Republican Party

The Political Process Has Many Problems, But the Fact That Activists Have a Microphone Is Not One of Them

Are conservative media responsible for congressional dysfunction?


Sean Hannity in 1922
The Wireless Age

Jackie Calmes of The New York Times has written a much-discussed study for the Shorenstein Center on the state of the American right. It's a very long paper with little new to say; you can boil most of its thesis down to three points:

1. The "leaders of the Republican Party do not fully control its agenda."

2. The people jostling them out of the way are the conservative media.

3. As a result, Republicans are not able "to govern."

The first point is basically true. The "party elders," as Calmes calls them, have seen several policies they support either killed or wounded by the party's base. This does not strike me as a panic-worthy development. I agree with that base on some of those issues (such as Common Core) and disagree with it on others (such as immigration), but as a broad principle, it's hard to be upset about the fact that angry citizens can sometimes shoot down policies they dislike.

The second point is more debatable. Calmes' conception of conservative media includes not just the hierarchical Fox News but the more decentralized world of AM talk radio (not as diverse as it used to be, but still splintered) and the even more horizontal realm of the Internet. For all the manipulation and groupthink that go on in these spheres, they do not speak with a single voice. And as Jack Shafer points out in his response to Calmes, they haven't necessarily been much better at keeping the base under control than the old establishment is:

If conservative media is as powerful as Calmes posits, why can't it discipline the 17 squabbling presidential candidates and unify the party behind its candidate? (Which would be who? Ted Cruz? Rick Santorum? Ben Carson?) If conservative media is so powerful, why has Speaker of the House John Boehner, who is as much a "governance" Republican as walks the planet, been able to cream two recent challenges to his leadership by hard-line conservatives? How did the conservative media ever allow the nomination of such mushy Republicans as John McCain and Mitt Romney?

One significant story threading through the 2012 election, in case you've forgotten, was the Tea Party movement losing one battle after another.

Who needs governing?

A possible reply to Shafer is that the media don't all need to keep people in line—that they're out to disrupt a consensus, not to create one. That is, more or less, what Calmes is getting at in point number three: that the crowd is complaining rather than governing.

And yet she also writes this, after recounting the battle earlier this year over immigration and homeland-security funding:

By spring, Congress did pass a series of significant measures—addressing terrorism insurance, human trafficking and veterans' suicides, for instance, and fixing a longtime policy headache involving Medicare reimbursements to doctors. But Democrats' cooperation had helped, and no one interpreted those achievements as a sign that Republicans would be able to perform the bigger, essential governing tasks that loomed, of passing annual appropriations bills and raising the nation's debt limit, without the messy intraparty ruptures and brinkmanship of recent years.

Look: I fully recognize that the budget process has been especially dysfunctional lately. But consider what that passage basically says:

1. Rather than refusing "to govern," Congress did, in fact, pass several significant bills.

2. It often did so in a bipartisan manner.

3. But it will be harder to pass some other bills coming up without "messy" political fights.

When are political fights not messy? And given how much disagreement there is about how the government should be spending money (and about whether regularly raising the debt limit is an "essential governing task"), isn't it good that this stuff will kick up some fights? Politics without conflict is politics that excludes people. I have little love for the Republican milieu of 2015, but I have even less affection for the idea of a chummy group of pols keeping a lid on citizen discontent.

I mean, just listen to some of the people quoted in Calmes' paper:

"If you stray the slightest from the far right," said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who continues to advise Republican congressional leaders, "you get hit by the conservative media."

Lott sounds like one of those center-left feminists driven to distraction by the fact that further-left feminists criticize them on Twitter. Sure, Trent: If people disagree with you, they can "hit" you by expressing that disagreement. Sometimes they will be jackasses spouting drivel. Sometimes they will have a point. Either way, it's not a crisis. I have a ton of problems with Congress, the Republican Party, and, yes, conservative media. The fact that people find it easier to complain and to mobilize is not one of them.

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  1. I like her point 3, but only if she applies it to every political party.

  2. If conservative media is so powerful, why has Speaker of the House John Boehner, who is as much a “governance” Republican as walks the planet, been able to cream two recent challenges to his leadership by hard-line conservatives?

    Forget Team Red. Let’s talk about who John Boehner creamed.

  3. The Republicans control seven out of every ten state legislatures and over thirty of the governorships. What exactly does this clown mean “they can’t govern”?

    At the federal level, the Democratic party controls the white house and will not under any conditions vote to override an Obama veto or impeach him. So what are they supposed to do?

    I am pretty sure when this guy says “unable to govern” he means “unable to roll over and do exactly what the Democrats demand”.

    1. What exactly does this clown mean “they can’t govern”?

      “Takes up to a week to convince them to vote for Democrat policies,” I’d guess.

