives home to the rest of us that we're not part of the gop tribe.

    That's a conundrum that can't be escaped. Even if certain people supposedly "should" be republicans because of what they generally believe, the tribe doesn't really want them because of who they _are_. And most people can catch on to that pretty easily.

  • janinsanfran on April 10, 2013 10:35 PM:

    Ideology and extremism -- of course. But let's give a shout out also to ignorance, bigotry, and narrow-mindness. Republicans have succeeded in driving out most who won't play on those terms.

  • Roddy McCorley on April 11, 2013 1:00 AM:

    Seth beat me to it. A thing that accomplishes the purposes for which it was designed cannot be said to be broken. A political party - although I maintain the GOP is not a political party at this point - accomplishing its long-stated goals, through whatever means - also cannot be said to be broken.

    Which is why we should be focused on what the GOP is really after, rather than on how to "fix" it.

  • emjayay on April 11, 2013 1:31 AM:

    Why thankyou PTate in MN. Occasionally perhaps I do get something half right. The Democratic party is also of course powered by rich guy and corporate money, although their generally much higher rate of smaller contributions means something. Richies do however find that there is a somewhat less enthusiastic tendency for Democrats to eliminate the EPA or cut the SEC or whatever the money wants in order to make even more money. Or even more cleverly, get a little loophole put in a law or interpreted with a regulation that makes big bucks for your company. Or the old no-bid contract for your friends. I'm not sure I remember any previous presidential primaries with candidates being largely bankrolled by some rich guy who did not appear to be doing it bacause of his love for democratic process.

    The olde Republican way was to make sure capitalism was fat and happy, and create some policies once in a while that they thought would be good for everyone, and maybe go along with some stuff that would help the lower class preople, particularly if it helped business also, like food stamps. A whiff of altruism, or at least not wanting to see old ladies liveing under the local bridge trapping rats for dinner.

    The new Republican post-Nixon Ayn Rand-poisened crew sees those lower class 47% (almost half) as the Takers. Not Makers like them. The same ones Snowbilly kept saying were'nt Real Americans like her sheeple were. The 47% in this scheme doesn't deserve anything. Nothing is due to poverty or poor education or a history of slavery stealing all your culture and replacing it with violently enforced servitude for a couple of centuries, ending a century and a half ago with a lot of the peripherals still mostly in place within a lot of people's lifetime. Or even someone just getting sick without health insurance. Trailer blow over in a hurricane? You should have bought a house, and had it insured. Too bad about your poor planning. Why give them anything? They've been Taking all their lives.

    Nixon opened the door to uncaring cynicism, enableing the current thinking of the Republican party. Business ethics: there is no such thing as lying. It's called advertising. Lying to stupid people you consider trash anyway, even better. They're trash so they don't deserve better, and stupid so the lieing is lots easier.

  • MuddyLee on April 11, 2013 7:37 AM:

    Money/greed/racism - all that is part of the republican or conservative problem. But where does the CRAZY come from? South Carolina conservatives threw out Bob Inglis, a real conservative, in favor of a tea party idiot. Similarly, they elected Nikki Haley as governor, someone who's main qualification was her endorsement by Sarah Palin. And of course they marched right behind Bush-Cheney into the Iraq War when it was pretty obvious that this the invasion wasn't justified and that the occupation could turn out to be a disaster. What has made conservatives unable/unwilling to think and reason things out? Is it Fox News? Is it mixing up politics and religion? Have the Koch brothers et al infiltrated all of America with crazy-conservative spies/missionaries?

  • low-tech cyclist on April 11, 2013 9:26 AM:

    Something I keep saying is that the two parties regard different things as problems. The GOP really only sees two problems in perpetuity: that rich people are taxed, and that corporations are regulated. The voting base sees some other problems, like gays being allowed to marry, and the wrong people getting handouts from the gummint, but they're not really driving the train.

