Too Right to Be Wrong
"We’re very excited," Michelle Bachmann told The Washington Post on the eve of the government shutdown. "It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it." For sixteen days, a small group of hardline conservatives in the House of Representatives managed to force Speaker John Boehner’s hand and prevent a "clean" continuing resolution – which would have re-opened the government – from reaching the House floor. According to Robert Costa, the Washington editor for The National Review, it only took about forty far-right House members to force the rest of the Republican caucus to grandstand on the debt limit. These forty, mainly Tea Party-affiliated conservatives, were able to threaten another 60 to 80 members of the Republican caucus with the prospect of primary challenges. Boehner suddenly had a hundred House Republicans unwilling to vote with him on any deal that did not include the defunding of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In the face of immense pressure from both the left and moderate Republicans to yield, and despite repeated warnings from Speaker Boehner himself that a government shutdown could adversely affect the standing of the GOP, the hardliners held firm. They threatened the unity of the Republican Party and undermined the credibility of Boehner at the negotiation table with the President, despite the fact that most objective observers and GOP insiders saw defunding Obamacare in October as a lost cause. So why did these Tea Party congressmen view a platform of shutdown and potential government default as tenable? What insulated them from the negative consequences of this stance?
Over the past thirty years, a brand of anti-government rhetoric has overtaken the far right of the GOP, spurring populist anger in voters that has propelled more radical candidates to office. On the far right of the House caucus now exist politicians motivated not to compromise or resolve crises, but to decrease the competency of government. No motivation exists to prove that government can function, because populist anger fuels Tea Party reelection. The main incentive of Tea Party legislators is to validate their constituency’s worldview, stemming from decades of GOP rhetoric, of an inefficient, bloated Washington bureaucracy.
This anti-government sentiment began as a reactionary response to the "big government" policies espoused by President Franklin Roosevelt and his immediate successors, who convinced a generation of Americans that the federal government had a substantial role to play in improving the lives of individual citizens. The era culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision of a "Great Society" and significant expansion of federal programs attempting to alleviate poverty. The New Deal coalition of voters who supported these programs collapsed, however, in the late sixties and seventies, as a series of crises began to erode faith in the federal government: Vietnam, the economic malaise of the seventies, and Watergate. From this climate emerged President Ronald Reagan, who would permanently change the rhetoric used to describe the federal government. He put the nail in the coffin of the New Deal coalition, corroding faith in government and replacing it with cynicism. He once joked that the nine most feared words in the English language were, "I’m from the government and I’m here to help."
The Pew Research Center has compiled data from several polling firms dating back to 1960 to determine how much trust citizens have in Washington. Figures from the reign of the New Deal coalition consistently show that about 70 percent of the public trusted DC almost always or most of the time. This figure plummets throughout the Nixon and Carter administrations; yet, despite the economic success and high presidential approval ratings of the Reagan presidency, the trust never recovers. Public trust in government hovered around 40 percent during the Reagan administration. Reagan’s rhetoric successfully disassociated the public’s approval of his administration with the public’s perception of government in general.
Newt Gingrich, while leading Republicans to their recapture of the House in 1994, relied upon this same populist anti-government message that Reagan had established as a cornerstone of the modern GOP. He tapped into the populist anger by giving the "Contract with America," his plan for Congressional action once in power, directly to the American public. Notable planks included pledges to reduce taxes, drastically reform welfare by reducing eligibility and cash assistance, and impose congressional term limits. Born from the rhetoric of Reagan, the contract attempted to reduce the power and scope of what was characterized as a failing government. As Gingrich argued on the eve of the 1994 midterms, "The political class across this country, from city council to county commission to state government to the Federal Government, has failed to be responsive to people."
