Off Center

by Henry on October 4, 2005

Review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy
Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Yale University Press 2005

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have written a distinctly unusual book. Political scientists don’t often write books that take sides in political arguments, and when they do, they usually don’t do any better at it than common or garden pundits. It’s hard to combine the attention to detail and to careful argument that academics are supposed to have with a passionate concern for the results of the fight. Off Center (available from Amazon here ; Powells don’t seem to be stocking it yet) pulls off both. On the one hand, it is very clearly the work of people who have thought carefully and hard about how politics works. There’s a depth of analysis here that’s completely absent from the common or garden partisan bestseller-wannabe. But on the other, it doesn’t pull its punches. Hacker and Pierson have no compunctions in arguing that the current Republican hegemony is dangerous, and needs to be rolled back. (rest of review below fold)

They start by examining the conventional wisdom that American politics has strong centripetal forces, so that political parties have strong incentives towards moderation. According to both centrist pundits and many political scientists, parties that don’t cater for the moderate voter should get booted out of office. This political commonplace doesn’t appear to be true any more, to the extent that it ever was. The Republicans have been transformed over the last twenty years from a loosely organized coalition in which moderates appeared to have the upper hand, to a party that is astonishingly well disciplined by the standards of American political history and dominated by right-wing radicals. How has this happened?

Hacker and Pierson immediately discard two common explanations, neither of which is supported by the facts. First, there is no evidence that Americans are more conservative on social issues than they used to be; indeed some evidence suggests that they are now a little more centrist. Nor does it appear that mobilization of “morals voters” was the key to Republican success in the last Presidential election – detailed analysis suggests that state-level efforts to put gay marriage on the ballot helped Kerry, not Bush. Second, there is no evidence of a general process of ‘polarization’ in which both the left and the right are rapidly seceding to the extremes, leaving moderate voters with few palatable choices. The evidence suggests the contrary – while Democrats have become only somewhat more left wing, as Southern Democrats have either disappeared or defected to the Republicans, the Republican party has shifted radically to the right. Positions that were in the mainstream of the Republican party of the 1970s and 1980s are anathema today.

So why hasn’t the Republican party been punished by voters for its radicalism? As I understand it, Hacker and Pierson’s explanation has three main components. First, information. Voters are often poorly informed about politics, and are vulnerable to “tailored disinformation,” which distorts public perceptions. Second, institutions. The Republican Party has been able to use its dominance of Senate, House and Presidency to set the agenda and to sideline opposition. Finally, networks. “New Power Brokers” like Tom DeLay have been able to assemble networks that bring together politicians, think-tankers, funders and lobbyists, creating a coherent agenda across separate institutions, rewarding and protecting loyalists while brutally punishing those who go off-message.

By bringing these together, Hacker and Pierson can explain how the Republican party has succeeded in bringing through radical policy shifts that go against public preferences. Their analysis of the 2001 tax cuts, the Bush energy plan, and the Medicare drugs bill shows how highly objectionable policies can be crafted to fleece the public without raising much in the way of public opposition. In the case of the tax cuts, assiduous propaganda disguised the fiscal impact of the cuts and made them look less biased towards the rich than they in fact were. Republican leaders made sure that they were sent to the floor for voting without opportunity for proper debate or for consideration of alternatives. “Sunsets,” “phase-ins” and “time-bombs” were deployed to make the measures temporarily more palatable and to disguise their true costs and long term consequences. “Backlash insurance” provided protection to Republicans who signed onto the agenda.

Nor do Hacker and Pierson confine their argument to the legislative process. Executive action (and non-action) too is important, as witnessed by their account of the systematic gutting of the EPA’s and OSHA’s ability to enforce regulations.

The book’s detailed discussion of how the Republicans have been able to pull all this off is valuable in itself. Readers who have paid attention to Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Josh Marshall over the last couple of years will already know much of the story, although not all of it. Hacker and Pierson uncover some interesting and important new facts. But where the book shines is in providing the analytic chops to draw it together into a coherent whole. Off Center does this in two ways. First, it provides a taxonomy of the different tactics that right wing radicals in the Republican party have used. Second, and more importantly, it shows how distortion of information, manipulation of institutions and careful application of network resources work to reinforce each other. Without understanding all of these – and the interaction between them – you can’t understand the quite remarkable success of the Republican party over the last few years.

This form of analysis is shown to best analysis in the chapter on the New Power Brokers and the networks that they have built to support the Republican agenda. As Hacker and Pierson say, in an argument that’s worth quoting at length:

Most political analysts have missed the scope of this crucial development because they have failed to fully appreciate the increasingly networked character of the modern conservative movement. The GOP coalition is not simply the sum of its parts. Looking only at Congress, or only at lobbyists, will not reveal the full picture. Instead, the power of the leadership, and of others at the top of the new Republican hierarchy results in large part from their increased role in linking these realms. Looking only at Congress, or only at lobbyists, will not reveal the full picture. Top Republican leaders are, quite literally, brokers. And their power is multiplicative, not additive. The more they can control the behavior of legislators, the more they can control the behavior of lobbyists. And the more they can control the behavior of lobbyists, the more they can control the behavior of legislators. Each link in this complex chain of power holds together because the leaders – and only the leaders – can deliver.

