The Perils of an Enraged Base

By The Intersection | July 27, 2011 6:00 am

by Jon Winsor

It goes without saying that both parties love an energized base. Energized bases vote. They raise funds. They volunteer. They can move big agendas. But dispassion is not their strong suit. The words “debt ceiling” never appear in this recent Michael Gersen column, but the subtext is pretty clear:

[There is a recent tendency to] constrain politicians with blood oaths… The imposition of oaths beyond the Constitution… assumes a certain theory of representation — the belief that politicians are merely mechanisms for the expression of public sentiment. They are, in this view, computers to be pre-programmed for desired outcomes. When Edmund Burke was presented with a similar argument, he agreed that the opinions of constituents “ought to have great weight” with a representative. “But his unbiased opinion,” Burke continued, “his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.” This exercise of judgment, he argued, is not consistent with “authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience.”

In other words, an enraged base shouldn’t trump an informed politician’s conscience–because leaders are often closer to the facts than, say, the activists back in the district who got them elected. If a politician listens to experts and is convinced that something needs to be done about climate change, or if financial experts tell leaders about the serious consequences if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, then “mature judgement”, not “public sentiment” should determine their decisions.

As Gerson points out, the Tea Party tends to think the opposite. In an interview, Stan Collender (a former staffer on both the House and Senate budget committee) talks about speaking to the Tea Party Republicans after the 2010 election:

After me were the Tea Party state chairs from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. And they spent the next 45 minutes screaming at these members, saying, plainly, we elected you and we can unelect you. And this was at longtime members like Joe Barton, who long predated the Tea Party. I never have seen members of Congress treated like that. Especially by their friends…

The marching orders were, first, you must not vote to extend the continuing resolution [that would keep the government open through 2011] unless it, in their words, “defunds Obamacare.” Number two, you must not, under any circumstances, vote for an increase in the debt ceiling. Period. No conditions. [my emphasis]

This kind of heated absolutism sounds a lot like what conservative David Frum worried about a few months into the Republican congress last year (in a post titled “Backing the GOP into a Paranoid Corner”):

I often wonder: Has the need to fund our cause by mobilizing fears actually crippled our cause… Most people cannot sustain cynicism for very long. If your fundraising imperatives require you to SAY that Obama is a Marxist, most of those who repeat the slogan will come to believe it. If your fundraising requires you to pretend that Obama caused the economic crisis he actually inherited, over time you will genuinely forget how the crisis started and why it has lasted so long.

An enraged base will entrap the party. If Obama really is demoniacally determined to impose socialism on the United States, there’s no working with him. We can only fight him until we defeat and destroy him or he defeats and destroys us. So what happens when Congress and president must work together? To balance the budget after the recession ends for example? The party will have positioned itself so that any Republican who tries to do anything constructive will stand accused of selling out. As far as our voters are concerned, nothing can happen unless we control everything – and no deal is possible unless we get entirely our own way. That is not in fact the way the leadership of the GOP thinks. The GOP is better than its material, and its leaders are reasonable people with feasible goals. But a mood is growing in the Republican base that despises the higgling and haggling of real politics – preferring freedom from responsibility and the grim satisfactions of radical alienation. [My emphasis]

Republicans have built an extremely effective infrastructure for mobilizing sentiment, for stoking alienation against government and the political opposition. But as we’re seeing now, this isn’t a great basis for taking the best advice and governing effectively (indispensably, expert advice–we’re looking at you, Michele Bachmann).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Psychology of Ideology

Comments (12)

  1. Incredulous

    Seventy some odd times, the debt ceiling has been raised. How high should it go? Should it be unlimited? Why not enact legislation to do away with the debt limit and let them spend whatever they like? Should the elected officials do the equivalent of the “sit-in’s” by shutting things down to effect the goals that they were mandated to do by their campaign?

    With a representative democracy, do you think that the representative is bound to vote for what the people who elected them want or that we have just chosen some miniature benevolent dictator to take care of us?

