Sometimes schadenfreude just feels so good. There’s nothing like watching Tom Delay get nailed for money laundering, or, as In These Times went to press, placing bets on whether Karl Rove or Scooter Libby would be the first one frog-marched out of the White House. Bill Frist is under investigation for possible insider trading. And super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s imbroglio – which involves Indian casinos, sweatshops, a gangland murder, a kosher deli and Ralph Reed – is simply breathtaking.
Even when Republicans should be running for political cover, they continue to operate with impunity. In the latest audacious example, the Republican leadership is proposing to offset the cost of Hurricane Katrina by slashing $50 billion from Medicaid, food stamps and student loan programs. Yet they continue to push for another $70 billion in tax cuts, including elimination of the estate tax.
Despite losing his title as majority leader, The Hammer still twisted arms on the House floor for the Gasoline for America’s Security (GAS) Act. The bill – described by the Natural Resources Defense Council as a “grab-bag of polluter-friendly policies” – barely passed after the vote was held open for 40 extra minutes. Democrats in the chamber chanted “shame, shame,” but of course the Republican leadership has none.
Conventional wisdom says that to stay in power, a party must appeal to swing voters and the moderate middle. If the party veers too far right or left, the laws of political gravity should bring it down. But the Bush administration and radical right-wingers in Congress continue to gut programs supported by most Americans while lining the pockets of their corporate cronies without ever facing repercussions on Election Day.
How do they do it?
That’s the question political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson examine in their excellent new book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. They dispute that the country has become more socially conservative, arguing the preponderance of polling data shows that “if anything, public opinion has grown more centrist on such issues, and more tolerant of the divergent views, values and behaviors of other Americans.”
Off Center shows how the Republicans furthered their unpopular policies through a potent combination of centralization, misinformation, secrecy and “backlash insurance” – a variety of tactics used to keep wayward members in line while shielding them from voter outrage. One of the most common forms is “catch and release,” in which the leadership allows moderates to vote their “conscience” as long as it won’t threaten passage of a bill.
The end result – seen in the Bush administration’s massive tax cuts, the energy bill boondoggle or the bloated Medicare prescription drug benefit – is that the right’s political machine now has “the motive and the means to get into law major policies that few Americans support – and to shield themselves from the risk that millions on the losing end of the bargain will realize they’ve been had.”
Cracks in the GOP façade are starting to show – almost all of the “New Power Brokers” named in Off Center are either under investigation or indictment. But the right won’t be easy to supplant. For one, the GOP has perfected the art of gerrymandering to the point where one political scientist estimates the Democrats would have needed to win 57 percent of the vote nationwide to retake the House in 2004.
So what can be done to break the Republican hegemony? The solution will not be to hope “that the masses will wake up and suddenly take an interest in politics,” Hacker and Pierson argue. “The problem is deeper. In our increasingly unequal society, in which government activity is not just extensive but extensively complex, voters have proved no match for a mobilized and coordinated conservative movement capable of managing the agenda and shaping and distorting the flow of information to citizens.”
Once upon a time, organized labor served as a crucial counterweight to the corporate right. Unions provided much more than a bigger paycheck for workers. As Hacker and Pierson remind us, “We often forget that they have always been crucial political actors, helping workers identify common issues, informing them about political and policy considerations, and shaping political debates.”
But Hacker and Pierson conclude that class still matters. “Since the 1950s,” they write, “the relation between income and party allegiance – with poor and working-class voters favoring the Democrats – has become stronger, not weaker.” The problem for Democrats is less about working people voting against their interests than not voting at all.
There’s much talk these days about Democrats needing to come up with “new ideas” to slow the Republican juggernaut. Perhaps first they should dust off some old ones, like solidarity.