Why American politics went insane (in three words)

The Republican Party.

Kidding.  Sort of.  Anyway, the title of Jonathan Rauch’s provocative Atlantic cover story is “How American Politics Went Insane.”  His answer is that it basically comes down to misguided reform efforts that have made it much more difficult to get the dirty work of politics done.  He definitely raises some good points, but as you read it really is kind of amazing how virtually all the examples of government dysfunction he relies upon come from the Republican Party.  Chait, nicely sums this up:

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.

And, as for Democratic dysfunction, well, it’s possible!  Rauch writes:

So far the Democrats have been mostly spared the anti-compromise insurrection, but their defenses are not much stronger. Molly Ball recently reported for The Atlantic’s Web site on the Working Families Party, whose purpose is “to make Democratic politicians more accountable to their liberal base through the asymmetric warfare party primaries enable, much as the conservative movement has done to Republicans.” Because African Americans and union members still mostly behave like party loyalists, and because the Democratic base does not want to see President Obama fail, the Tea Party trick hasn’t yet worked on the left. But the Democrats are vulnerable structurally, and the anti-compromise virus is out there.

Yes, I’m sure the Working Families Party will change everything!

Back to Chait:

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. [emphasis mine] 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.

Again, Rauch does make a number of good points and his piece is well worth reading, but in many ways we would be better served by figuring out how exactly the Republican Party went insane and what we can do about it.  As I’ve said before and will surely say again, I actually want a political system with a strong, sane, Republican party.  We are better off as a country where we have sane party that pushes harder for smaller government, market-based solutions, etc., not that these are always right, but there is real value in interplay between reasonable positions.  Alas, there’s not much reasonableness left in today’s GOP.

Also, a good and thorough response– hitting on an entirely different set of issues– from Lee Drutman.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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