Gingrich continued the rhetorical legacy of Reagan, building his platform around anti-government sentiment. He continued to grow a segment of Republican voters that saw most government action as inherently wrong. During the 1994 midterm campaign, trust in government would float around 25 percent. It would fall even lower, bottoming out around 20 percent, in the run-up to the government shutdowns orchestrated by Gingrich. Mainstream politicians should be alarmed by that figure, but for politicians running as perpetual outsiders and railing against a "Washington machine," an eroding faith in government only makes it easier to peddle their message. Gingrich’s shutdown contributed to Clinton’s 1996 reelection, but it also provided a playbook that the most radical wing of the GOP could refer to a decade and a half later.
Reagan and Gingrich had grown a wing of the Republican Party fundamentally opposed to most domestic government action, and this wing reemerged as a reaction to Barack Obama’s election. The Tea Party rose to prominence in late 2009, a byproduct of the immense grassroots anger stirred up by the debate over healthcare reform. Largely decentralized and spontaneous, the Tea Party has no leader who can claim to have sparked the movement. Due to its grassroots organization, with hundreds of different chapters around the nation, the Tea Party also lacks a unified platform; unlike 1994’s Contract with America, today there is no specific agenda to rally around. Contemporary Tea Party-backed politicians have no universal, constructive proposals that will connect with their base, so they must run almost purely on a platform to repeal Obama administration legislation and battle an unpopular bureaucracy. They campaign almost solely on anti-government rhetoric. And in the last several years, most notably in the 2010 midterms, their methods have been working. That watershed election catapulted 93 new representatives into the House, of which 84 were Republican. Of those 84 Republicans, 63 had won their seat from a Democrat, resulting in a transition of power: John Boehner was now Speaker, tasked with controlling the largest influx of Republican freshmen into the House of Representatives since 1948.
These new members of congress refuse to play by the traditional rules of Washington, costing Boehner and the Republican leadership in the House several avenues traditionally used to control their caucus. The costliest loss has been earmarks. Many Tea Party candidates had campaigned on a platform to eliminate earmarks from Congress. It had previously been common for party leadership to entice an intransigent member from its own caucus into voting for an appropriations bill – a bill to supply money to the government – by adding earmarks to the bill that would fund a project in the member’s home district. Essentially, earmarks served as one form of leverage that congressional leadership could use to cajole party members to fall in line. Boehner, however, heeded the demands of his Republican caucus: earmarks have been banned from appropriations bills ever since the GOP retook the House.
Republican leadership lost another form of leverage due to the tremendous success of conservatives at the state level in 2010. Republicans took control of 25 state legislatures, compared to fifteen for Democrats (ten states have two chambers that are split). These redefined state legislatures were then able to redraw congressional districts after the census, resulting in many new dark red districts in which the greatest primary threat to a conservative lawmaker comes not from the center, but from the right. Therefore, the threat that the Republican National Committee or the Chamber of Commerce will throw money at a moderate primary challenger if you vote ‘no’ to fund the government becomes less menacing than the threat that the Tea Party will mobilize around a more conservative candidate if you vote ‘yes’.
Finally, the most basic form of leverage lost by the Republican leadership has been loyalty. 46 percent of the 233 Republicans in the House have served for less than three years. They do not have the same relationships with fellow congressmen that their older peers do. They do not share the same respect for the speakership that comes with years of congressional experience. There were whispers that Boehner would have to fight a Tea Party insurrection in his bid to be reelected speaker at the beginning of the current 113th Congress. Boehner has not been afforded the luxury of most former speakers in knowing that his job will be safe from intraparty squabble.
An increase in anti-government rhetoric produced this revolution in Congress. For years the Republican Party has preached against government. Therefore, the supporters of Tea Party congressmen do not care how much earmarked spending returns to their district, because they dislike government spending as a rule. They do not vote for more moderate primary challengers, because these voters want the country to move in a radically different direction. They do not judge their congressmen by their ability to toe the party line and compromise, because they are fundamentally opposed to what most long-term budget compromises in Washington would entail – a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes. These voters are driven by populism; they are voting against a perceived network of Washington elites, trying to overhaul the system.
