Over at The American Prospect, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote a great long article, No Cost for Extremism. It is about the rightward march of the Republican Party. In fact, it is subtitled, “Why the GOP hasn’t (yet) paid for its march to the right.” It’s worth reading in total. But a few things struck out to me. The primary one is dealt with right away: this ridiculous narrative in the mainstream media that in 2014, the establishment (or even more bizarrely “moderate”) wing of the party got control and that is why they did so well in the election. That just isn’t true.
I think three things went on. The first is that the Republican Party did a better job of controlling their message. But they did nothing to change the messengers. As Hacker and Pierson note, the Congressional Republicans are more extreme than they have been in the modern era. The second issue is that the mainstream media was so determined to push the narrative that the “adults” were back in charge of the GOP that it distorted the candidates. Rather than report on Joni Ernst’s well documented record of truly loony beliefs, most of the reporting was on her challenger Bruce Braley’s chicken scandal. If you’re covering a truly scary Republican and you are determined to claim that it is the year of the establishment, you make a big deal out of anything that ever happened to the Democrat.
But by far the biggest reason that the Republicans did so well in the 2014 election is found in one number: 35.9%. That was the turnout for the election. It was the lowest turnout of any election since World War II. There are only three elections with lower turnout in the last 200 years: 1942 (33.9%), 1926 (32.9%), and 1922 (35.7%). So as usual, the Republicans do well when few people come out to vote. Because the two kinds of people who have time to vote — the rich and the old — always come out. That’s not to take anything away from the Republican triumph. They appeal to a more consistent voter, so good for them. But let’s drop this idea that the Republicans did well in 2014 because the Republicans moderated or started acting like adults.
Actually, what’s happening is that what were once considered the extremists in the Republican Party are now just defined as the moderates. Look at John Boehner. He is now considered the very definition of the establishment. Everyone feels sorry for him for having to deal with the extremists in his party. But when he came into Congress in the early 1990s, he was considered an extremist. He was to the right of Newt Gingrich. And it isn’t that he’s mellowed over the years. It’s just that the rest of his party has gotten even more crazy.
The article goes on to argue (as I do quite often myself) that Republicans benefit from our system of government where no one is ever held accountable. It is rare that one party is in total control in Washington. So when the Republicans make government dysfunctional, all that happens is that both parties are blamed. What’s more, it only adds to public cynicism about government, which helps the Republicans in the long term.
Ultimately, Hacker and Pierson really don’t provide an answer to the problems that we face. The big issue is that there is a truth: the Republican Party gets more extreme by the day. But the media refuses to report this. It insists upon framing everything as Democrats vs Republicans, as though they were a static frame. Also, it reports Republican victories as if they represented the will of the people. So we can’t have a reasonable political debate for the same reason we can’t tackle climate change: because our media have defined the actual truth as a partisan opinion. Our media is postmodern, and the Republican Party was quick to figure out how to exploit that. We can fight back, but I’m afraid we will only win with the help of a crumbling America brought on by Republican policy.