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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

 
Republicans are immune to their own extremism...for now

by David Atkins

Greg Sargent has two tremendous overviews today: the first on the upcoming budget wars, and the second on immigration.

Both posts, especially combined with this sobering, smart take from Chait on the Dems' small chances of taking the House in 2014, reinforce something I've been saying for quite some time now: Republicans are mostly electorally immune to their extremism for the next long while. To be sure, the Republican Party faces increasingly long odds in Presidential elections, and the 2020 census may be a devastating blow in the 2022 elections after the current wildly gerrymandered lines are replaced. But for most Republican legislators staring down the next few election cycles, the biggest threats still come from the right rather than the left or the middle. Extremism, in short, will be rewarded.

Most centrist pundits don't want this to be true. There is a cottage industry in pundit land to declare that Americans are basically centrists or center right, and that extremism on either side will be punished. Political parties are seen as polarizing influences and necessary evils at best, clouding the natural agreements that most Americans share about public policy.

But the reality of American politics is very different. There is a liberal America mostly concentrated on the coasts, highly educated populations, heavily minority populations, and in larger urban areas. There is a conservative America concentrated in whiter, more exurban and rural areas. There's frankly not that much in between. One of the reasons that the Affordable Care Act has such tepid support is that most Americans are either against it completely, or would prefer something stronger. Most Americans want to increase taxes on the wealthy; the minority who oppose that policy want to cut them. Most Americans favor significantly stricter gun controls; those who don't are adamant about relaxing them. There's very little constituent support on most policy issues for a centrist, Third Way approach.

America, then, is a polarized nation. But it's not equally polarized. It's clear to almost everyone that the Right has shifted dramatically farther to the right, while the left has only shifted leftward on a smattering of social issues such as gay rights, but mostly shifted rightward on issues like economics and civil liberties. The politics of Eisenhower and Nixon on economics and foreign policy would find themselves comfortably at home on the leftward side of the Democratic Party, while Ronald Reagan would be considered a RINO in today's Republican Party.

Add to this toxic brew a radically gerrymandered electorate in which Democrats can win 1.4 million more votes nationally for House candidates yet still find themselves a double-digit House minority, and it's clear that politics doesn't work in the neat way that centrist pundits would like to pretend. As Chait notes, the most radical Republicans are actually the safest Republicans. The ones likeliest to compromise are the ones most likely to be defeated by a Democratic opponent, a conservative primary challenge, or both.

What this means is that politics are only going to get uglier from here. House Republicans may not be able to evade a government shutdown by their own caucus, a result that nearly guarantees a loss in the 2016 Presidential election (unless, of course, Democrats are misguided enough to cut key social safety net programs to appease them.) Republicans may not be able to persuade their caucus to pass immigration reform, a fact that will surely doom them in decades to come. Ayn Rand's objectivist worldview will continue to have a greater effect on House Republicans.

The comeuppance for all of this will be apparent in the early-to-mid next decade, if Democrats play their cards right. But most politicians in the House don't look that far ahead. Which means that centrist pundits will be wringing their hands for some time to come, creating false equivalences wherever they can in order to explain the lack of natural consequences for Republican extremism in the months and years ahead.


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