Republican Catastrophe Theory

January 24, 2011

As I remarked in my blog of 14 Jan 2011, President Obama has adopted a strategy of moderation, which embraces pragmatism, compromise, and restrained rhetoric.  In contrast, the Republican Party in general and its Tea Party wing in particular has adopted a strategy of tough talk that is idealistic, inflexible, and relies on inflammatory rhetoric.   Obama’s strategy is less effective in the short term, because it can make him seem weak; whereas tough talk often makes Republicans seem strong and decisive.  As a short term political tactic, attack ads, name-calling and fear mongering have served the Republican Party well since the time of McCarthy and it is especially effective in a climate of fear and desperation.  However, Republican’s reliance on their tough talk strategy is setting up a catastrophe dynamic that may in the long term prove self destructive.   

In that same blog I noted that Obama capitalized on the strength of his moderate strategy by casting the Giffords shooting as a referendum on tough talk.  The CNN Poll of Polls released last Thursday has delivered the result.  It showed that Obama’s approval rating is now 52%, up 5% from November.  All the constituent polls were taken after the shooting and also reflect Obama’s compromise deal with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for extending unemployment benefits.

The Republican’s tough talk strategy exacerbates the polarization of the American political process but the polarization itself springs from two more fundamental forces.  First, it is a Machiavellian axiom that a common threat promotes unity whereas security enables the natural forces of factionalism to take hold.  The demise of the Soviet Union removed the only tangible threat to America’s national security.  Second, state legislatures have gerrymandered electoral districts to such an extent that most of them are safe seats.  As a result, the most important battles for political power take place in primary elections and within factions of the two parties.  Hence, most politicians but Republicans in particular are perpetually playing to their base. 

Because of the shrinking number of contested seats, Republican and Democratic politicians seldom have to worry about appealing to moderates in the general election but increasingly focus their campaigns on winning primary battles.  To win a primary a politician must have two things, money and the support of the party’s ideological base.  Republicans, who have few problems raising money, have had to worry primarily about appealing to their base.  As a result Republicans have become more right wing.

However, Democratic politicians have had to worry primarily about funding, especially early in their primary campaigns.  The first financial report of the primary campaign has become a crucial test that determines who will remain a viable candidate.  To appeal to funding sources, especially early in the primary process, Democratic politicians must rely on the same source as Republicans, business interests.  Consequently, Democratic politicians have had to tone down their anti-business rhetoric and move toward the center.

Republicans tough talk has become more extravagant and abrasive as they have sought to extend their base from the moneyed elite to include blue collar Americans.  However, that strategy has obliged them to rely on scare tactics and propaganda, because the individual programs of the elite are not in the interests of the middle and lower classes.  For example, for obvious reasons of self interest, the Republican moneyed elite oppose progressive taxation, inheritance taxes, consumer protection regulation, and health insurance reform.  However, most Americans benefit from these policies and the Republican campaign against them has not been able to rely on appeals to the logic of self interest.

In spite of the inherent difficulties, funding from the party’s moneyed elite has produced an impressive propaganda campaign, which has focused on the right wing cultural agenda: opposition to sex education, HIV prevention via condoms, teaching evolution, abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, and denial of global warming.   Unfortunately, for Republican’s long term prospects, this campaign has been most effective among groups most vulnerable to propaganda but least valuable as a future political base: uneducated, Bible belt, blue collar Americans. 

Unfortunately, the Republican strategy has a self destructive dynamic, because each short term victory is purchased at excessive long term cost.  In the short term, Republicans win elections but become less electable in the long term.

In the few contested seats, each Democratic victory comes at the expense of one of the dwindling number of Republican moderates.  Each new Republican victory produces a Republican that appeals more to the Party’s ideological base but narrows the party’s general appeal. 

As Republican office holders become more radical, they naturally sound less moderate and increasingly use rhetoric that makes sense only to true believers.  For example, relying on scare tactics such as naming HR 2, the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law” appeals to the Republican base, but it is unlikely to appeal to independent voters.  

Thus each short term victory is purchased at substantial but deferred long-term cost.  Persistently playing to its increasingly radicalized partisan base undermines the foundations of the party’s long term success and sets the stage for a catastrophe.  Those of us who believe in political realism find that prospect unfortunate.  If the Republican Party implodes or abandons political realism in favor or reactionary idealism, the country will be left in the hands of left wing idealists. 

Unfortunate or not, a Republican collapse is a real possibility.  Constant reliance on increasingly radical propaganda, and increasingly dogmatic opposition makes Republicans seem intemperate, intransigent, or even perhaps dangerously unstable and makes them vulnerable to charges of fanaticism, obstructionism and just plain crazy talk.  

People are likely to embrace radical solutions only in desperate times.  Unfortunately for Republican prospects, by the 2012 election times will be much less desperate than they are today.  U.S. commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan will be winding down and its economy will likely be improving or at least stable and not calling for desperate measures.  In stable times Independent voters will likely view radicals as risky and favor a leader who they view as moderate and steady.

In addition, by 2012 the Republican Party will be paying a higher cost for past victories won by its tough talk strategy.   Two instances will be important. First, one of the costs of being confrontational is that it makes enemies, sometimes powerful ones.  The party’s gratuitously abrasive anti-immigration campaign has very likely not only spurred opposition but also prompted it to become better organized.  By 2012 the opposition of the growing Hispanic community could prove critical.  

Second, by 2012 the country will have added 4 more years of better educated young people to the voting population.  For these voters, the Republican cultural agenda will be more likely to seem like crazy-talk.

Vagueness is the enemy of moderation.  Unless a moderate program is very specific, it appears weak and indecisive.  To capitalize on Republican vulnerabilities Obama must advocate a specific, common sense agenda, that is simple and easily defended, but which the Republicans cannot support.  If he uses his State of the Union Address to set a clear moderate direction, he can make Republicans look intransigent and obstructionist.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: