The Rise and Fall of the Republican Party

I read Michael Lofgren’s excellent piece on the many failings of the Republican Party over the long weekend. It’s not exactly anything new so much as it is all put very well. Lofgren is a long-time (and now ex) Republican congressional staffer, so his dirt is the real thing, obvious resentment notwithstanding.

He notes that both the parties in our American duopoly are rotten. “But both parties are not rotten in quite the same way,” he writes. “The Democrats have their share of machine politicians, careerists, corporate bagmen, egomaniacs and kooks. Nothing, however, quite matches the modern GOP.”

He goes on to pick apart the many motivations driving the Republicans, foremost among them, at least for now, the desire to undermine government at every turn:

Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nominee for Senate confirmation and every routine procedural motion is now subject to a Republican filibuster. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Washington is gridlocked: legislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. As Hannah Arendt observed, a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself. […]

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

James Fallows observes:

Lofgren argues that today’s Republicans believe they are better off if government as a whole is shown to fail, not just this Democratic Administration. Republican hard-liners might seem to have “lost” the debt-ceiling showdown, in that they wound up even less popular than the Democrats are. But in the long view, Lofgren says, unpopularity for anyone in Congress, including their party’s leaders, helps the Republicans: “Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy,” because it buildings a nihilistic suspicion of any public effort, from road-building to Medicare to schools. (Except defense.)

The whole thing is worth a read. I’ll have more to say in subsequent posts.

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21 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Republican Party

  1. Late-night contribution: I’ve been mulling over this piece for a day or two now, as well as reactions to it (I found it through Fallows, as I suspect you did.) It mostly confirmed what I already felt was the case. But I’m quite alarmed by how many reactions are essentially throwing up their hands and saying ‘there is no way out of this.’

    I think especially of Fallows, who is usually so optimistic. What is this sense of malaise or deflation in the professional media sphere that seems to be rendering so many career political reporters and pundits paralyzed? I feel it too, when I speak to uninformed family or friends about legislative gridlock. I can almost feel their attention, or maybe their credulity, slipping away as I talk.

    When I read political reporting in mainstream news, I get the distinct sensation that the reporter also feels this, and is trying to write accordingly. What can be done to wake Americans up and crack the cynicism?

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  2. Our entire system is corrupt. It works like this: Republicans push the envelope of fucked-upness and Democrats institutionalize it. That Democrats high-fived and retweeted themselves into a stupor over a dude who says only that they are ‘slightly less rotten’ is pathetic.

    This article and all the hype surrounding it gets on my nerves. We’ve got a fucking disaster on our hands:a two-party system that is entirely controlled by the banksters and War Inc. At least when a Republican is in office, the left can find its conscience. It seems it lost it when Hopey Change got elected.

    I am sick of the hyperbolic exaggerating of the differences between the two parties. There isn’t one thing lefts disliked about Bush that Obama has not continued or extended.

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    • the corruption of the civil service into a place inhospitable to actual fairminded work (particularly by Republicans) has ended.
      the justice department is no longer firing people for being Democrats (and being remarkably upfront about that policy).

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  3. By the way, it should be clear from this Lofgren dude’s history that he is 100% riff-raff. He’s simply making a career change. I am a little disappointed to see Erik Kain, who I respect a great deal, getting on this bandwagon. Lofgren is clearly looking for book deals and consulting work. A career leopard doesn’t change its spots.

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  4. I don’t think any such thing as what Mr. Girard suggests is clear by looking at the history or anything else about Mr. Lofgren’s career or reflections. James Fallows says that he (Lofgren) was respected by many people he (Fallows) considers serious, and Fallows’ endorsement means something to me.

    The questions I would pose to top Republicans now would be the following: if they could be offered a deal in which they would be assured of a Republican president taking office in 2013 and Republican majorities in both houses if they chose to offer a set of hard economic outcomes that could be produced by November 2012 if the president would agree to sign into law absolutely whatever economic measures they think would be best to enact at this time and the outcomes were realized, but that if the outcomes were not produced the president would be reelected with absolute certainty, then 1) would they take the deal, and, if yes, then 2) what would that set of outcomes they’d identify that their economic policies would have to produce in a year’s time be?

    A further interesting question would be, again if they took the deal, what set of policies they would send to the president.

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  5. Let’s assume that what Lofgren and Fallows suggest is true and not merely the revisionist rantings of some wingnuts attempting to justify a particular trend in tactics, which is all I think it is (and FTR, I think Lofgren is overstating the case about tactics as well as buying in to the confusion between tactics and strategy).

    It’s an odd thing when the “conservative” side of society abandons respect for the institutions of government, but assuming this is truly the case, what sort of new, or at least modified, institutions would they create? Or are they anarchists? It doesn’t seem to me that Lofgren offers a coherent answer to that question — because Lofgren either hasn’t got the full briefing, or (more likely) there is no full briefing for him to get.

    There is no strategic goal beyond recapturing the majority. Once the GOP has the White House and both houses of Congress again, suddenly government will become a good, important thing for them again and our Constitutional institutions will become worth preserving and majority rule will be the watchword of good governance — just like it was from 2001 to 2006.

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    • I’m interested in the piece, not in quibbling with you for its own sake, Burt, so I am asking to clarify my understanding of Lofgren’s contentions here but:

      the revisionist rantings of some wingnuts attempting to justify a particular trend in tactics, which is all I think it is (and FTR, I think Lofgren is overstating the case about tactics as well as buying in to the confusion between tactics and strategy)

      My questions:

      1. It didn’t seem to me that Lofgren was trying to justify anything much at all in the piece; quite the opposite. Care to elaborate?

