In the short time it has existed, Vox has proved to be one of the smartest sources on the internet; its “explains the news” feature, credible reporting and excellent writing have made it a “must go to” for many of us.
Recently, the site had a political science meditation by Lee Drutman, titled “Yes, the Republican Party has become pathological. But why?”
The article began by quoting an often-cited paragraph from Mann and Ornstein:
In Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s now-classic and still-true description of the party, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Drutman doesn’t quarrel with this observation, but says that the pressing question is why did the GOP go insane? And unlike those who pin the problem on flawed leadership, or the Christian Right, or even the racism that has become embarrassingly obvious, he argues that the opportunities and incentives that are built into the system are “design defects,” that have caused the astonishing dysfunction we now see.
My argument is that the modern Republican Party is a direct result of the design flaws of the American political system — our winner-take-all single-member electoral districts, our reliance on private money to finance elections, and our increasingly presidentialist system of government. You simply can’t understand the GOP’s pathologies without understanding the larger political system in which it operates.
Drutman’s argument begins with America’s two-party system. When voters are given only two choices, the key to victory is being less unappealing than those other guys. “Such is the twisted logic of negative partisanship.”
Drutman dismisses the widespread belief that American politics are ideological; that may be true for the so-called “elites” who are perhaps 10-15% of the voting public, but it doesn’t hold true for the average voter. Instead, voters look to their political parties to decide what policies they embrace, and they choose their party affiliation by deciding which “tribe,” is composed of people “most like me.”
At heart, when we vote, we ask the question: “Who represents people like me?” We support candidates who we think share our values. And here, party is a very strong cue…
Certainly we shouldn’t overstate the level of blind partisanship. But one of the most remarkable and consistent political science findings is how little voters really think for themselves. This is why many previously moderate Republicans didn’t leave the party as it moved rightward — they just became less moderate. Their ideology was far more flexible than their partisanship, because it was less deeply rooted.
All well and good–but if it is the system that has produced today’s cult-like GOP, why haven’t the Democrats similarly gone off the rails? Drutman quotes Jonathan Chait:
The] Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike.
… There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites.
But what about Drutman’s assertion that America’s political design has incentivized the GOP’s troubling behaviors?
One factor is that the past three decades have been a very unusual period in American politics, in which national elections have all been quite competitive, with the balance of partisan control of institutions hanging in the balance. Because American institutions are majoritarian, and because the president has considerable power, a small number of votes can mean the balance between two very different outcomes. When the stakes are this high, the political incentives push hard on gaining every little advantage.
Drutman points to gerrymandering and the single-member plurality-winner district design feature that makes gerrymandering possible. And at the end of his essay, he comes back to the (considerable) drawbacks of a two-party system.
It’s long, but the entire thing is well worth reading.