“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated” -Mark Twain
The Republican party is undergoing a rapid and drastic change. As we speak, all sorts of factions vie and joust for preeminence within a party that seems to be deflating overnight. People associated with the party for a long time look about them in disbelief, as if after an airplane crash where there seems nothing at all recognizable left of the original vehicle, just little pieces strewn as far as the eye can see.
It is speculated that the GOP have become the new Whigs, and will inevitably be cast aside in favor of a one party state into the foreseeable future. Of course, this sort of speculation is frivolous.
What happened to the GOP becomes clear with the benefit of some distance from the tremendous shifts of the 2006 and 2008 elections. It is linked to a massive shift across the board amongst our media, political class, and intelligentsia that has been so big as to have gone almost unnoticed until now.
The problem with the GOP from an electoral perspective in both 2006 and 2008 stem from a fairly simple source, but that source is deeply rooted and readjustment will inevitably be painful.
As a Congressional staffer, I worked on Capitol Hill, and saw the GOP leadership in the House from a relatively close vantage point. As a member of my generation, and coming as I do from California, I found the culture of Washington DC to be unique, and that found within Republican areas of Congress even more so. That is the first clue as to what went wrong for the party
Washington is anachronistic. The culture is a leftover from an earlier age. While the rest of the nation is culturally very firmly in the 21st century, the area inside the Washington DC beltway is probably approaching the 1980s or so. This cultural divide is a result of necessity, it is the natural effect of the machine that Washington is and the function it serves.
For decades, we were every bit the Republic. We sent our representatives to Washington based largely on our estimate of their judgment, with no idea what issues they may have to face in the years until the next election, and we judged them based on what we thought that they had done, based largely on the reports of a few media outlets and the statements they released themselves. Since the machinery for more direct government simply did not exist, this was the best system we could use, and it worked quite well for a very long time.
In the resulting culture within Washington itself, something I call the “cult of the gentleman”, and more negative people describe as an “old boy’s club” developed. It was the logical creation of our very political system, and it too had it’s uses. In this system, a person sent to Washington had to be a “gentleman” to get anything done. A gentleman was somebody who was first and foremost loyal to his friends, who stood absolutely on his word to his close associates, and who closed deals with a handshake, not a contract, and certainly never a press release. Because representatives were there to act as independent agents on behalf of the voters, and could receive but little input from those voters thanks to distance and technological limitations, they were effectively on their own. They had to rely on their own judgment exclusively, and since the landscape of Washington is composed of other such persons, the first skill they had to know was how to be a gentleman, so as to get along with the other Washingtonians, so that they could get something done; because you could not accomplish anything if you could not sign others on to your initiatives.
This is where “horse trading” comes from. Elected agents would agree to support one another, just as bloggers today mutually link to one another for support. One would vote for the bill his friend proposed, not based on the contents of that bill, but based on his relationship to it’s author. In return, one of his bills would be supported. This was logical, since politicians could rely on face to face contact with people they spoke to every day, and had to rely on one another’s word, just as their constituents relied on them based on their word.
What has happened in the last ten years is a technological revolution in America that is easily as significant as the opening of the first newspaper presses in the American Colonies. This change was rapid, and it has not yet reached the full extent of it’s tremendous impact on our whole civilization. Suddenly, average voters are able to track, through a constant stream of information coming onto the internet, the activity of their representatives in far greater detail than ever before. Suddenly people could speak back quickly and efficiently in real time, and they could use the internet to organize rallies and political activities all by themselves, coming together like the crystal in saline solution; spontaneously, with only a small spark.
In the old Washington, you voted for the bill your friend proposed because he was close and your constituents were far away. It is quickly changing into a situation where your constituents are close and your friend is far away; separated by the barriers to human interaction we all experience as information flows at us in an ever increasing stream. This utterly changes the paradigm for Washingtonians, but they are the last to realize it.
What we ourselves do not realize is the extent to which this has shifted the political game in the United States. Nor do we understand how irrevocable that shift has been. Both the Democrat and Republican parties have for many decades had two fundamental factions within their ranks; “personality politicians” and “ideology politicians”. To a greater or lesser extent, virtually every politician of any party can be placed in one of these two categories.