    Both liberals and conservatives can rightly say that the government has not making the decisions that they would like to see enacted. Whether it is some balanced budget, universal health care, enacting legislation to combat global warming, supporting science, or whatever personal goal that you would like to single out, how far do you think that they should go to force the issue?

  2. Jonathan

    @incredulous actually, you hit the nail on the head. With the exception of Denmark, no other country on earth has a debt limit, and web they don’t have one that a minority party can use to bring the country to it’s knees.

  3. kirk

    The parking brake on my car was designed to stop my car from rolling down hill while it is parked. An adaptation – a change in my behavior – can change the utility of the parking brake into an emergency brake. If all the brake fluid leaks from my brake system I can change my policy about only using the parking brake for parking to a new behavior – using the parking brake as an emergency brake when not parking. Try it. You can adapt too.

    What drives biological/cultural evolution? This is just inclusive fitness at work. See Hume for a better solution to your numerous objections about what ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to happen with politics and emergency brakes.

    I don’t like Darwin on my front porch either. But as my son the engineer says “Evolution doesn’t care what you think.”

  4. JMW

    Representative democracy, especially in the time of Edmund Burke, was founded on the idea of a representative exercising his (or these days, her) judgement on behalf of his/her constituents. But the reasoning behind this was that government met in a central location (London), geographically remote from the constituents of many representatives – and communications between representative and constituent could take weeks.

    Today’s technology has, in effect, rendered representative democracy unnecessary. This is not to say that it is undesirable, or redundant. But it isn’t necessary. The Tea Party seems to be plugged into that fact better than anyone else. Too bad they’re taking advantage of this fact to push some unreasonable agendas. And they’re being rude while they’re at it.

    But the fact remains, to summarize Mr. Frum (and you have no idea how it hurts for me to give him credit for anything positive) – the GOP have sown the wind and they will reap the whirlwind.

  5. Mike H

    @ JMW “unreasonable agendas” … like getting the nation’s finances back in order … very unreasonable.

  6. Johnny

    For the Tea Party its a Win-Win.

    If they get their Budget passed they win. If the government gets downgraded, and is forced to stop borrowing, they win. If the government can’t afford entitlement spending, and social programs are cut, they win.

  7. Chris Mooney

    It’s a win win if the economy crashes and the voters punish them for it, and they all get voted out and Obama gets re-elected because of it? How is that a win for the Tea Party?

  8. TTT

    Chris: if the economy crashes, Obama almost certainly loses in ’12. The teabaggers hate Obama more than they love America, so they’re willing to make it happen.

  9. Chris Mooney

    From what I can tell, the pollsters/pundits think Tea Partiers would be blamed, not Obama, for a crash due to not raising the debt ceiling.

  10. Johnny

    @ 7 & 9

    When Chris usually posts in the comments, his posts are highlighted, so not sure if you’re real.

    If Obama is blamed for a debt disaster, it could mean a a Tea Party President. Imagine that.

    Its illogical to compare a sitting elected official like Obama with a political action organization like the Tea Party, in terms of “blame” for political events.

    Obama has everything to lose, namely his job. The Tea Party has nothing to lose.

    If some of the congressman who it help elect are defeated, it will simply endorse other candidates. The Tea Party loyalist will still vote for their candidates, and progressives will still vote for whatever democrat is opposing them. The Tea Party’s power lies outside the progressive sphere, in its ability to shape GOP primary elections.

  11. ╦heBigo╦

    I would like the debt ceiling to be lowered, not halted or raised. Especially not raised.

  12. Brian Too

    I actually think the problem is larger than the Tea Party. Cynicism about government is easy and cheap. And, let’s be honest, government can give us a lot to be cynical about.

    However people tend to live up (or down) to the standard you hold them to. I think the same is true of government. With so little expectation placed on the government, and reflexive efforts to find something wrong with every government program, what incentive does government have to be effective? Efficient? Intelligent?

    Very little indeed. For they know that the cynics will find something wrong, always, and focus 100% on even minor failings. To be a government worker is to live a life experiencing the stick way more often than the carrot.

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