  • Ted Frier on April 11, 2013 9:50 AM:

    The disagreement here may be over terminology. I'm not sure "ideology" is the right word for what ails the GOP since ideologies are systems of ideas, which does not fit a Republican Party that is fundamentally anti-intellectual.

    No, the GOP as it has become the creature of a right wing movement instead of a governing coalition is more instinctive than that, and that is its problem.

    I've just begun reading Peter Beinart's book on the Crisis in Zionism, and he relates how hard it is for a Jew like him to criticize Isreal at all, even to warn it away from actions he considers to be destructive and suidical because of the demands within the Jewish community for all Jews to maintain unquestioned loyalty and solidarity to the group, the Jewish tribe.

    It is the same problem with the GOP, and in particular its Tea Party wing. The party's "ideology" as it were is really group identity and tribalism, of the very same uncritical, unthinking -- and uncompromising -- sort that Beinart identifies as being a major threat in Israel, as that state struggles to balance its Jewishness with its commitment to liberal ideals that envision equal treatment and justice for all, Jew and non-Jew alike.

    The dysfunction in American politics today is a function of identity and tribalism, not ideas. Ideas about too high taxes and too much spending are just proxies for the inherent defensiveness of right wing groups who use politics to keep other groups at bay and maintain their position in a rapidly changing and, from their perspective, frightening world.

  • captcrisis on April 11, 2013 9:56 AM:

    "Ideology" does not explain why Republicans oppose Obama even when he is embracing Republican-invented ideas.

  • toowearyforoutrage on April 11, 2013 10:14 AM:

    Being this nutty, regardless of the reasons is only possible because of gerrymandering.

    When the Republican Party is INCAPABLE of losing a district, the Republican party becomes a de facto election. Who wins in a Republican primary? The best funded (works that way a lot in Democratic primaries too, alas.)
    After proper funding is established (after a single term of bending corporations for favors, that's pretty easy) then you cater to the base to assure you have a majority of party voters to keep winning your primary because the general is a cakewalk.

    So now, you have Congressmen whose easiest path to re-election is wingnuttery. Works well enough if you're content to be a Congressman for the rest of your life, but then they get their eyes on Senate seats.
    States (so far) cannot be gerrymandered and the far right politics necessary to win your Congress seat can be very detrimental to statewide campaigns.

    These Senate candidates have trained their voters to believe the party line and when they try to track left to get a majority of statewide voters, they get challenged by more idealistic wingnuts, thus Senate defeats in Missouri, Nevada, Indiana, Delaware...

    Moderate Republicans exist largely in the Senate where crossover support from Dems due to name recognition and adequate constituent service keeps them afloat despite sacrilegious practices like "compromise".

    Tom "the Hammer" DeLay broke the Republican party through the ill-advised effort to obtain an impossible "permanent Republican Majority"

    The gerrymander killed the GOP and it is a VERY hard addiction to break. Getting rid of it would mean losing the Congress BADLY for a little while before they can find a platform that doesn't offend most of teh population.

    Until then, many convince themselves that vote suppression, computer models and massive advertising campaigns can continue to produce 50% + 1.

    They're wrong because the Dems can track right and nibble at their least nutty voters. They WILL lose. It's only a matter of time before their whole model has to collapse. The only alternative is a virtual martial law where enough of the general population is disenfranchised through hacked computer voting machines or selective law enforcement and barring felons from voting. Make us all felons, and they can keep power. Privatizing prisons helps with that.

    This is SO bitter a pill, I don't see them, winning. I see inevitable crushing defeat, but it'll take a long time and we're going to be a bit ashamed of the Democrats before it's all done.

  • Howlin Wolfe on April 11, 2013 11:11 AM:

    Great post, Ed. I agree with you that the ideology, as cartoonish as it is, is what holds the present day conservative tribe together. It seems they've painted themselves into this ideological corner in order to hold together their creaky coalition of religious right types, plutocratic libertarians and corporatists, and neocons. To deviate from it risks trashing the weak bonds between these disparate interests.