Why American Politics Really Went Insane

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Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Anaheim, CA
A non-bipartisan phenomenon.Photo: Spencer Platt/2016 Getty Images

It’s plain to many people that American politics has gone badly off the rails if we have reached the point where a bigoted and hyperbolically unqualified reality-television star can win a major-party nomination. But what, exactly, has gone wrong? One answer is that the presidential system is inherently unstable, because it pits the legislature against the executive. During the 20th century, the system worked because the ideology of the two parties overlapped heavily, but polarization has turned the mechanism designed by the Founders into a doomsday machine. Another answer specifically blames the extremism of the Republican Party, which, by the nature of its uniquely extreme ideas about the role of government, is unable to share power in a rational way. (These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I find each somewhat persuasive: The design of American government is vulnerable to collapse under the weight of a radical faction like the modern GOP.)

Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic cover story, headlined “How American Politics Went Insane,” offers up a third answer. Rather than the presidential system, or the Republicans, Rauch instead blames the demise of what he calls the “informal constitution.” American politics used to have practices like political machines, pork-barrel spending, powerful committees in Congress, and centralized fundraising, which drained the confrontation from the system and, even though it was ugly and sometimes corrupt, made things work. Reforming those practices has led to a more open form of politics that people hate, resulting in “reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics.” Rauch cites not only Trump but also the two major-party runners-up, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, both of whom ran as purists in opposition to the corruption and inefficiency of normal politics.

Rauch has some things right. Large numbers of Americans fail to understand the source of partisan conflict, find gridlock inexplicable, and retreat to a simplistic populism to make sense of the mess. But Rauch also fails to adequately or correctly explain the causes of political dysfunction. The trouble with his theory becomes clear if you run through his examples of government dysfunction. “House Republicans barely managed to elect a speaker last year,” and then hard-liners revolted against the Speaker’s budget deal; members of Congress are worried about “being the next Eric Cantor,” the House leader who lost his primary to an upstart tea-partier; it’s “hard to raise the debt limit or pass a budget”; the Senate has refused to consider any nominee at all for the Supreme Court vacancy; annual appropriations bills often fail to pass; the government has shut down, and Congress has threatened not to lift the debt ceiling; a grand bargain on the long-term deficit failed in 2011; plus, of course, Trump, whose nomination is the most important factual premise of Rauch’s essay.

The links between these failures and the causes that Rauch identifies for them are tenuous at best. More pork-barrel spending would not mollify the angry activists who drove Congress to shut down the government and oppose various deals; Congress banished pork-barrel spending because it enraged the activists. Nor is it easy to see how giving committees more power, or reverting to older forms of fundraising, would tamp down the populist uprisings that have scared members of Congress away from deal-making. Grassroots demonstrators have effectively scared away members of Congress from compromises that were struck in the open, behind closed doors, in committees, between the leaders of Congress, or anywhere else.

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life. That opposition has raged beyond their control, resulting in displays of anger like the shutdown, or birtherism, or the nomination of Trump that hamper rather than enable the party’s political interests. It is hard to see how Rauch’s list of small-bore process changes would have much impact one way or another on the basic incentive for the opposition to oppose.

The more serious problem with Rauch’s argument is this: Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party. Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal deal-making, or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges. Rauch is right that Sanders has encouraged unrealistic ideas about a revolution that would make compromise unnecessary, but the signal fact is that Sanders lost. And Sanders’s notion of a purifying revolution, while thrilling to a handful of left-wing activists, has no influence over Democrats in Congress — arguably not even with Sanders himself, who votes more pragmatically than his stump rhetoric would indicate. The disconnect implies a fatal flaw in Rauch’s analysis. Since he identifies causes of illness that afflict both parties equally, while the symptoms have manifested in only one of them, what reason is there to trust his diagnosis?

Indeed, the more closely we look at the composition of the two parties, the more obvious it is that only one of them truly exhibits the tendencies he describes. Over the last decade, writers like me, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, and Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have written about the growing asymmetry between the two parties. The GOP, but not the Democratic Party, is fully identified with an ideological movement. The almost-all-white Republican Party is far more ethnically monolithic than the polyglot Democratic Party, and more ideologically monolithic, too — more than two-thirds of Republicans identify themselves as conservative, while fewer than half of Democrats call themselves “liberal.” (Self-identified moderates and conservatives comprise a majority of the party’s supporters, albeit a shrinking one.) Democratic voters rely on news sources that, whatever their unconscious bias, strive to follow principles of objectivity and nonpartisanship. Republican voters mostly trust Fox News and other party organs that merely amplify the party’s message.

The political scientists Matt Grossmann and Dave Hopkins have found that Democrats tend to conceive of their policies in concrete terms, while Republicans present theirs in ideologically abstract terms. The pragmatic deal-making Rauch venerates is simply far more compatible with the style of the modern Democrats than the Republicans. (This is why the two-year period of Democratic control of Congress and the presidency from 2009 to 2010 produced several important reforms that brought together a diverse array of stakeholders, from business to labor, environmentalists and consumer advocates.)

A series of polls have all found that Democratic-leaning voters want their leaders to compromise, while Republican-leaning voters do not. Many Democrats feel frustrated with the system, but they want to make it work. Republicans do not feel this way at all. Rauch believes that restoring the kludgy legislative structures of the postwar era would bring back the same results those systems produced. But the 20th-century party system worked because the parties of that era were qualitatively different. Rauch’s proposal is merely one more in the latest of a series of well-intentioned but doomed plans to bring back a world that can never be restored.