This insight – and the chapter develops it considerably further than this quote would suggest – is key to understanding the role played by actors such as Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. Many reporters and commentators have had difficulty in identifying what exactly it was that DeLay and Abramoff have done, and why it’s so problematic. They’ve only really latched onto the DeLay and Abramoff stories as they’ve started to look like conventional cases of corruption. But the problem is far more deep-rooted than politicians and lobbyists who may be skimming the profits. It’s a complicated network of exchange relationships which is legal, at least in part, but which acts to short-circuit the basic safeguards that are supposed to ensure that politicians represent voters’ interests. Unless you understand the complicated connections between fundraising, lobby-organization and policymaking, and the ways that key actors weave all three of these activities together, it’s impossible to understand what’s going on. Hacker and Pierson draw the map that you need to draw these connections.

I highly recommend the book – but I do have some cavils. Although the book was written before the collapse of Bush’s Social Security initiative, it would have been interesting to see some detailed analysis of where the Republicans have failed as well as where they have succeeded (there is a little in there, but it gets short shrift).

More seriously, there’s an unresolved tension in the book. The main argument of the book suggests at several points that Republican policies are part of a more or less coherent long term plan. But Hacker and Pierson also provide us with some evidence which suggests that the dominance of the Republican party is leading to incoherent policy and an overwhelming focus on the short term. This tension rises to the surface in Hacker and Pierson’s analysis of the “Starve the Beast … later” strategy. Hacker and Pierson depict the ballooning of spending under Bush as a calculated move, “a high stakes gamble [which] Republicans expect to win” down the road, when the bill comes due and popular programs have to be radically pared down or eliminated to pay for it.

But there’s an alternative explanation which would talk to short term gain as well as long term planning. As Pierson emphasizes in earlier work, most politicians tend to have short time horizons – many of them don’t care very much about policy train wrecks ten or twenty years down the line. They probably won’t have to deal with the problem; someone else will be in office by then. This suggests that the burgeoning of spending is less a long term strategy than a relatively unstable and ad-hoc compromise between the anti-tax jihadists and politicians in Congress who are more interested in goodies for their donors and constituents (in that order) in the short term than in the problems that the longer term will bring. Off Center quotes from Padgett and Ansell’s classic study of Cosimo de Medici’s network of power in Renaissance Florence in order to understand the Republican network today. But as Padgett and Ansell argue, Cosimo succeeded through improvisation, and through refusing to allow himself to be tied down and made predictable, rather than through laying down a plan for the longer run. It would have been nice to have seen more of this kind of analysis; not least because it points to some of the weaknesses and potential fissures in the Republican coalition.

Finally, the book suggests to me that there’s room for a future debate about the precise circumstances under which a coalition, such as the Republican movement, can radically shift the rules of the political game over the longer term. Rick Perlstein (rightly) gives Off Center a highly enthusiastic blurb. But his own analysis of US politics, as I understand it, argues that the political system is more malleable than Hacker and Pierson might suggest. Hacker and Pierson argue that US politics has gone off-center – and they want to return it to something like its natural state of balance. Perlstein argues that the center of balance has shifted radically to the right – but that the left is in principle is capable of doing what the right has done, and creating a political space that is implicitly skewed towards left wing priorities and objectives. Both analyses point in the same direction in the short run – Hacker’s work on the politics of risk is exactly the kind of long-term thinking that Perlstein calls for in his pamphlet on the Stockticker and the Superjumbo. But they have quite different long term implications. It’d be nice to see further discussion of this. But enough already – buy this book.

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{ 58 comments }

1

Kimon 10.04.05 at 5:42 pm

I am shocked, shocked, to learn that Krugman was right all along. This goes on top of my “to read” list.

2

Barry 10.04.05 at 5:49 pm

The obvious additional thing is the role of the media in this. It’s not not 9/11; they were going as soft on Bush in 2000 as they were hard on Clinton.

I think th at it comes to two things there: (1) the Republican network extends into the media (Fox, WSJ, columnists and attack swine beyond counting; (2) the owners of the corporate media know which side their bread is buttered on.

3

David 10.04.05 at 6:03 pm

Sounds fascinating and troubling–but I have one serious problem with the book as described here: actual voters seem to be missing, except as manipulated sheep. That may be true, but clearly the Repubs are tapping into something that the Dems aren’t. Most people have other things to do besides be political junkies [hell, I have better things to do], but that hardly means they’re blank slates.

4

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.04.05 at 6:27 pm

“So why hasn’t the Republican party been punished by voters for its radicalism? As I understand it, Hacker and Pierson’s explanation has three main components. First, information. Voters are often poorly informed about politics, and are vulnerable to “tailored disinformation,” which distorts public perceptions. Second, institutions. The Republican Party has been able to use its dominance of Senate, House and Presidency to set the agenda and to sideline opposition.”

I find this rather hard to believe because the Republican party has NOT been dominant in the Senate, House and Presidency until recently. The shift to the right PREDATES that which is being used to explain it.

5

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.04.05 at 6:51 pm

“Nor does it appear that mobilization of “morals voters” was the key to Republican success in the last Presidential election – detailed analysis suggests that state-level efforts to put gay marriage on the ballot helped Kerry, not Bush.”

That is a super-narrow look at “morals voters”. The Democratic Party has driven away any number of otherwise liberal Christian voters with the “abortion till the last second” stance.

Do they talk elsewhere about the national defense issue? Democrats look weak to many on national defense. Does that count for nothing?

6

jayann 10.04.05 at 7:02 pm

Political scientists don’t often write books that take sides in political arguments,

Dahl? Polsby? Kirkpatrick (_Political Woman_, feminist and explicitly pluralist)? More or less everyone (including D and P) who wrote on community power? Gaventa? (Sleepy, probably fortunately, as otherwise you’d get a massive list.)

7

Ted 10.04.05 at 7:02 pm

Sebastian –

Maybe you could name, or possibly even quote, some of the important people in the Democratic Party who advocate “abortion until the last second”? I’m having a hard time thinking of any.

