A Modest Précis on “Cliff Diving”

            It is difficult to fathom precisely why a share of Republican Party principals are behaving as they are in the whirling dervish that is currently afoot in Washington as the President tries one last time, as I write, to prevent the imposition of national tax hikes and draconian ($600 billion) expenditure reductions that will take effect with the New Year and very likely return the nation to recession. I write in the hope that a deal may still be struck in the broader interests of the country, but the Democratic Senate Majority Leader and Republican House Speaker have each publicly expressed concern that such may not occur. What appears more likely is a short-term accord to avoid the worst to provide time to continue negotiations on a possible broader agreement.

            This said, it can be observed factually that a sufficient share of GOP House members have refused formally to contemplate a modest tax increase for those who earn more than $1 million a year and those legislators’ stance has so far stalled negotiations to prevent what most observers and elected officials perceive as a worst case scenario. We may once again see the same occur in coming days with negotiations concerning the nation’s debt ceiling, which this past summer the same group sought to use as a cudgel in an effort to obtain otherwise politically unpopular budget reductions in selected national programs.

            Ultimately, the GOP House members declining to bargain to prevent the country from slipping into likely fresh recession can do so because they are positioned in a way that permits such behavior and they confront incentives to act in just such a fashion. This curious situation arises for both structural and broader political reasons. It is also at least partially the product of rhetoric offered as much to deceive as to inform.

            The structural circumstances are clear and they arise from a combination of the primary election format through which most congresspersons seek nomination to office and the widespread gerrymandering of House districts in recent years by both political parties. Relatively few Americans vote in primaries (often only 10-15 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in these contests) and those who do tend to be hyper-partisan (whether oriented to the GOP or to the Democratic Party) and unrepresentative of the electorate at large. For Republican House members specifically, this situation implies voters who increasingly have taken ideological stands against government regulation of all sorts, who loathe taxes as a supposed a priori deprivation of personal liberty and who otherwise have come to believe their government is the source of most ills confronting American society. These citizens also often express the companion belief that the nation’s government today is overweening and should be cut back sharply, at least in its social insurance and social welfare dimensions, but not in defense and selected other specific industry-related efforts.

            This situation suggests that many Republican congresspersons will be acutely aware of what these deeply conservative primary voters may believe and how those individuals will perceive their actions. GOP lawmakers will likewise consider carefully whether their stands might occasion challenges from the right aimed at appealing to just those voters in the next electoral cycle. That fear of potential competition is reinforced by the fact that Member districts have been designed to maximize the number of their partisans, as marketing technology has permitted legislators to become ever more accurate and adroit in drawing jurisdictional lines. In short, hyper-partisanship and ideological extremism, coupled with a primary nomination process that places a premium on the relatively small number of voters who predicate their votes on such grounds, have sharply narrowed the political maneuvering room of incumbents without paying a political price.

            Today, the path of least political resistance for many GOP congresspersons is to placate likely primary voters (and party stalwarts) and avoid challengers by taking extreme stands against meaningful fiscal change while declaiming loudly about the supposed excesses of the government hobbled thereby. The result is what we currently see: implacable opposition to tax increases of any sort and loud denunciations of social welfare spending, at least for retirement support, medical care and aid to the indigent and vulnerable. While this appears to describe fairly the partisan dynamics in which many GOP congresspersons find themselves, it says nothing about why citizens voting in those primaries would adopt the political stance they have taken and place these constraints on their lawmakers. That is, it does not explain why many of these voters are behaving as they are.

            That is surely a difficult and vexing question. One partial answer is that the Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South, and of southern white men especially, and particularly of those without high levels of formal education. These voters have felt the full effects of globalization and swift cultural change and also seen their real wages and life prospects decline markedly in recent decades. Government has emerged as a convenient scapegoat for those often cruel and unfathomable forces. Accordingly, the GOP congresspersons expressing an unyielding reproachful stance against the imagined despoiling regime are often rewarded at the polls. Another reason for this orientation among partisans may be the Republican Party’s decades long embrace of selective anti- government bombast blaming America’s economic and social challenges on national public action. In these terms, Social Security is attacked as too expensive and likely soon to become insolvent. The same arguments are offered against Medicare and Medicaid, and other support for the poor is critiqued as both unduly costly and likely to yield only dependency. The contentions are by now familiar and the majority of the general electorate has rejected the most extreme of them, but they continue to animate the Party’s core faithful. Nonetheless, this rhetoric is profoundly misleading, especially for Social Security and Medicare (the first is not insolvent and there are efforts already afoot to slow the rising cost of the latter) and have much more to do with reducing or eliminating national social service programs for ideological, rather than fiscal, reasons. The GOP rationales offered recast the policy debate from how much income and health care security is appropriate and necessary for Americans to an argument that contends, in effect, “We’re sorry, but we just cannot afford these efforts any longer.” Such is simply not true empirically, but it is surely more politically palatable than straightforwardly running for office “against” these popular programs.

            Beyond these arguments, analysts have offered a range of additional partial explanations for the relative extremism of so many of today’s GOP’s primary voters, including the role of race in political mobilization and the sometimes paranoia-infused and corrosive character of conservative entertainment media, which garners ratings by denouncing vigorously the supposed excesses of government in society. Whatever the causes, a critical number of GOP House members have been willing to see the nation default on its financial obligations and now appear prepared to countenance the potential of a new recession brought on by large government expenditure reductions and the imposition of significant tax increases on a broad swathe of the electorate.

            In sum, the nation now stands at the brink of another round of deep fiscal and social distress as a result of its own current and past political choices. If more citizens voted in primaries, and did so more prudently, and if fewer elected GOP leaders used unequivocal partisan claims to mobilize and scapegoat the nation’s government for major social and economic challenges, much might change in short order. Similarly, the current polarization in Congress could literally disappear in a single electoral cycle if citizen attitudes and voting patterns resulted in the election of leaders in both parties more willing to act on behalf of the polity rather than adopting slogans aimed at securing their re-election. Simply to point this up is to suggest how much would need to change among voters to permit it. Ultimately, only citizens can change the incentives currently undermining the nation’s governance, including demanding changes in the nomination process, should such finally be judged necessary. The question is whether they will learn collectively from the present imbroglio to behave more prudently even as their current behaviors create recurring governance crises. This is hardly a new challenge for democratic politics in historical terms, but it could hardly be a more vital one for our own regime presently.