The Republican congressmen who have won election on the back of Tea Party rhetoric therefore find themselves in a unique position, insulated more than any other group of lawmakers in recent memory from centralized party control. If these politicians cannot be coerced by earmarks, cannot be threatened with primary challenges from the national Republican Party machine, and cannot be swayed by party loyalty, what does incentivize the Tea Party wing of the House to act? Their political survival depends upon the ability to sustain the popular anger that elected them. They are immune to the political pressures that the rest of Washington faces because their job does not depend on the ability of Washington to function. It depends upon the opposite: Washington’s dysfunction drives the populist anger that keeps them in power.
The impact that this most radical wing of the party, created by Reagan and nurtured during the Gingrich revolution, has had in Congress can be traced over the last forty years using the DW-NOMINATE scale. Political scientists often turn to this scale, which measures how far from the congressional center a lawmaker votes using roll-call records, to determine the level of partisanship in Congress. A score of -1.0 would represent the most liberal voter, a score of +1.0 the most conservative, and zero represents the congressional center.
In 1980, about half of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives could be considered moderate (the creators of the DW-NOMINATE system consider moderates to be within the range -0.25 to 0.25). In the last Congress, the 112th, only one member of the 240-strong Republican caucus fell into the range that DW-NOMINATE considers moderate. As moderates have fallen away from the House Republican caucus, the most conservative wing of congressmen continues to drift to the right. In 1980, the average DW-NOMINATE score for a congressman in the top tenth most conservative percentile was 0.4. Today those in the most conservative tenth percentile average a score of approximately 0.9. For comparison, during that time the average score of the most liberal ten percent of House Democrats has remained steadily between -0.5 and -0.6.
According to this measure, the 40 or so congressmen that forced Boehner’s hand in the most recent debt limit/government shutdown crisis are some of the most radical in the modern history of Congress. They refuse to compromise or vote based on anything other than principle, having no motivation to do so, because a dysfunctional House plays into their worldview. They can return to their districts and decry to their voters the failures of government. They can sustain the populist anger.
If we judge the competency of government by its ability to pass legislation, we can see a direct correlation between strong anti-government rhetoric and a subsequent decrease in Congressional competency. Anti-government rhetoric was most prominent during the Gingrich revolution, which preceded the 104th Congress, and during the era of the Tea Party, which includes the 112th and 113th Congresses. Predictably, once in power, these congresses resulted in historic levels of gridlock. The 104th Congress set a record in futility, passing only 333 public laws, well off the post-war average of about six hundred. Its record was undercut by the 112th, which passed only about 220 public laws, despite the fact that President Obama did not use a single veto. The current Congress is on pace to underperform the 112th. When politicians who campaigned on anti-government rhetoric hold sway over Congressional action, there is little incentive to prove that government is competent.
For 40 years, politicians on the right have been disparaging government as an institution. Voters have been conditioned to hate government, leading to populist sweeps like the 1994 and 2010 elections. When these populist politicians assume office, they do not try to fix government, because their reelection depends on their ability to use the same anti-government rhetoric that got them there in the first place. We are placing people in charge of government who hate government and who are motivated to decrease the competency of government. The idea of a broken Washington that swept these people into power becomes a reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Congress becomes less productive, debt limit debacles become more common, and the likelihood of shutdowns increase.
If the Republican Party hopes to avoid more Tea Party rebellions in the future, it desperately needs to adjust its rhetoric. In the short term, this means identifying and grooming moderate primary competitors to challenge the language of the Tea Party during the 2014 midterms. In the long term, the national party must move away from aggressively attacking government, because it leads to extremism on the fringes. Democrats have for years argued for increased public sector solutions to national problems, while still attempting to curry the favor of the private sector. Republicans should be able to advocate for smaller government and increased privatization without demonizing the public sector. As it now stands, the Republican Party has convinced a segment of the population that government is antithesis to the health of this nation. It has enabled a radical collection of far-right congressmen to eschew all compromise and centralized party direction. Tea Party politicians in Congress can afford, even relish, the political ramifications of a shutdown because, after forty years of anti-government rhetoric, these congressmen only need to re-affirm to their voters that government cannot function.