Ted

8

Cranky Observer 10.04.05 at 7:23 pm

Does it discuss the Mellon/Scaife organizations and foundations? I would think that the influence of a small, well-organized, dedicated group of people willing to spend an estimated $2 billion to advance their agenda /might/ have some influence on the US political situation ;-)

Cranky

9

Slocum 10.04.05 at 7:43 pm

I have one serious problem with the book as described here: actual voters seem to be missing, except as manipulated sheep.

Yes. I would suggest that the shenanigans described are not what keeps Republicans in power but rather what result from Republicans being in power.

What keeps Republicans in power? Democrats. Democrats shooting themselves in the foot over and over. Democrats mired in another long Mondale-Dukakis phase.

10

steve 10.04.05 at 7:48 pm

The electorate might be more complicit in the Republican revolution than Hacker & Pierson think. It’s quite possible that even if the median U.S. voter moved to the center, the Republican Party could have benefited from a shift to the right. “Directional” models of voting say that voters simply choose the party that is on their side of policy/ideological debate, regardless of how distant that party’s position is. Parties can actually benefit from shifting away from the center and taking a (seemingly) clear position on issues.

11

Ed Marshall 10.04.05 at 8:27 pm

National security is an issue in half baked, little kleptocratic countries.

N. Korea, Israel, Iran, those are the sort of places national security plays a big role.

What the hell does it say about us that it’s something that isn’t a joke here with the Atlantic and Pacific to protect us. You here sometimes about how 9/11 was supposed to prove it couldn’t. Minding your own business seems to make the ocean’s seem worthless in comparison.

12

john mcgowan 10.04.05 at 8:34 pm

Many thanks, Henry. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes Crooked Timber invaluable.

13

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.04.05 at 9:25 pm

Sure, my very own Senator Barbara Boxer. So pro-choice that she felt cornered when asked whether or not it would be ok to abort a baby which only had its foot still inside the mother.

14

Russell Arben Fox 10.04.05 at 9:37 pm

Sounds fascinating and troubling—but I have one serious problem with the book as described here: actual voters seem to be missing, except as manipulated sheep.

Along with slocum, I second David’s question, Henry, and would be interested in a response if you have the time to write one. Do Hacker and Pierson grant at all the possibility that Republican success has come through appealing to actual existing interests and/or beliefs, or do they insist (and have data which backs them up) that “tailored disinformation” really is at the root of Republican majorities? If the latter, well, obviously I’ll have to read the book for myself, but I find that astonishingly unlikely.

15

Sven 10.04.05 at 10:09 pm

So pro-choice that she felt cornered when asked whether or not it would be ok to abort a baby which only had its foot still inside the mother.

I assume you’re referring to this exchange between Boxer and Santorum on IDX procedures, Sebastian. I’d hardly call that a fair representation of her position:

Boxer: I am saying what Roe v. Wade says is, that in the early stages of a pregnancy, a woman has the right to choose. In the later stages, the states have the right, yes, to come in and restrict. I support those restrictions, as long as two things happen: They respect the life of the mother and the health of the mother.

16

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.04.05 at 10:17 pm

And then when Santorum asked her how much of the baby had to be outside of the mother before it counted as ‘born’ she got defensive and refused to answer. Hence “she felt cornered”. Of course that is projection. I should have said, she acted cornered.

17

Matt 10.04.05 at 11:13 pm

Sebastian,

Maybe she was annoyed at Santorum acting like an unreasonable dick who can’t understand a perfectly straight-forward position and is obviously grand-standing? That seems a rather more likely interpritation to me, given what she says.

18

Matt Weiner 10.04.05 at 11:33 pm

Sebastian:

I find this rather hard to believe because the Republican party has NOT been dominant in the Senate, House and Presidency until recently. The shift to the right PREDATES that which is being used to explain it.

But the Republicans’ winning elections for the House, Senate, and Presidency all at once doesn’t predate their holding them all at once. I mean, I don’t think anyone wants to rehash Bush v. Gore here, but no one denies that Gore got more votes.

19

roger 10.04.05 at 11:57 pm

The story as retold in your post, Henry, seems to neglect something that I think is pretty important — the abandonment of the political space in the G.O.P. by progressives. Remember, in the sixties, people like John Lindsay were Republicans. Nixon not only created OSHA, the EPA, and affirmative action, but he actually sent a bill to Congress endorsing a government guaranteed income. That was after the wage and price controls.

So — why is it that the liberal space in the Republican party was abandoned? Why is it that being a liberal blogger, for instance, almost automatically means fantasizing about how the Democrats can win elections? I think that is a very neglected part of the narrative. Personally, I think this was an unexpected result of the brief era in which the Democratic party actually seemed to lurch left, in the seventies. Actually, the Democratic party, historically, is not any more “progressive” than the Republicans — in fact, Jim Crow was sustained and maintained by Dems for about a hundred years. McCarthyism was actually invented by Martin Dies, a Democrat. Etc., etc. But I would guess that Hacker and Pierson are NOT suggesting that progressives should support moderate republicans in the South — instead of conservative Dems. Or in other ways try to engage a struggle within the Republican party. Myself, I think that abandoning the East Coast Liberal wing of the Republican party — the party of Javits and Lodge — was inevitably going to cause a righward drift. And I don’t see how that will be repaired unless progressives abandon the ridiculous idea of operating solely through the Democratic party.

