Ideology and Polarization Are Trumping All of the Old Rules of Politics

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Pick a side.Photo: The Battle of Azincourt by Enguerrand de Monstrelet

If you need convincing that 2015 wasn’t just an “outlier” of a year in American politics, where all of the old rules seemed to fly out the window, please read Mark Schmitt’s fascinating piece in the New York Times earlier this week that examines the rapid decline of some of the bedrock principles of political behavior we all used to take for granted. You cannot, he concludes, blame any of this weirdness on Donald Trump; it’s preceded his rise for a good while.

He may be changing the rules of the presidential primary race, but in the halls of Congress and in governors’ mansions across the country, politicians have already acted in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. By testing and breaking the rules, they have been reshaping the practice of politics since long before Mr. Trump emerged.

Members of Congress, Schmitt observes, are showing unprecedented independence from their own constituents, and so, too, are state elected officials. In both cases they are beginning to refuse to "bring home the bacon" if they dislike the ideological provenance of the cook:

[S]everal members even announced in 2013 that they would not assist constituents with problems involving the Affordable Care Act. The idea of not just neglecting but actively refusing constituent services, for reasons of ideology, would be unimaginable to the constituent-focused members of Congress of both parties elected beginning in the 1970s.

Governors, too, rejected everything from infrastructure spending to federal funding for Medicaid expansion. Even when they saw their approval ratings drop into the 30s, they survived. In 2011, Rick Scott of Florida rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for a commuter rail project and yet got reelected.

The widespread expectation that red states would accept the Medicaid expansion once the Supreme Court made it voluntary, as a deal too good to refuse, is an example of the old conventional wisdom.  In nearly half the states, ideology trumped helping constituents access available funds and services.

Schmitt believes that predictable partisan voting patterns and special-interest pressure have combined with ideology to all but kill the once-reigning assumption of American politics: the "median voter theorem," which held that politicians of both parties would inevitably cater to the interests of swing voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum in the pursuit of a majority. It’s the basis of the still-common belief that in competitive contests candidates have to "shift to the center" to win general elections no matter how much time they spend "pandering to the base" in primaries. If, however, an ever-higher percentage of voters simply and reflexively pull the lever for the party with which they identify, then keeping them motivated enough to vote — perhaps by negative attacks on the hated partisan foe — becomes far more important than appealing to an ever-shrinking number of "swing voters." Eventually, as Schmitt suggests, the whole idea of accountability to voters begins to fade, as pols try to figure out how to protect themselves via gerrymandering and oceans of special-interest money. 

[B]y recasting politics as a winner-take-all conflict between wholly incompatible ideologies and identities — as most of the presidential candidates have done — they help to closely align party and ideology, so that those who identify as Republican will always vote Republican and vice versa. When politicians know more or less who will vote and how, they can ignore most voters — including their own loyalists.

Schmitt attributes a lot of these trends to the conquest of the GOP by conservative ideologues, but also notes that the declining competition for median voters has liberated Democrats — themselves less constrained by a conservative minority that barely exists anymore — to think bigger and bolder thoughts about the role of government than they have at any time since the Great Society era. So judging the new rules of politics as a good or a bad thing will most definitely depend on one’s own ideological perspective. 

If Donald Trump didn’t cause the fading of the old political order, is he nonetheless benefiting from it? Quite probably so, in that he is the living symbol of spitting defiance to the belief of Republican elites that the median voter theorem required a less viscerally angry and culturally reactionary GOP. Indeed, political observers view Trump as strange and scary precisely because the old rules that would have consigned him to the dustbin of history don’t seem to be in operation anymore. We’d better all lower our resistance to the unexpected.