The Shutdown: Polarization, Batman, and the Devolution of the Republican Party

UPDATE 10/25/13: Though the government shutdown has passed and the default averted (for the time being) the arguments forwarded by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein are still pressing and current. The government is still polarized and dysfunctional, and we still have the potential of another budget showdown this January.

Note: You may be thinking a post on this topic is late, considering the government shutdown started over a week ago. You may be thinking I don’t have my stuff together. Considering Congress still hasn’t solved the crisis with the default looming on October 17, I guess you could say I am pretty much on top of things.

I usually try to avoid writing about politics, but I feel that the situation in Washington, D.C. is too big to ignore.

On October 1st, 2013, (the first day of the government shutdown), I attended a lecture by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, authors of the book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. In their lecture, they explained our current state of gridlock and the history leading to our heightened state of polarization.

I shall try to do my best to summarize this history here. Mann and Ornstein argue that our current state of gridlock comes from the fact that the two political parties, especially the Republican Party, are behaving like parliamentary blocs. The problem: We don’t have a parliamentary system. Our government has three branches, with a separation of powers that demands compromises between the branches and the parties that comprise them. This is what James Madison envisioned when he wrote many of the Federalist Papers.

This parliamentary philosophy of “never compromising” that has been taken up by many House Republicans stems from a situation that arose in the 1990s. The Republican Party had held the White House for 12 consecutive years, so they began to feel entitled to presidential power. When Bill Clinton defeated George Bush Sr. and Ross Perot in 1992, this stranglehold on the presidency was broken, leaving the party rootless.

            Then, in 1994, Republicans took control of the House for the first time since 1946. Democrats had had a near half-century of House dominance, and while this dealt a blow to the Democratic Party, this victory strongly excited Republican leaders. The government shutdown of 1995 and 1996 serves as a foreshadowing of the polarization to come. All in all, Republicans would remain the majority party in the House for 12 years, until the 2006 elections, when Democrats took the Senate and Congress in devastating defeats for the Republican Party.

            After the 2006 defeats, Republican leaders such as Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner decided to adopt a new strategy. They would stick together as a party on every issue, acting effectively as a parliamentary bloc. They would also actively recruit populist candidates whom they would hope to use to gain the majority and enact the traditional conservative agenda.

            A traditional conservative agenda would consist of pragmatism, of a philosophy of smaller government. This is a necessary function for one party in a two-party, bicameral legislature to posses.

            The candidates they ended up recruiting, however, turned out to be populists in the form of the “Tea Party.” The recruited candidates were elected based on platforms of extremism; in many cases, platforms that consisted of the elimination of all government. This is not conservatism—this is a radical and extreme version of libertarianism.

            Once the House Republicans took power in the 2010 elections, they were very excited, again. Now they had power, and they were going to show Obama that they had it by blocking his every move.

            This is not the function of a government based on a separation of powers. This does not work for a government with separated powers—usually, when gridlock happens in other countries such as England, they hold more elections until the gridlock eases, and coalitions often form to create effective majorities. Coalitions across multiple parties. In parliamentary systems, there are more than two parties, so big cross-coalitions can form, but when there’s only two—that’s when you run into problems.

            The House Republican leaders, such as John Boehner, thought they could lead the recruited extremist candidates wherever they wished. They thought they could effectively co-opt them and control them.

            But these extremist congressmen don’t think in terms of the old politics of Washington—ideally, this would be refreshing; this is what we mean to do whenever we vote the bums out.

            But these extreme congressmen do not compromise. They adhere to their beliefs. They think they are pulling a “grand strike” for their ideals, reminiscent of John Galt’s strike in Ayn Rand’s influential novel Atlas Shrugged.

            There is a problem with this thinking. The American public idealizes individualists, vigilantes; those that work outside the system to solve problems. These are characters like John Galt, Dirty Harry, and even Batman.

            But Batman is not the hero America needs. Unfortunately, he is the hero America deserves.

            A tribalism has infected both political parties, a tribalism that consists of “If you’re for it, I’m against it, and if I was against it before, I’m going to change my mind because now you’re for it.” (This quote is directly from Mann and Ornstein.)

            A recent Onion article joked that today’s Congress is accurately representing the American public by standing off and failing to compromise, and this holds true. Not only is Washington paralyzed with polarization, but the tribalism extends to the American public, who increasingly get their information from biased sources, fueling the misunderstandings and anger.

            The government needs a strong Republican party to function. As I consider myself a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I recognize this to be true. But we need a Republican Party that is traditionally conservative, one that believes in a more efficient government, not the absence of one. One that helps the acting president pass legislation, but legislation that acts as a compromise between the two parties. Both parties need to give something up for the crisis to pass.

            Mann and Ornstein proposed two solutions to the current crisis. The terms they used I have placed in quotes. (1) Boehner can take “heroic” steps to form a new majority by rallying 30 “sensible” Republicans and the 190 or so Democrats in the House, and then pass legislation to fund the government. This action would surely lose his speakership, but it would reform his image as an indecisive and weak Speaker.

            (2) The other option, one markedly less favorable, is that Obama could take some extraordinary action to fund the government, invoking some emergency power or other. For this action, Obama would surely be impeached by the House, but not removed from office. An impeachment would be necessary in this case because it would be a breach of the Constitution and setting precedents for constitutional violation should not be encouraged.

The authors quipped that they wished they could re-release their book with the title It’s Even Worse Than It Is, adding that their book makes a “great holiday gift.”

Here’s hoping that things get better, because the authors went on to say this situation is like a horror movie along the lines of Friday the 13th Part II. Though this is the second time we’ve had a shutdown in the past twenty years, it also means we’re bound to have seven more rounds of intense conflict and problems. We’re bound to have disastrous sequels unless both parties get their act together and polarization lessens.

In sum: It’s even worse than it looks. And it looks worse with every passing day. As Bane from the Dark Knight movies might say, “It’s America’s reckoning.”

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