20

Greg Sweeney 10.05.05 at 12:48 am

Put out an “Amber Alert” for integrity. The book appears to describe global corporate and political hegemony. In contrast to earlier generations – when wide political divisions actually energized voters – today’s average Americans are increasingly self-medicated in a vast, corporatized media wonderland. Big business fully understands our self-centered, addictive culture, even as unrepentant consumerism looms as the next silent killer plague. If, as so-called educators, we are angry and fearful of the evolving right-minded status quo, we need only look in the mirror to see the culprit. “Teach the children” — the neo-cons understand this. Maybe actor Jack Nickelson’s movie character was right: “You can’t handle the truth.” Left un-taught and un-modeled in homes, largely unreported in mainstream print media, and impossible to describe in sound-bite televison news, a deeply felt understanding of “sophisticated relationships” is absent-without-leave in America. Perhaps a solution lies in natural systems teaching. Author Joanna Macy speaks to this conundrum in her environmental writing:

“Conditions worsen in many dimensions simultaneously: water shortages, toxic dumping, loss of wetlands, deforestation, the greenhouse effect, and so forth. Denial is facilitated by the sheer multiplicity of factors at play in the planetary crisis. Although each issue is critical in its own right, it is their interplay that most threatens our biosphere, for they compound each other systemically. However, it is precisely these systemic interactions that are hard to see, especially for a culture untutored in the perception of relationships.”
— Joanna Macy

21

catherine liu 10.05.05 at 1:17 am

This books sounds fascinating, but I think the description, “Voters are often poorly informed about politics, and are vulnerable to “tailored disinformation,” which distorts public perceptions.” is insufficient as analysis. A functional democracy must have 1) an operative public education system in which citizens can learn the basic principles of reason and the basic structure of history. A high school education should be able to provide basic skills required for political functionality. 2) a public sphere of where issues can be debated. We know that the nature of the media has favored inflammatory and distorted presentation of the social issues ranging from “parasitic trial lawyers” to “welfare queens.” It seems that Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimism about liberal institutions and their inevitable compromises with fascism is proven here.

22

MaryCh 10.05.05 at 1:40 am

roger,

without trying to put words in their mouths or on their monitors, I’d guess that Hacker and Pierson would suggest that the the interlocking structures in which the power brokers play lobbyists and legislators off against each other has vitiated the possible effectiveness of an “appeal to the moderates” strategy.

Regarding the media — maybe the reviewer just didn’t get to it. The media sure seem to fit the whole ‘system, greater than the sum of its parts’ thesis. It’ll be interesting to see whether/how that pops up in the book.

Also, o/t and appropos of nothing, given the authors’ use of the term ‘power broker’ I’ll be interested to see if my favorite pb, Robert Moses, is mentioned.

23

John Quiggin 10.05.05 at 2:21 am

One point raised at various places (for example in roger’s comment) is that the US situation must be understood in relation to a pre-existing norm of bipartisanship that made categories like “liberal Republican” meaningful.

Against the background of expectations created by this norm the Republican swing to partisanship has been much more effective than there had been a long history of ideological division and party solidarity.

24

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.05.05 at 2:37 am

“But the Republicans’ winning elections for the House, Senate, and Presidency all at once doesn’t predate their holding them all at once. I mean, I don’t think anyone wants to rehash Bush v. Gore here, but no one denies that Gore got more votes.”

Huh? Are we going to ignore the fact that Republicans won the House and Senate in the 1990s? I we going to ignore the rather odd effect one crazy Ross Perot had on the two elections that Clinton won with fewer votes than George W. Bush got?

The winning predates the things these authors seem to be talking about. Trying to analyze ’causes’ that took place after the effects you are trying to explain just doesn’t make sense.

And ignoring the part of the Democrat party’s horrific reputation on foreign policy isn’t going to help either.

I want a strong two party system. Hell, I could probably be fine with a Republican Senate, Democratic House and a moderate President of either party. But pretending that it is all Republican dirty tricks isn’t going to get us there.

25

abb1 10.05.05 at 3:56 am

Grassroots organizing – churches, the Repos have white protestant churches.

The Demos used to have labor unions for that, but not so much anymore for obvious reasons.

26

Jack 10.05.05 at 5:50 am

From overseas it seems very odd that foreign policy is an electoral weakness for the Democrats. How does that work? What is supposed to be horrific about Democratic policy?

27

abb1 10.05.05 at 5:58 am

They would need permission from the UN (the French) to start bombing.

28

Barry 10.05.05 at 6:00 am

Roger:
“Actually, the Democratic party, historically, is not any more “progressive” than the Republicans—in fact, Jim Crow was sustained and maintained by Dems for about a hundred years. “

And black Americans, when they could vote, used to vote Republican. Which pretty much ended by the time that the WWII vets moved into their 30′s. As Lott said a few years ago, the US Republican Party is the party of Jefferson Davis.

John Quiggin: “One point raised at various places (for example in roger’s comment) is that the US situation must be understood in relation to a pre-existing norm of bipartisanship that made categories like “liberal Republican” meaningful.

Against the background of expectations created by this norm the Republican swing to partisanship has been much more effective than there had been a long history of ideological division and party solidarity.”

Which might mean that the main driver is the polarization of the parties – remaining Dixiecrats are in the GOP, liberal Republicans are extinct.

29

jet 10.05.05 at 7:24 am

“Which might mean that the main driver is the polarization of the parties – remaining Dixiecrats are in the GOP, liberal Republicans are extinct.”

Like those no-account can’t change anything Republicans like Schwarzenegger, Giuliani, (and the front-runner, if totally frick’n crazy, presidential GOP candidate) McCain? Are those the “extinct” liberal Republicans you’re referring to?

