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October 02, 2013 3:28 PM Partisanship and Ideology

By Ed Kilgore

There’s a lot of confusing talk surrounding the current fiscal fight in Washington about “partisanship” and “hyperpartisanship” being the culprit, with or without the false equivalence premise that people in both parties are to blame. But that’s not exactly right, as my esteemed friend Mark Schmitt explains today at TNR:

“[P]artisanship” isn’t the cause of the shutdown. And we’d probably be better off if politicians—that is, Republicans—were thinking more about the interests of their own party. Consider that Republicans led themselves into the fever swamp of the shutdown even as many of its advocates said out loud that it would hurt the party, harm their election chances in 2014, and embarrass them, all without any possibility of achieving their objective of ending the Affordable Care Act.
Politicians motivated by the interests of a political party wouldn’t do this. Political parties in a winner-take-all electoral system are broad coalitions with an inherent interest in widening their scope to attract more people to their general vision. Their long-term goal is in winning elections, at many levels, now and in the future. So long as they are organized around a reasonably coherent philosophy (as the Democratic Party was not, when it was divided between Dixiecrats and northern liberals before the 1970s), parties are a stabilizing force in American politics, pulling it towards the median voter and offsetting the many other forces and interests that pull in other directions. The current Democratic Party, which trims and disciplines the aspirations of its core progressive activists, is a good example of a fairly strong party, which is why it’s consistently frustrating to the left.

Meanwhile, as Schmitt notes, pols like Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint aren’t strong partisans precisely because they are more than willing to subordinate the practical interests of the GOP to other interests, and spend much of their time and energy fighting and seeking to “purge” other Republicans.

I do not, however, entirely share Mark’s depiction of the GOP as a faction-ridden loose confederation of tribes with other loyalities. There’s fundamentally just one significant extra-partisan faction, and its primary goal isn’t to displace the GOP but to conquer it and then turn it into a strong and ideologically coherent party. But I do think Mark does offer an interesting analogy for these ideologues:

Cruz, the Koches, Sheldon Adelson, DeMint, and even Paul Ryan should be seen as something like the corporate raiders of American politics. They are trying to extract maximum value from their current position in the system, with little regard to the long-term future of the Republican Party and its shrinking demographic base, or for the system in which it operates.

It’s true today’s conservative ideologues want to maximize the policy “bang” produced by the GOP in the short term, at the possible expense of its long-term value as a political enterprise. But most people are in politics for purposes other than simply possessing power; that’s why most people are, however mildly or inconsistently, affiliated with an ideology. What makes today’s conservative insurgents unusual is that they view contemporary politics (and even culture) as occupying a crucial moment in American and global history, in which nothing but total victory is adequate. So who cares what happens to the GOP ten and twenty and thirty years down the road? To paraphrase the old slogan of the New Left: they want the world and they want it now.

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.

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