American Party Culture, Part 3: Purging Substance

A party which does not stand on substance, which does not appeal to voters on the merits of ideals but instead panders to vaguely defined social needs, cannot govern. Consensus, which is ultimately defined by the ever-shifting goalposts of public opinions, is worth more than demonstrably workable ideas. Modern politics defines morality by the numbers: the more people who approve of a policy, the more political capital is possesses.

This attitude goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of tolerance as a predominant civic value. Modern politics styles itself “enlightened” in its increased tolerance towards competing ideas. Identity politics has not been abandoned, but repurposed. Parties, which aid efficacy by giving structure and organization to the competing ideologies which exist in the polity, strive to be less like rival gangs locked in a bitter intellectual turf war and to be more open and affirming of nuanced thinking, the theory being that growth comes through dialogue between those with different perspectives.

But this is not some selfless act of democratic virtue. By cobbling together disparate identity groups into one massive, semi-cohesive bloc, the party builds up a coalition whose diversity helps push the party to victory come election day.

This is a strategy which Republicans claim was influential in Donald Trump’s underdog victory in the 2016 presidential race. Ever since Reagan and the coalition of “blue collar Democrats,” the Republican Party has considered itself to be a “big tent” party, home to hardline libertarian ideologues, single-issue moderates concerned with economic prosperity and everything in between. At different times, various elements of this far-ranging spectrum of belief have been dominant, affecting the party’s identity. The Goldwater era was a time when idealism flourished, unapologetic for disregarding political convention. Reagan softened the tone, taking Goldwater’s message and purveying it in a language that was more accessible to the common man. Under Gingrich, social conservatism burgeoned.

Trump, for his part, collapsed the “blue wall,” supposedly a bastion of Democratic support. By winning states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where appeals to advance the interests of agrarian and industrialist workers were more compelling than Democrats’ grievance politics, Trump welcomed the prodigal blue-collar Democrats back into the fold with open arms.

But new voters presumably mean new priorities, an adjustment of the party agenda. And though the economic protectionism Trump espouses panders to Democrat swing voters, it is at odds with long-held views of Republicans which hold private markets sacrosanct.

By promoting the image of the party as a “big tent”, identity groups with directly contradictory beliefs about the fundamental role of government have been taken under the wing of Republican protection. And while the party might be able to exploit the vagueness of universal messaging to appeal to all during a campaign, legislation requires a choice; it must prioritize need.

This is the knife-edge upon which Republicans balanced precariously as they attempted to pass a healthcare deal. They’d campaigned for seven-years on repealing Obamacare to such a degree that it became a central tenet of the party. Yet, the Trump base are in no way traditional Republicans; they cheer a government empowered to legislate on their behalf, which takes an active role in providing substantively for their wellbeing. Presumably many among them, especially those who migrated from the Democratic party, share the leftist belief that government has an active role to provide for citizens.

It is no surprise then, that Republicans in Congress, including those who vociferously opposed Obamacare as ‘socialized medicine”, suddenly tempered their opposition. Legislators who once denounced government-takeover of one-sixth of the economy were suddenly concerned with lowering costs, a position that seemed safe, for who wants to pay more for healthcare? But though this betrayal of principle may have appealed to moderates, it failed to appease conservatives who had patiently waited for seven years, as they’d been told to by leadership, and watched Republicans strike bargains on other positions in order to build up their coalition and strengthen their electoral position until they had enough of a monopoly on power to repeal the bill in full.

Straddling these positions proved too much. They shared no principles in common. Too many Republicans, some of whom had become so indoctrinated in big tent thinking as to completely repudiate the party’s core positions over fear of losing elections, threatened to revolt and in the end the dysfunction and uncertainty over which wing of the party should be appeased in the reform bill sunk the entire position.

Nor was the chaos helped by the erratic messaging coming from the president. Trump is certainly not an ideologue, but his populist brand makes it impossible for him to advance anything that looks like a cohesive set of beliefs. He touts whatever appeals to the audience which is immediately before him. This means he too was not married to any particular policy prescription; on one day, Trump was for allowing Obamacare to collapse and on the next day he was demanding its immediate repeal.

This fly-by-night approach to governing is the direct result of a politics that does not value substance. Vagaries form the basis of electoral strategies because they allow parties to appeal to all. But any legislation that is focused, not on the protection of rights, but with the procurement of material goods and benefits that function as a sort of bribe for the loyalty of voters. However, this also handicaps legislators any time they are forced to deal with serious legislative crisis, such as collapsing healthcare markets. The desire to appeal to the entire body politic, to maintain the façade of tolerance, makes it impossible, even for parties in power, to even draft any form of substantive policy. Indeed, the desire to appeal to all makes it impossible for party identity to have a substantive fore.

Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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