30

rea 10.05.05 at 7:39 am

“Like those no-account can’t change anything Republicans like Schwarzenegger, Giuliani, (and the front-runner, if totally frick’n crazy, presidential GOP candidate) McCain? Are those the “extinct” liberal Republicans you’re referring to?”

Those guys don’t look very liberal compared to, say, Jerry Ford.

31

john david stutt 10.05.05 at 7:45 am

as can be seen from recent events, the GOP has adopted the model of La Cosa Nostra. It worked great for a time, but now the machine is leaking serious oil. They have shown that criminal policies can work for a time, but eventually will be upended.

32

james 10.05.05 at 7:51 am

The post on the tax breaks suggests average income citizens where duped into supporting a tax cut for the rich. There is a common perception among US citizens that government funds are misspent. It is more likely that those of average income just wanted their $300 back and could really care less about how much it cost.

Did the authors take into account the tendency to assume that the majority of Americans really do agree with one’s personal political views? Pundits and columnists seem to do this allot. When the voting pattern disagrees with this position, its always put down to lack of information, dishonesty, fleecing, etc.

33

Slocum 10.05.05 at 8:04 am

The post on the tax breaks suggests average income citizens where duped into supporting a tax cut for the rich.

I would say that this is one of main recurring themes that loses elections for Democrats — that voters who inexplicably fail to vote for them are dupes. Dems are just not going to win leading with the ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas’ argument that voters have been voting against their own interests and values and preferences but are just too f**king stupid to realize it.

About the best chance the Dems have in coming elections is that budding voter disgust with Repubs will outweigh their existing disgust with Dems.

34

abb1 10.05.05 at 8:41 am

I would say that this is one of main recurring themes that loses elections for Democrats—that voters who inexplicably fail to vote for them are dupes.

And if you’re a Republican, how do you explain a half of the voters casting their ballots for evil America-hating baby-murdering libruls? One half are the dupes, the other’s pure wickedness.

35

Alex R 10.05.05 at 8:59 am

Like those no-account can’t change anything Republicans like Schwarzenegger, Giuliani, (and the front-runner, if totally frick’n crazy, presidential GOP candidate) McCain? Are those the “extinct” liberal Republicans you’re referring to?

McCain may confound the Bush administration because he is not pro-torture, but he’s by no means a liberal. As for Schwarzenegger & Giuliani, they’re certainly more liberal than the median Republican Congressman, but just how much influence do those types of Republicans have on national politics? Answer: almost zero.

(As an aside: Are Schwarzeneggar and Giulani really “liberal”? Or are they just pro-choice?)

36

Matt Weiner 10.05.05 at 9:29 am

Here’s my count of elections since 1990:

1992: Clinton wins, and Dems retain the House and Senate. Perot’s effect is unpredictable.

1994: In a massive backlash against Clinton, Republicans gain the House and Senate. This is helped by unprecedented party discipline–Republicans completely refused to work with Clinton. (The multiple times that not one Republican voted for Clintons’ proposals gives the lie to the myth of the liberal Republican, by the way. No Republican in national government advocates effectively for liberal causes.)

1996: Clinton wins in a walk. Don’t give me any guff about Perot. Was there ever any suspense about this election? In fact, voters were punishing Republicans for congressional overreach.

1998: Usually the incumbent’s party gets killed in sixth-year congressional elections. Not this time. Again, the voters punish the GOP for their overreach in pursuing the ridiculous impeachment.

2000: Gore wins a popular-vote plurality, and Democrats regain parity in the Senate. (I think that the lack of information–the fact that Bush was allowed to portray himself as a moderate–was a big factor in letting Bush come within a hair of victory. Honestly, I think this is really a big factor.) Democrats regain the Senate after Jeffords’ defection, but are not able to use it as a center of power; they do not set any major part of the agenda.

2002: The GOP makes gains in Congressional elections by setting the agenda–manipulating the DHS and Iraq security votes for political advantage. “You don’t start selling a new product in August.”

2004: Again, the GOP uses its control of the agenda to ride to victory. If Congress had exercised some oversight over the multiple Bush Administration scandals, Bush would have had a harder time. But Plame, torture, and 9/11 intel failures were swept under the rug or whitewashed, and Bush got a free ride.

2006: ??

So basically, I think that attaining unified control of the government in fact did help the Republicans–the only unequivocal success they had before then was 1994, when their agenda had not been on display.

37

Villaveces 10.05.05 at 11:33 am

Second, and more importantly, it shows how distortion of information, manipulation of institutions and careful application of network resources work to reinforce each other.

Why do these books get so much billing? It’s a shame that supposed political scientists abandon all tried and true institutional analysis, to replace it with an analysis that not only claims that the Republican party (and it’s ‘extreme’ right-wing) is controlling voters through insidious tactics, but also one that assumes a centralization into a curious cadre of extremist political hacks. I worked for a time with a very important Republican in the Senate, and unless I was missing something big (I am a bit of a ‘hueva’), there wasn’t a whole lot of conspiring going on, and that from a Republican who is considered to have ‘king-making’ ability in his State.

I would suggest that simply looking at demographics, an exagerrated societal fear of crime, and some other very basic social issues, you could isolate more crucial factors that have more or less fallen into the laps of Republicans. The Republican Party isn’t nearly as powerful as these authors conceive.