A personality politician runs on his personality, he makes the case that he can be trusted with the power to represent a given region because of his inherent judgment, character, or wisdom. The ideology politician makes the case that his ideology (which he will elaborate if he wants to be successful) is one which most closely represents the people of his district. This is a divide long understood and written about by political scientists; the obligation of a politician to try to accurately represent his constituents or the obligation of a politician to use his own judgment. There is no one answer to this, it is not black and white, and a politician will always have to strike some balance between what he perceives to be the will of his constituents and what he perceives to be the right thing to do.
As a result of far greater technical ability to follow every word and action of politicians, via people recording them with cellphone cameras, vloggers following them with palmcorders, and the old established leakers and journalists of days gone by, we have become a far more well informed body politic than previously. The result is the triumph of the ideological politician over the gentleman politician.
Now, traditionally, an ideologue was mistrusted in Washington, because they necessarily saw everything through the lens of their ideology. Nobody wanted to work with a guy who lived his life as a result of a political ideology. Why is this? Just think about it, you may vote for a guy who does nothing but spout his political ideology, and who becomes fiery and enraged when somebody strays from the political line, but would you want to have a drink with him in the Republican Club (or local bar)? Even more to the point; would you want that guy in your living room all the time? No, gentlemen, though ideologically slippery, were far and away more congenial to be around, and even when standing in opposition to you, were ready to go out for cocktails after the day’s joust was over. Thus, ideologues gained a reputation as people who couldn’t be taken seriously. They could raise an angry mob back home, but in DC, they couldn’t get anything done, because they estranged people.
But you say, if we are “closer” now to our politicians than we were, shouldn’t the gentlemen be rewarded for being personable? In answer, I ask if you have ever read the comments on your average youtube posting. We do not consider the internet to be equivalent to sitting in the bar with someone or we wouldn’t treat online postings the way we would a bathroom wall at a truck stop. We would never think to write on any part of our homes what we write on online forums. No, we are incredibly critical, often hostile, and always highly ideological when online, and are personable, quiet, neighborly, and uninterested in politics when we meet our neighbors mowing their lawns. That is the America of the 21st century.
Simply put; he is rewarded who can consistently put forth an ideology and intelligently defend it, and is rewarded more to the extent that that ideology is broad and consistently fits with the facts of our world. What a gentleman politician can explain eye to eye in a cocktail lounge inside the Beltway sounds like absurd flip-flopping when he explains it in writing to an online critic. In this environment, ideology is king.
The Democratic party has already dealt with this revolution, but the GOP is only going through this transition now. Back in the late 1990s, I was very surprised at the degree to which the Democratic party was beginning to drift leftward. This accelerated rapidly after President Clinton left office, and I was puzzled, and incorrectly assumed (based on 20th century political calculus) that as they moved hard to the left, they would alienate the center, which they needed for national office.
You saw personality politicians in the Democratic party left behind (Sen. Joe Lieberman is a perfect example). I knew something significant was going on when the Democrats could nominate Lieberman as Vice Presidential nominee for the 2000 election, only to abandon him as too centrist in 2006. How could a party move that much, ideologically speaking, in so short a time? How could Al Gore run as hard left as he could, for as long as he could and still be sidelined and honestly be probably too moderate for today’s Democratic party? How could Hillary Clinton have been undermined and ultimately toppled from the left in 2008? Even more interesting is why the Democrats could move so hard to the left and win such a big majority in the 2008 election if the entire nation has not shifted very much?
Clinton lost in 2008 because she was using the old calculus; you have to win the middle, and personality is more important than consistent ideology. Simply put, in the no holds barred debate forum of today’s America, a politician who consistently maintains a single ideological stance over time will win out over one who does not. Just consider the case of the criticism of Hillary’s vote on the Iraq war. Just look at Barack Obama’s voting record. He is as rock-ribbed liberal as you can be. With so many easy to use online rating systems and sites that describe every vote a politician ever made, it is easy for bloggers and pundits, and anybody else to look at a voting record boiled down to hard facts. It is easier to defend a consistent record from critics who disagree with your premises than to defend an inconsistent record from people who question your judgment.