    2. They can’t govern especially when they have all the power. Or is Mississippi some kind of utopia to you?

      1. So seven out of ten states are Mississippi? The Republicans run most of the country you backward half wit.

      2. Mississippi is a fucking swamp no matter who governs it.

        1. No kidding. I don’t remember it being a utopia when the Democrats governed it without opposition for over 100 years between the end of Reconstruction and the 1990s.

      3. The US was far less badly governed at the federal level when the GOP had full control 2002-2006.

        1. I’m going to take this as a joke.

      4. It is a if the word Detroit is absent from Tony’s lexicon. It is hard to defend Republicans but it is pretty damn risible that anyone aligned with the proglodyte party and their one party disasters in cities across the country could criticize anyone else’s governance unless it was in an article for the onion.

  4. 1. The “leaders of the Republican Party do not fully control its agenda.”

    2. The people jostling them out of the way are the conservative media.

    3. As a result, Republicans are not able “to govern.”

    Another conclusion to draw is that people “on the right” are more interested in political philosophy, theoretical and actual nuance, and the impact government policy actually has on the real world. Meanwhile, the rank and file voting for Democrats without flinching – and this describes most people who vote Democrat – should be of grave concern. It shows a dearth of intellectual debate within the modern left.

    1. Pretty much.

    2. Both conclusions are pretty ridiculous.

      1. Sweeping generalizations tend to be ridiculous. I was simply responding to one sweeping generalization with my own.

    3. Maybe. I suspect a large part of the republican infighting is that the current coalition can’t win presidential elections (or at least, has had trouble doing so), and every proposed solution involves getting rid of one member of the coalition in order to bring their counterpart under the tent instead. It’s more of a political calculus than an ideological one.

      Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing that the GOP is having a debate of ideas, but I don’t see it lasting past getting a candidate back in the White House.

    4. You forgot the part about Democrats being brainwashed or possibly eating aborted fetuses on their kale salads.

  5. Well, it is true that the Democrats do have the bestest little sheeple minions and sycophants that crumbs from the tablecloth can buy.

    Much better than that gang of rat fucking flea taggers and anarchists that the GOP are failing to control all of the time.

    1. The center-left today, which composes most mainstream media organizations and describes pop culture politically, starts from an unsound presumption: good governance is all about agreeing on means and ends and never questioning either one.

      This group-think mentality seems to be an inevitable, though not entirely logical, part of human nature: when like-minded people dominate the culture, they rarely voice disagreement on major or even minor issues, much less behave differently toward them. Yet, when like-minded people are not the dominant group, they are fractured. It would make more sense, at least to me, to see uniformity of opinion when one’s group is subservient than when it is dominant just so the subservient group can gain the upper hand. Alas, that does not appear to happen.

      1. By their very nature libertarians will never come to any sort of agreement that approaches the level of group think.

        But I still think that we can coalesce into a somewhat effective movement solely through the phenomenon of realizing a common enemy.

        We can also use both of the other sides, the conservatives and the progressives on issues that we agree with them on to form a majority. You know, like we can join the progtards on legalizing weed because they have to prove how liberal they are. We can do the same with conservatives on economic issue because they have to prove how free market they are.

      2. Oh, hell, nearly everybody in all places & all times has been this way. It’s hilarious how assumpttions become ingrained, the acton of the Previous Investment Trap, & all the other factors that keep people plowing ahead in whichever direction they happened to be pointing. You develop an ally?could be at the international level or the local political one?because of something in common, then you forget why, only that you were on the same side for some reason so you gotta stay on the same side. Usu. it’s the power on one side that realizes this & is manipulating the other, but it can be mutual or group or whatever.

  6. Jesse – You’re the best writer at reason. Stay frosty.

  7. It shows how thoroughly the Obamessiah worship has taken hold that the Democrats – the party traditionally noted for factional fratricide – is now the party of lockstep obedience (all in service of the Glorious Leader) and the Republicans more resemble Will Rogers’ quip about not belonging to an organized political party.

  8. As a result, Republicans are not able “to govern.”

    It was mentioned above, but to reiterate – this basically means pass legislation put up by the Democrats. And I’m tired of cries for Congress to do something. Look at the significant legislation they passed mentioned in the article. All for show. Bullshit. But they did something for those issues so that’s good.

    I don’t want a party that governs. I wish the Republicans did even less.

  9. Do the activists get two turntables, too?

  10. When the Republicans become more “moderate” in response to the concern-trolling of the media, do the media people then *endorse* these Republicans? No, they endorse the Democrat and say that all Republican, “moderate” or not, hunt grandmothers for sport.

  11. So, according to leftists, Republicans should move left to get votes and be able to govern.

    Yet what actually happens when Republicans move left is that they lose votes and are unable to govern.


    Could this just be another self serving bit of idiocy from the left? Why yes, yes it could.

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