38

jlw 10.05.05 at 11:46 am

I think Rick Perlstein’s project looking at the roots of the right is important in this respect. Much of the infrastructure of the right’s dominence within the Republican Party date back to the late 1970s and the 1980s. The 700 Club–and later the Christian Broadcasting Network–was the first attempt at a Fox News Channel. Local groups such as the Oregon Citizens Alliance put anti-gay measures on the ballot, much as rightist groups did in the 2004 election cycle, with the effect of helping rightwing politicians in rural and suburban districts. Lee Atwater, Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and a host of others date back to that era–setting the tone for much of what came later.

To say that the rise of the right is a function of its electoral success is wrong, any more than trying to understand Bolshevism only through the crucible of the October Revolution.

39

Cryptic Ned 10.05.05 at 12:03 pm

That is a super-narrow look at “morals voters”. The Democratic Party has driven away any number of otherwise liberal Christian voters with the “abortion till the last second” stance.

A stance that the Democratic Party has never actually taken. Even Sebastian is among the voters who has fallen victim to “tailored disinformation”!

40

Demosthenes 10.05.05 at 12:41 pm

On the character of this thread:

One of the differences between electoral politics and political science is that the latter doesn’t have to butter up the voters. If people are misinformed, they’re misinformed, and all the arguments about “you aren’t going to attract voters using that kind of argument” mixes up analysis and prescription. Being called a “dupe” might feel bad, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

That the mixup benefits your particular political philosophy doesn’t mean anything either.

Aside from that, however, might I suggest that arguments about the usefulness and accuracy of the book aren’t best made on the basis of a relatively short blog review? Most of the arguments that are being made against the book are likely addressed within it, and I wouldn’t presume as to their accuracy unless I had actually READ THE THING. Sebastian et al shouldn’t either.

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Marc 10.05.05 at 12:42 pm

There has been a seismic shift engineered by the modern Republican party in the US, and I’d phrase it a bit differently. The US system of government has historically been carefully set up with a series of checks on untrammeled majority rule. Coexisting with this have been informal, but quite real, limits on what is acceptable to do in the political arena. A combination of structural and societal rules – arising in large part from the beginning of the 20th century – have been systematically dismantled in the last quarter century. It is not surprising that we’re recreating the pathologies of the Gilded Era of the 1890s when we’re returning to the same political and economic structures.

There are a lot of independent lines of evidence. Witness redistricting, which has been – for decades – a once per decade process, whether fair or not. The GOP tossed that precedent out the window for partisan gain in the last cycle; the last midcycle redistricting before was well before World War II. You can also look at how bills can be amended in congress, or how differences between the House and Senate are reconciled, how voting takes place, and so on. In all cases, structural obstacles to what the GOP leadership wanted have been cast aside; the attempt to remove the filibuster in the Senate is only the most visible.

This is matched by differences in the public debate. The fundamental model prior to Bush II, at least nominally, was to have public policy informed by independent voices. Instead, we now witness the spectacle of having facts being essentially irrelevant to policy. This is seen most clearly in the collision of science with the political arena, but it is also evident in the breathtakingly dishonest tax cutting campaign in the first Bush term and the lead-up to the war in Iraq. In all of these cases, any impediments to what the leadership wanted to do were steamrollered, whether formal or not. The media, public, opposition, and even the so-called GOP moderates have not been able to respond to these radical changes. Unfortunately for both the Delays of the world and the rest of us, there is a fact-based world out there, and the consequences of this era will be with us for a very, very long time.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 10.05.05 at 1:28 pm

“This is helped by unprecedented party discipline—Republicans completely refused to work with Clinton.”

It might have also been helped by the Democrats proposing an awful health program.

And once again, what time period are you talking about? 1994 before or after the election? The backlash against Clinton swept Republicans into power which THEN made their refusal to work with him highly effective. It sounds to me like you are talking about the government shutdown and things like that. But that was in 1995 not 1994. Once again the electoral victory predates the thing you are saying caused it.

If 1996 was a victory for Clinton, it certainly was not a victory for Democrats in Congress.

They didn’t get slaughtered in 1998 isn’t exactly great for Democrats, though I’ll admit that impeachment buzz almost certainly hurt the Republicans.

After the Democrats regained the Senate, why didn’t the next election increase the ‘control’ rather than decrease it. I.e. if ‘control’ is the explanatory force, why did Republicans do BETTER in the election immediately after they lost control of the Senate?

I have a guess: the perception of Democrat foreign policy appeasement. But I know you hate that answer.

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roger 10.05.05 at 1:32 pm

Matt, I’d take issue with this as a definitive statement about the death of liberalism in the GOP:

“In a massive backlash against Clinton, Republicans gain the House and Senate. This is helped by unprecedented party discipline—Republicans completely refused to work with Clinton. (The multiple times that not one Republican voted for Clintons’ proposals gives the lie to the myth of the liberal Republican, by the way. No Republican in national government advocates effectively for liberal causes.)”

By 1994, the Javits section of the Republican party was either dead or on severe life support. There was an article in this Sunday’s NYT Magazine about William Buckley’s campaign, in 1965, in the NYC mayor’s race that pinpoints a moment that is overlooked, I believe, by political scientists partly because I think political scientists have a prejudice that a rational party structure would mean that a party represents a certain ideology. The old lament used to be that the U.S., unlike Europe, didn’t have a labour party, or a conservative party, and that this was somehow a sign of American backwardness.

I used to think that myself. But I don’t any longer. The increasing “moderation” of the Democrats seems to occur in tandem with the increasing demonization of the G.O.P. — hence, you get things like Hillary Clinton denouncing vast right wing conspiracies and her husband signing off on the liquidation of welfare. I think these things are actually coordinate — in truth, the powerbrokers among the Dems aren’t afraid of third party movements, like the Greens, and they have plenty of space to move towards the center because of the refusal of progressives to even try to revive a moderate wing among the Republicans. The resulting wierd politics means that progressives from, say, Moveon will send money to help conservative Dems in Mississippi run against even more conservative Republicans. Is this a wise strategy? Why not finance more moderate Republicans to run against more conservative Republicans in Mississippi, given that the winner of the Republican primary is much more likely to win on a statewide level than any Dem?

