Friday Blognado: The downward spiral
Today marks the end of blognado proper. While I do hope to put up a post on Saturday and Sunday, they will be much shorter than my customary door-stopper length as I will be otherwise engaged for much of the weekend.
Today I’m going to write a much more political post than I normally do. Specifically, I’d like to discuss what I see as a troubling trend in the Republican party, and why I think people of all political persuasions should be concerned by it. Now before I get started, let me just say that naturally as a foreigner there are limits as to how clued-in I can be about your politics. I pay attention of course, but I don’t know anyone personally who is a member of the Republican party (any more than I personally know any members of the Democratic party, both are pretty rare down here as I’m sure you can imagine). So what I am about to say is a lot more speculative than, say the post on taxes I did on Tuesday, and it should be regarded in that light.
Also politics is notoriously changeable. Popular sentiments twist and reverse for reasons I often find unintelligible. So it may well be that what I see as the thin end of the wedge is just an anomaly and nothing will come of it. If so I will be happy to have been wrong.
So, with those caveats in mind let me describe what I see as a disturbing trend in the Republican party – namely an increasing insistence on a narrow orthodoxy that I feel is corrosive to the Republican party, and more broadly to American democracy.
It seems to me that the Republican party has been drifting ever more conservative in recent years. In particular, it seems that on a plethora of issues (gay rights, immigration, taxes) there is now only one correct stance, and any dissent is seen as a deal-breaker. Note that John McCain and Mitt Romney had to reverse themselves on significant policy positions they held (immigration and healthcare respectively) just to be taken seriously as Republican candidates. How well would even Reagan fare today with his views on immigration? There’s nothing wrong with conservative voters preferring politicians with conservative policies, but it seems like there is an increasingly long list of deal-breakers.
But even more disturbing than that is the insistence on certain factual positions. Climate change in particular. Look at the trouble Huntsman had because he did what any president should do – based his policies on the consensus of experts. You don’t have to follow expert recommendations, because it’s up to the politicians to make a decision. But second-guessing the factual statements of your expert advisors is a sign of a poor candidate for the Presidency. So while it would be legitimate to argue that climate change is real but we shouldn’t use invasive policy responses to deal with it, arguing that climate change isn’t real isn’t a legitimate position for a politician to take (unless they happen to be an expert in climatology in their own right).
Finally there seems to be a double-standard that I find confusing. Take Newt Gingrich, he trades is wife in for a new model every decade or so, and yet he can talk about the sanctity of marriage without being laughed off stage. Then you have people like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain who are clearly incompetent to hold any government office, but both looked like serious contenders at some point. And now the non-Romney du jour is Santorum, who seems to think contraception is the big issue of the day. Now I know it’s easy to forgive the shortcomings of people you affiliate with, but this seems to be taking it to extremes.
Taken together, these trends suggest that the primary metric which Republican voters are judging candidates by is their ability to signal affiliation with republican voters. That’s a problem because independent voters are unlikely to react to those signals the same way Republicans do. For that matter not all Republicans will react to them the same way, which creates the potential for a serious problem.
A few years ago the inestimable Eliezer Yudkowsky postulated an Evaporative Cooling model of group dynamics whereby a group start to drive out it’s more moderate members. This increases the average fanaticism of the remaining members leading to another round of purging moderates. The result is a downward spiral leading to a cult-like group of fanatical adherents with no mainstream support. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I fear that what I’m seeing in the Republican primary is the first signs of a Republican collapse.
Assuming you’re still with me at this point, you might be inclined to accuse me of concern trolling. After all, I’ve never indicated any affiliation for conservatives, and I can see how me saying “Hey Republicans, be less conservative!” could be obnoxious. First let me assure you that I’m not not say be less conservative (sure I’d prefer it if you were, but I don’t actually expect you to do it on my account). What I am saying is that Republican voters should care about conservative policy more than conservative buzzwords. Candidates like Huntsam, who seemed genuinely conservative (even if he’s not an ideal conservative candidate) get overlooked in favour of Gingrich (who clearly doesn’t understand what “sanctity of marriage” means) and Santorum (who apparently thinks the small in small government refers to micromanagement). That doesn’t seem conservative to me.
The other reason why I don’t think I’m concern trolling is that I do have a reason to care, and so do Democrats. Democratic politics is premised on the idea of competitive checks on power. If one party abuses government power, the voters can rein them in by voting for the other party. But if the other party has gone off the reservation, what’s the alternative? Obama has engaged in a number of policies that should be of concern to anyone on the left, but how can the left act against Obama, when doing so might be seen as an endorsement of Republicans? Without a strong Republican party to challenge them the Democrats will become increasingly corrupt and self-serving secure in the knowledge that their voters have nowhere else to turn.
You may suggest that if this turn of events were to come about, another party would rise up and replace the Republicans, just as the Federalists and Whigs were replaced. My concern is that this is no longer possible. The US seems to have very restrictive rules about ballot access, apparently the Libertarians still find it very difficult to get onto the presidential ballot in every state, and that combined with gerrymandering might make it impossible for a new party to gain a foothold. Not to mention how much money it costs to mount an electoral campaign and how do you get that money without an established party machine? Now I understand why the presidency is a 2-horse race, Duverger’s Law and all that. But what about all those congressional races that are 1-horse races? Why don’t we see the Green Party contesting blue seats where the Republicans have no shot? Equally you’d expect some uber conservative party to be contesting the reddest seats. I’m of the opinion that you won’t see a monopoly in most markets in the absence of large barriers to entry, and that makes me concerned that a 3rd party would be blocked form entry.
Now as I said at the start of the post, I may very well be wrong about all of this, I’m not an expert in this field. I may be overstating the strength of the trend, misreading the motives of Republican voters or underestimating the dynamism of American politics. But the US government is going to have to make some very hard decision in the next 20 years, decisions which will affect the whole world. I’m nervous enough about the outcomes of those decisions as it is, without adding extra worries about American democracy going to seed.