      2. I tend to think that the strategy/tactics frame tends to lose its acuity the further from its home context of military operations it is attempted to be applied. But I don’t reject the idea that it can be useful nonetheless. It’s just that it can be complicated to assign the various shakes and wiggles of nonmilitary organizations their appropriate places in the analogy for the frame to work as intended. Care to expand upon how you think the analogy works in the case of Republican politics over the last couple decades, and how Lofgren’s account confuses the levels in the paradigmatic way that this type of analysis often reveals?

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      • Lofgren isn’t justifying the stategy. He’s offering a window into things that were explained to him, an attitude or an explanation as circulated amongst GOP insiders, or maybe more accurately, operatives and apparatchiks. Perhaps I was inarticulate about that. I did not mean to suggest that Lofgren or Fallows (or I) endorse or justify the sort of unprincipled win-by-devaluing-what-you’re-trying-to-win thinking that Lofgren describes.

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    • “It’s an odd thing when the “conservative” side of society abandons respect for the institutions of government…”

      Actually, no. The “conservative side of society” is very much in favor of local government. It’s the Federal kind that they don’t like.

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        • I have heard exactly zero people say in person that they think government should be discredited, that government services are useless, or that disagreement between factions in Congress is some kind of evil Karl Rove strategy. The only people I’ve ever heard say it were commentators, either on the Internet or–very occasionally–on radio. (As I pointed out, Rush already said this, and then walked it back later.)

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          • I certainly agree that there is a disconnect between rhetoric that compels us to speak and what we actually want. Here, though, I wasn’t referring to radio hosts, I was referring to all the people who call the radio hosts.

            I think there are some very smart people out there that are indeed the real federalists you describe. But I think there are also a lot of people that like to bitch about any government body, regardless of size.

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  6. I can certainly imagine that libertarian ideologues, like me, would support scorched earth policies that especially discredit government in general, including particular Republican politicians and even the Republican Party. It would involve a willingness to throw the current crop of Republican politicians under the bus and perhaps even the Republican Party too.

    It is certainlyl possible, and even likely, that there are ideological libertarians among Congressional staffers. They might be willing to do the above, and even throw their own boss under the bus, though it is difficult to imagine they would be open about it.

    And certainly, it is possible that some Congressional staffersmwould plausibly think that their particular bosses are in safe districts and so that they and their bosses will continue on as gadflies no matter what.

    What could a libertarian ideologue want? James M. Buchanan argued for a Constitutional revolution. That would be a set of constitutional amendments that would greatly reduce the size and scope of government.

    Right now, there is not a super majority (or even majority) support for such changes. Getting support for policies that fundamentally tie the hands of government, reducing it and making it hard to increase it again, would require many more people to throw up their hands and give up on effective governance. Of course, from my perspective, it is really just seeing the inevitable problems with politics. The average voter has no selfish interset in paying much attention, so they are usually part of the problem. Then when we leave it up to the politicians, they generally respond to special interests and play negative sum games. That we will work really hard and convince the voters to generally elect public spirited politicians is hopeless.

    Other elements of the Republican coalition, especially the neoconservatives (or national security conservatives,) would be dead set against all of this. Social conservatives, particularly all of those from conservative states worked up about abortion may buy into the libertarian approach as regards the federal government. State or local governments would, in their view, enforce traditional moral values.

    Finally, I think the most likely scenario regarding Lofgren is really blowing up off the cuff joking remarks into some grand strategy. Fear of the Tea Party forces existing Republican politicians to block Democrats at every turn. If the Republican politicians want to avoid primary challenges and stay in office now, they must do what the Tea Party wants. If they don’t, some other Republican will replace them and do it. Some say, but this is making the Republican Party look bad, and some of us may lose office to Democrats. This may be true, but the real problem is that if you lose your next primary, you won’t even get to face the Democrat. But rather than admit that this is extreme short term thinking, they say, “Ah, but making government look bad will help reduce the size and scope of government. Isn’t that what we want. lol.” And Lofgren now thinks that these Republican insiders who buy into the strategy of Constitutional revolution described above.

    The reality, most likely, is that if the Tea Party went away, we would return to Big government Republicanism right away. And, likely, when there is a Republican President, the same will occur.

    The Tea Party started because of opposition to the big government ways of the Bush administration. If McCain had won, then they would have continued opposing big government, but with much less influence. But McCain lost, and suddently Fox, the Wall Street Journal, conservative talk radio are all behind the Tea Party. It is much stronger than it would have been.

    If the Republicans take power, then the Tea Party will be weaker. Fox, etc., will be behind the President and Republican big government. The weaker Tea Party will continue more or less as before. If it is strong enough, then it might be able to work through Congress as above (threats of primary challenges) to keep enough Republican members working to throw sand in the gears of the government. And, I suppose if Ron Paul becomes President, there will be efforts at Constitutional revolution.

    But that isn’t very likely, is it.

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    • we had congressional investigations into black helicopters back in 1990’s. don’t give me no bull about the teaparty. the republican’s didn’t man the ship in the 2000’s (let the credit card companies write bills so bad they invested jinglemail — idiots).

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  7. E.D. – If you read all your comments, I have a bug for you. You left out “/blog” on the author link in the attribution section. It took me a while to find it, but I got to your author page and saw (a quick scan) that you didn’t write about this again. Changed your mind?

    And I’m really here to pimp my post on Lofgren, starting with Mr. Lofgren Leaves Washington and many more. Thanks.

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