In my opinion, as long as the G.O.P. is routinely demonized on the left, the left will remain painted in that corner that the DLC just loves, and that leaves the right free to hedge its bets in both parties.

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abb1 10.05.05 at 1:58 pm

I don’t think the GOP needs any special demonizing. Mr. Bush, for example, had over 90% approval rating in 2001, the highest in recorded history, quite likely the highest in whole history – and look where he is now. Clearly he is not FDR, with demonization or without. Look at Delay, Santorum, Frist, pretty much any of the top Republicans – do they really need dmonizing to be loathed? They make insane McCain fella look good.

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ralph 10.05.05 at 2:37 pm

The book sounds like a must read. There’s no question that voters get what they deserve in a roughly functioning democracy, and that’s what we have. The republicans have ascended because they have policies and rhetoric that pleases many voters versus the candidates that the democrats have put up, true. But institutions and cultures do matter; people can be mislead, intentiionally or otherwise; hence it is not at all unreasonable to assume that gerrymandering to the extent practiced recently is also part of the swing rightward.
However, there is no reason to suggest that the right-ward swing isn’t a normal part of the fabric of this sortademocracy. Just look at the death valley of voting and policy — so far as I’m concerned — of national politics between WWI and the depression. Democracy says nothing, to my mind, about the quality of rule. It says only that, if the democratic culture is strong enough, it can enable people to throw out really bad people. It is truly the worst of all forms, with the exceptions of all others.
Get on with the reading of the book! All this other stuff — I’m fine with Sebastian’s view of the world, I just disagree with it — about whether “too” liberal policies are the cause is just fine for discussion, but doesn’t probably play much role in what we’re discussing, because until someone sets up a study of “too liberal” policies relative to voting behavior controlled for demographic change over time, well, it’s all just tripe.
For my own tripe, I believe that during the long boom following the destruction of the known world save the US during WWI, most of those too young to know the depression have over the last twenty years felt in their bones that something was not right. Democrats largely held national power, albeit often with Republican presidents, hence they have been the target. Should Republican polices — or crimes or whatever — come a cropper, my guess is that Republican national politics will suffer the same fate.
It’s just darned slow and inefficient.

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Branedy 10.05.05 at 4:10 pm

What most people don’t realalize is that the republican agenda has been won in the little words, repeated over and over and adopted over the years as the the truth. Told to the uninformed, and lazy, who do not take the time to learn the truth. Is it any wonder that the republicans count the small towns in the midwest, the less educated, the less ‘worldly’ as members? These are the blind being lead to the brink but truth twisters. But like any construct, it was done one nail at a time. There was no one big event that brought this situation on. When a vessel is empty, you can fill it with anything. When no one chooses to fill it with the truth, it will fill with lies, of any sort.

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Ben P 10.05.05 at 4:12 pm

Like those no-account can’t change anything Republicans like Schwarzenegger, Giuliani, (and the front-runner, if totally frick’n crazy, presidential GOP candidate) McCain? Are those the “extinct” liberal Republicans you’re referring to?

Others have picked on this statement, but I’ve got to pile on also.

Liberal Republicans are people like Linc Chaffee and Jim Jeffords. Going back a bit John Lindsey, Jacob Javits, and Ed Brooke.

John McCain is not very different than Barry Goldwater. That he can be viewed as moderate is simply a comment on how far right the center of political debate has moved. I mean, really: on what issues is he moderate? That he doesn’t personally like the Rove machine? His support for campaign finance reform? I can’t think of much else.

As for Giuliani and Schwartznegger, yes, neither are standard bearers for the Christian right. But otherwise, how would they be considered liberal? They’ve sold themselves as such, largely on issues like abortion and gay rights. But lets be honest, its going to be pretty damn hard for either of them to get far in a GOP primary with views such as these. And indeed, Schwartznegger bowed to the political reality of his base by vetoing a gay rights bill recently in CA.

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washerdreyer 10.05.05 at 5:11 pm

Weiner, not it would necessarily make sense w/o the context of this thread, but I thouht your last comment was a solid, concise recap of recent electoral history and you might want to post it on your page.

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roger 10.05.05 at 7:58 pm

My claim that the Republican party shouldn’t be demonized is a pretty simple one: the party structure itself of both the Democratic and the Republican party can accomodate shifts to the left or the right. The right, since Nixon’s time, has devoted its energies to driving the Republican party to the right. They found no resistance.

American liberal/lefties generally grew up during a period in which, at least on the legislative level, the Democrats had hegemony. And this period coincided with the shift to the left of the Democrats, which came in response to extra-party movements — the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, etc. But that hegemony ended long ago, the Dems have been shifting right for almost twenty years, and for almost any conservative boilerplate rolled out by some G.O.P.-er, I can find comparable stuff from a Democrat.

McCain is, of course, mostly a standard rightwinger, but his willingness to criticize military spending — for instance, on the 30 billion dollar fraud of “renting” useless Boeing jets — can be very favorably contrasted to Hillary Clinton’s support for every military boondoggle that has come down the pike, including the Star Wars defense.

