No Consequence for Extremism

No Consequence for Extremism
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

One of the most remarkable political developments in recent years has been the GOP's open willingness to directly attack Social Security. Social Security has long been considered the "Third Rail" of American politics because anyone who touched it, wouldn't live to tell about it. It used to be that rhetorical assaults on this most popular of government programs even among Tea Party types would be relegated to the edges of the conservative fringe. But not so today. Today, a majority of Republicans voted for conservative darling Paul Ryan's Social Security-killing budget. GOP presidential frontrunner Rick Perry called Social Security an unconstitutional disease in his book. And much ballyhooed Great Latino Hope for the GOP Marco Rubio thinks Social Security has weakened us as a people. This is no longer the fringe. The GOP establishment has embraced a direct assault on Social Security.

This development is doubly strange when one stops to consider that the GOP's gains in 2010 were almost entirely made on the backs of seniors, for whom Social Security (along with Medicare) are the top electoral issues. Even despite the Ryan plan's attack on Social Security and Medicare, seniors are so strongly conservative overall that they are still likelier to support the Ryan budget over anything Democrats produce. Seniors are the GOP's bread and butter, and the GOP is openly declaring war on the programs nearest and dearest to them. Even if Republicans find it advantageous for their wealthy donors to throw Americans' healthcare and retirement savings into the gaping jaws of Wall St., the political risk to their demographic base is enormous once Democrats begin their attack ads in earnest. The danger to the GOP was already proven earlier this year in NY-26, which is why Republicans have been so desperate to get Obama and Democrats to also propose Medicare and Social Security cuts in order to muddy the water. So how do we account for the GOP's apparent shortsightedness and/or political recklessness on this issue?

Well, one way of looking at it is that the GOP has figured out that there is no consequence for extremism in American politics. America has a de facto two-party system. And as much as both parties dream of building the electoral coalition that will turn the other into a "permanent minority", the truth is that in a binary system with sophisticated political strategists and media machines on both sides, no party will hold office forever at a national level. Scandal, recession, and general malaise will ensure that the Party in power will be voted out by a disgruntled electorate, and that by default the beneficiaries of that event will be the Party currently out of power. It is easier to create electoral dominance in ideologically homogeneous states, but even then we often see the odd Republican elected in a solidly Democratic state, and vice versa. Electoral swings in America are increasingly more a naturally oscillating effect, than a statement of national ideological allegiance.

What this means is that in America, a smart political party occupying one of these two binary positions will worry less about trying to win every single election--an obvious impossibility--and more about making sure that they do as much as possible to push their favored policies while elected, while doing as much as possible to stymie the other party when they find themselves temporarily out of power. Total lack of cooperation with the political party in power has the added benefit of ruining the leadership's ability to accomplish anything for the people, which in turn makes it likelier that the leadership will be thrown out of power while the intransigent minority reaps the electoral benefits.

In this context, seeking to achieve "compromise" and please "moderate voters" is politically stupid. "Compromise" only helps one's opponents achieve legislative victories, while truly "moderate" voters swing with the political tide.

The GOP has figured out that it is much more intelligent in American politics to consolidate an unassailable ideological voter and donor base, win what elections they can essentially by default, and push the Overton Window as far as humanly possible toward conservatism while in office. And when Democrats hold office, as they inevitably will? Then prevent them from governing as Democrats:

At our 25th college reunion in 2003, Grover Norquist — the brain and able spokesman for the radical right — and I, along with other classmates who had been in public or political life, participated in a lively panel discussion about politics. During his presentation, Norquist explained why he believed that there would be a permanent Republican majority in America.

One person interrupted, as I recall, and said, “C’mon, Grover, surely one day a Democrat will win the White House.”

Norquist immediately replied: “We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

Far from being insane, this approach is actually eminently rational. The GOP needn't hold the presidency every cycle. All they need to do is prevent a Democratic President from accomplishing much of anything progressive while forcing him or her to clean up Republican messes. Then when they inevitably get back in office, they can continue to ratchet public policy as far to the right as possible until they inevitably lose again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Insanity is what Democrats do: try to win every election and remain popular in the polls by compromising and appealing to the moderate voter while insulting their natural base, whether they're in office or out of office. If Democrats were smart, they would figure out that voters didn't suddenly love Democrats in 2006 any more than they suddenly loved Republicans in 2010. The Democrats' job should be to push policy in as far a progressive direction as possible and build the base while in office, and then prevent Republicans from governing as Republicans when they naturally oscillate out of the majority.

In American politics, there is no consequence for extremism. Extremism is, in fact, constantly rewarded. In a binary system, the media will always say that "both sides do it", and voters will always think the grass is greener on the other side.

The one and only thing that matters is who can shift policy farther in the direction of their natural base while in office. In this, Republicans have figured out the game masterfully, while Democrats are left constantly chasing a fickle moderate voter they cannot hope to keep in their column. The GOP knows it can get away with attacking Social Security, because it knows it can count on fickle, angry seniors to vote for them anyway in their disgruntlement over Democratic rule.

In this context, who wins or loses individual elections matters far less than how much ideological shift the winner can make in terms of public policy when they do win. As long as the opposition can remain remotely electable when the public sours on the incumbent Party, there is simply no consequence for ideological extremism.