If we analyze any one vote to make a demonstration, we should look at the most important vote cast by the Republican majority since the decision concerning the Iraq war; the financial services bailout vote of August 2008. In this vote, the GOP was split. The party divided neatly between those who stood by the Bush administration, and those who stood by Republican ideology. Tradition would dictate that a party stand by a guy they had gone to lunches with and spoken to face to face, and who was probably 75% kosher ideologically from a GOP standpoint, not that they would throw an old colleague and fellow gentleman to the wolves the first time he makes a major break from the party line. Tradition was wildly out of date in 2008, as the Democrats, still reeling from their own internal bloodbath, knew perfectly well.
The Republicans were left behind because of the nature of being in power in Washington. Remember where I said the Democratic shift accelerated after the end of Clinton’s Presidency? When a party is in power, they are very busy; they are working with other members of their party inside Washington. Ideas are bouncing from the Republicans in the House and Senate to the White House, back over to the Congress, and being churned over and put into laws or discarded. The fast pace, and volume of work to be done in running our nation do not allow a lot of time for reflection. White House staff consider it normal to suffer a rolling staff turnover as people burn out after a year or two in those conditions. In this environment, with the best and brightest in a party occupied by their jobs, there is no time or energy left for a rethinking of the party itself, and traditionally, this has led to a party too long in power getting out of touch with the country.
In this case, it isn’t just a matter of being out of touch, but a small matter of the most significant communications revolution since radio taking place across the world. The Democratic party was out of power and therefore subject to the rapid changes. This was well documented by the media, who speak of the “netroots” movement. What is not being considered is the truth that this revolution in two way communications is not limited to the left wing in politics, nor is the Internet as a whole liberal; certainly, despite the impressions given by early internet being linked to academia, it is far less liberal than the major conventional media outlets such as newspapers or television.
This brings me to predictions. We see today that the steady, individually tiny, and collectively overwhelming pressures of rapid feedback are utterly transforming our conventional media. Newspapers are increasingly obsolete. If a columnist wishes to be heard, he can make a blog like everybody else and his writing will stand on it’s own merit, not his ability to fight a bureaucratic battle within a little news company hierarchy. If he complains that he needs money, let him make a blog as well. Successful bloggers have found ways to make more money blogging than the average columnist makes writing columns. We, the blogosphere, feel no pity for the newspapers.
Major television, no matter how big the mother company, is not immune. MSNBC was moved further faster, but we see CNN also polarizing in their editorial outlook hard to the left, while Fox polarizes more and more to the right. All the media outlets are giving up the idea of “objective” journalism in favor of the far more honest understanding that everybody has some kind of bias one way or another and it is better for everybody if that bias is known in advance and not concealed. This is precisely what is effecting politics as well. We want reliability and predictability from our politicians and news anchors, not so much personality. This was the death of John McCain, whose war hero record was necessarily non-ideological, and therefore necessarily irrelevant to the principal debate. While Obama could defend a consistent stance, even if it was no the same as the majority of the country, McCain had none. We respect those we disagree with utterly but who honestly believe what they believe and stick to their guns; we do not respect those who seem to have no philosophy whatever.
This is why the GOP seemed like the party of the old boy’s club. This is why the party seemed to have no ideology at all. This is why the GOP leadership seemed to betray the country on the most important legislation in a lifetime, when it so obviously was opposite their ideological stance against out of control government, and it is why the Democrats are veering so hard to the left in so many ways in so short a time.
McCain lost the Presidency when he came back to Washington, suspended his campaign, the nation held it’s breath, and then instead of siding with the vast majority of voters against both an unpopular President Bush and his opponent, he simply echoed both of them on the bailout issue, losing his credibility and watching his poll numbers evaporate. At that moment, his campaign was lost and they knew it.
As a result of this new world, the GOP will re-form. It will do so even if it does not want to, but will be forced to by the will of the American people to have some check on the other party. The Republican ranks will be purged of those who cannot consistently defend their ideology or even explain what it is. Gentlemen will be brutally dropped, just as we saw in the bloodbath that left a former Democratic nominee for Vice President end up supporting the opposite party’s nominee for President only eight years later. What happened amongst Democrats will now happen on an accelerated time scale with the GOP, and it will look messy, but in the end, the party will be reborn far more fit, far more in tune with today’s America, and ultimately, since we have not lurched to the left as a nation, with very good prospects considering that all this is taking place in a center-right country.
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