Seesaw Politics and the 2014 Midterms

Americans are now living in an era of seesaw politics, in which each election is, to a large degree, a backlash against the results of the previous one. The 2010 “shellacking” suffered by the Democrats came in response to the wave elections that brought them to power in 2006 and 2008. The electorate swung the other way in 2012, giving Democrats a nationwide net gain of 8 seats in the House — not quite enough to restore them to a majority. And last week, in the 2014 midterm elections, voters registered their disappointment with the Obama administration by giving control of the Senate to Republicans.

It seems that many voters are motivated more by their disapproval of the party in power than by the vision each party is putting forward for the country. In fact, it can be hard to identify exactly what each party stands for, when so much of its energy is devoted to fear-mongering about what the other side plans to do, and when each is necessarily a broad coalition of diverse interest groups — fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, and “paleo” conservatives on the Republican side; labor unionists, social democrats, environmentalists, and progressives on the Democratic. These unwieldy coalitions mean that both sides include significant chunks of voters who don’t get what they want even when their party wins, as it tacks to the center in an attempt to govern. But in the zero-sum game of our two-party system, such voters are left without good options; they tend to become disillusioned and cynical, and either stay away from the polls or become subject to fear-mongering manipulations that lead them to repeatedly vote against, not for.

In an article published the day after the elections (“The Governing Trap”), the National Review’s editors provide a stark example of this dysfunctional seesaw-ism. Having secured a powerful majority of both houses of Congress, but not the presidency, the Republican Party should resist calls for it to prove it can govern effectively, they argue. Why? Four reasons are given:

  1. Although trade-promotion authority and corporate tax reform are two worthwhile reforms where the party could find common ground with President Obama, they do not appeal to large groups of voters. The clamor for these reforms comes from business lobbies, and Republicans will position themselves for a loss in 2016 if they are too closely identified with them.
  2. By trying to govern, Republicans would set themselves up to be blocked by Democrats — both Sen. Harry Reid, “whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election”, and President Obama with his veto.
  3. Trying to govern, for example by passing immigration reform, would lay bare the Republican divide between the establishment and the Tea Party, which the 2014 election managed to paper over.
  4. Even if the party manages to show that it can govern, it wouldn’t help it gain more power in the next election cycle: “If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?”

So what should the Republican Party focus on doing in Congress for the next two years? The editors say it “involves explaining what Republicans stand for — what, that is, they would do if they had the White House”. And that includes “laying out alternatives to Obamacare” and “advanc[ing] conservative ideas on taxes, jobs, energy, higher-education subsidies, and much else” — which mostly means “putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster. And that’s all right: Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016, but many Senate Democrats will.”

In other words, until they take control of the executive branch as well as Congress, the task for Republicans is not primarily to advance their national priorities through legislation, but to provoke the Democrats into blocking a conservative agenda so that people will vote against them in 2016. That’s seesaw politics.

Probably only satire can do justice to the absurdity of these ideas. So, I’ll give it the best I can muster, going point by point:

  1. Heaven forbid that a party would actually show the electorate its real priorities. Then they’d know what they were voting for. That sure would complicate the messaging!
  2. Since parties should never, ever cooperate to get things done, we should assume that the Democrats will be every bit as obstructionist as the Republicans have been. After all, everyone knows it’s a good electoral strategy to block your opponent’s moves, then blame him for not getting anything done.
  3. Republicans have worked so hard to present a unified face to the American people. Having to solve real problems of governance might upset that unity.
  4. The Republican brand is not about working together — especially not with a radical president like Obama. It has to be about control of all the branches of government. Without the presidency, there’s just not much point in trying.

It’s almost too rich. But as easy as it would be to blame, criticize, or make fun of the Republican Party for the existence of such ideas, I’d like to focus instead on what they say about the two-party system itself.

John Adams, our second President, wrote in 1780: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

The framers of our Constitution never intended for it to lead to a two-party system. Not once are political parties even mentioned. They envisioned a system in which legislators would all be involved in debating measures under consideration, which would be evaluated on their merits. But in the system we have today, one of two large factions has a majority, and they use it to lock the other out of the governing process.

Imagine a multiparty system in which no single faction sits in a majority of congressional seats. The parties would be “small-tent” parties, meaning they would not aim, unrealistically, to represent the beliefs of half the electorate: instead, they would stand for a coherent set of beliefs that voters could identify them with. On each issue they would have to make common cause with allies in other parties.

In such a system, the advice given by the editors of the National Review would make no sense. There would be no point in delaying legislation until one’s party gained a majority of seats. And when the party “in power” (say the one occupying the presidency) met with obstruction in Congress, it would be clearer to the people what was going on. There would be no chance of the obstructionists redirecting blame on their opponents in the name of a failure to govern, because government would be seen as a collaborative process rather than a zero-sum game.

The scary thing about this editorial is how much sense it does make. After all, the National Review is not a fringe publication: founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley, it’s one of the leading conservative journals in this country. Its editors are propounding an idea which could actually work — albeit cynically, in the short term, and irresponsibly — in the context of our dysfunctional two-party system. It’s that system which must be abolished, if we want to ensure that sanity reigns in Washington.

(Postscript: last night Stephen Colbert focused his satirical eye on this very story, and his explanation is well worth viewing.)


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