What this means is not that liberals should immediately vote for McCain or vote against whoever runs against Hillary. Rather, it means being smart enough to support moderate Republicans in, say, the South, where Republicans have a one party lock — and will have for the next generation. In the same way that Democrats could generate racist segregationists like Fullbright, who still could criticize, and become prominent for criticizing, the Vietnam war led by his own party’s LBJ, progressives should stop the “Re-thug” talk and get real. Otherwise, they will simply cede the legislative branch to the right wing. This isn’t about whether McCain is a liberal — of course he isn’t — but it is about placing your bets for win, place or show. If there is a logic to supporting conservative Democrats running for offices they are clearly going to lose in the South, I’d like to hear what it is.

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JRoth 10.05.05 at 8:12 pm

Hey Sebastian, how many Republicans voted for Clinton’s ’93 budget, the one that raised taxes, increased EITC, and cut spending to put the gov’t on track for deficit reduction?

Oh yeah, not a SINGLE FUCKING ONE. They all said that it would result in a catastrophic economic collapse.

Oh, and Dole worked not to develop a workable compromise on health care, but to destroy it so that they could run on its failure. You know, putting the good of the country behind partisan politics?

Please, please stop trying to pass off your bullshit version of recent events in an informed forum. We were there, Sebastian, same as you.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 10.06.05 at 1:53 am

And how many votes did Democrats have at the time? Oh they controlled the Senate. Hmm.

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abb1 10.06.05 at 3:34 am

Roger,
this is an interesting and counter-intuitive theory you have here. If I were a Martian caring a lot about the US of A, then your idea might’ve made some sense to me, but I don’t think this is how domestic politics work – why would you want to help making the ideologically opposite party more mainstream? If you’re a progressive you do indeed hope that the conservatives expose themselves as reactionaries; you want to seize the middle, not to give it you opponents. You want more Delays and fewer McCains, you hope that your opponents will eventually move too far to the fringe and lose – and lose in the South as well.

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roger 10.06.05 at 10:06 am

Abb1, the obvious answer to that is that it isn’t a game. Without moderates in the Republican party, you will have no traction in stopping an obviously senseless war, or making sure that Federal responses to hurricanes are quick and help the poorest, or that tax bills won’t reward the wealthy to a dangerous extent. It is hard to see a Javits going along with any of this. Similarly, you don’t adulterate the Democratic party with Southern conservatives who have operated to scuttle any really progressive program that liberal Dems support. Conservatives operate in the Democratic party because it simply makes sense. Liberals have a fetish about that party, and they should knock it off. I could care less about the Democrats, but I care quite a bit about putting in a national healthcare system, withdrawing from Iraq, cutting spending on the War department, and so on. The way to get within reach of these things means operating through both parties.

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abb1 10.06.05 at 10:23 am

Fair enough, Roger, I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m just saying that this is not how politics normally works.

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JRoth 10.06.05 at 9:07 pm

Sebastian, you idiot, I know that the Dems controlled the Congress. Clinton’s budget passed (by one vote in each house). Clinton’s health care initiative – a closer-fought thing by its nature – did not. That is completely besides the point. Are you actually this stupid, or do you just play it on Crooked Timber?

The point, as you most certainly know, is that the Republicans actively fought not Clinton’s specific initiatives, but the very possiblity of Clinton’s success. Gingrich said to Clinton – years later, after Newt was out of power – that he and Dole recognized that success for Clinton in ’93 and ’94 would lead to a lasting Democratic majority, and thus the Republicans chose to do everything possible to derail that success. It had NOTHING to do with the good of this country. It had EVERYTHING to do with the good of the Republican party.

To whom do you pledge allegiance, Sebastian? The United States of America, or the Republican Party? Do you love your country, or your party? Because your party cares for itself (and its donors), not for its country.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 10.07.05 at 3:24 am

“Sebastian, you idiot, I know that the Dems controlled the Congress. Clinton’s budget passed (by one vote in each house). Clinton’s health care initiative – a closer-fought thing by its nature – did not. That is completely besides the point. Are you actually this stupid, or do you just play it on Crooked Timber?”

Read above. The thesis is that Republicans gain power by controlling the levers of the state and exploiting them to shut out Democrats. Unfortunately for that thesis, Republicans gained power at a time when the Democrats controlled all three branches of government. The fact that Republicans voted against Clinton’s abysmal health care plan does nothing to verify the thesis in question.

The concept that some ideas rejected by Democrats might appeal to people has apparently not crossed anyone’s mind.

“The point, as you most certainly know, is that the Republicans actively fought not Clinton’s specific initiatives, but the very possiblity of Clinton’s success.”

Failed because the minority party didn’t support him? Am I permitted to use this argument with Bush and Iraq?

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Martin James 10.07.05 at 2:59 pm

Jroth,

“To whom do you pledge allegiance, Sebastian? The United States of America, or the Republican Party?”

I don’t know about Sebastian, but you’ve convinced me. Next election, I’m voting for the flag.

I heard that in Kansas the school kids recite the pledge as “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the the United States of America and to the Republicans for which it stands…”

What’s the matter with Kansas?

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Matt Weiner 10.07.05 at 10:44 pm

Late response but in re the Democrats’ control of the Senate in ’94: They didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority, and tried to pass health care with bipartisan support. Given that the Republicans weren’t going to support anything that might redound to the Democrats’ credit this was doomed.

As for the perception of “Democrat [sic--can't you show a little class?] foreign policy appeasement,” I already agreed with you. The Republicans used their ability to set the agenda, by gutting civil-service protections in the DHS and by manipulating the run-up to Gulf War II, to paint the Democrats as weak on foreign policy. Both Republican policies have been unmitigated disasters in the real world, but they were extraordinarily successful politically.

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