Elders Of The Zombie Village

Ryan Lizza has a typically smart and insightful piece in the New Yorker, looking at the woes of the contemporary GOP. "Political parties aren't supposed to act suicidal," he writes, and yet, well, there it is.

I've been writing for some years about the suicidal Republican Party.  Here's my 2008 take on the GOP Village of the Damned; my 2009 explanation of the conservative marketplace: Sarah Inc; and my end-of-'09 assessment of what the year's bestsellers tell us about the right.

I don't want to get into my whole grand theory here, but in the article Lizza doesn't really write directly about what I have called the "movement-conservative marketplace," so I'd like to just toss some thoughts on it into the mix.

Lizza (to wildly oversimplify) suggests that when the parties reformed the Presidential nominating process after 1968, they unleashed the potential danger inherent in democratization: bad, even party-destructive choices by the people. (see: Jimmy Carter) Pretty quickly a balance was reached, by which "the most influential elements of each party's coalition... steer voters toward the anointed candidate." That balance, however, may have been only temporary, and may be breaking down completely on the Republican side. If true, the party may need to find a new way -- perhaps even returning to a deliberative convention -- to reassert party interests over the process.

I think this is all basically correct, but it doesn't get at why the balance has broken down so completely on the Republican side. (Lizza notes that Hillary Clinton was the more party-establishment choice in 2008, but that was still a pretty classic battle among party-coalition-approved candidates -- from the beginning, and ever-increasingly, Obama had support of prominent party figures, including establishment officeholders, fundraisers, and organizers. Unlike, say, Rick Santorum.)

The answer lies with the maturity of the movement-conservative marketplace.

I would actually argue that the Presidential nomination is just about the last holdout, where what I would call party-interested elements can still forge some kind of balance with the voting party membership, thanks to the size and scope of the process. At the lower levels, forget it.

Without getting too much into the details of that marketplace, here are two ways in particular that I think it bears upon the situation Lizza is describing.

1) Influencers are incentivized against party success.

As Lizza notes, influential party activists --"intense policy demanders," Lizza quotes John Zaller -- have competing desires, between wanting the party to adopt their issues, and wanting the party to win so that they can implement those policies. But a very large portion of the most influential intense policy demanders on the right are now actually part of the movement-conservative marketplace, and as such, they behave in market-driven fashion. Market forces, not policy or even power, now control the GOP.

As I wrote in Sarah Inc., there is a $2 billion a year (lowball figure) industry just in contributions, mostly in small increments, to conservative institutes, associations, and advocacy groups. That's not counting the massive for-profit world of radio, television, web, and publishing.

Almost every political message received by a typical conservative voter -- from their TV, computer, mail, radio, or wherever -- comes via this marketplace, and from the mouths of people whose income derives from it.

And this marketplace thrives on opposition to the current holders of power. This is not theoretical. The marketplace exploded and matured during the Clinton Presidency, withered financially during the Bush Presidency, and exploded again the minute Obama got elected. FOX News ratings actually rose significantly in the non-election year of 2009 over the Presidential-election year of 2008 -- absolutely contrary to the norm for news/politics networks. Conservative titles spent 25 weeks in 2009 at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, more than the previous five years combined. And so on.

I would argue that the Republican success in the 2010 elections has been seriously problematic for the industry; they have hardly had anything good to raise money off. A Republican Presidency would be financially devastating. 

This applies to the NRA and Concerned Women for America as well as to Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes.

But wait, you say, many of them really do genuinely want their policies implemented, so they want the GOP to gain power. Sure. But because the marketplace has matured so fully, any who act in that interest will be punished by customers taking their business elsewhere. The NRA, just to give one example, has one by one thrown aside all of its politically cautious approaches (for example, it long refused to support attempts to take a direct "right to bear arms" challenge to the Supreme Court) because so many of its members have taken their membership dues to the Gun Owners Action League and other purists.

It should also be clear by now that Republcan politicians themselves are now far more terrified of the repercussions of bucking the movement-conservative marketplace than of being seen as a loon by swing voters. Again, it doesn't matter what they actually believe -- there are plenty who would step in to satisfy the market's needs in their place.

And when it comes to the Presidential nomination process, the incentive clearly is to favor a candidate who fits marketplace ideals but has no possibility of actually becoming President. Hence the marketplace disinterest in genuine movement-conservative candidate Tim Pawlenty, and great marketplace interest in phony movement-conservative candidate Herman Cain.

2) Everything is Orthodoxy

A national political party is, by its nature, a coalition of coalitions. That means that each coalition's particular interest is likely to be a minority one even within the party -- or at least a minority priority -- which forces a certain amount of compromise. For Zaller's intense policy demanders to "master the system by uniting behind the scenes in favor of one candidate," in the "invisible primary," as Lizza writes, they each have to accept that they're not getting everything they want. Union leaders, urban black ministers, and gay rights activists cannot and do not expect total agreement and support from one another. 

But the movement-conservative marketplace is very different -- they have all bought into the entirety of movement conservatism. That's not an accident, or at least so I have long argued. It was Reagan and his people who gathered what Lizza calls the GOP's familiar factions around a table and got them to agree to, in effect, all work together as conduits into a stapled-together mish-mash of their beliefs.

As I described in my review of Michele Bachmann's book, this is how a home-schooling Minnesota Democrat gets introduced through her church groups to the newsletter of Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye, and ends up an anti-tax foreign-policy hawk devoted to von Mises and Hayek.

This is why we now have a Republican Party in which such huge majorities agree across-the-board with every piece of movement-conservative orthodoxy, no matter how improbable. And again, anyone who goes against any part of it can easily be replaced by someone who will agree with all of it.

The disfunctional GOP Presidential nomination process of 2008 and 2012 is partly a result of the miserable self-immolation of Republicans in the Bush administration and Congress circa 2002-2008. But it's also a result of the absolute impossibility of finding a real-life candidate pure enough for the marketplace.

And, returning to point number one, the influential people in the movement-conservative marketplace don't want to find such a real-life candidate.

All of this helps to explain, in my opinion, a great deal about this entire campaign -- for instance, why the entire campaign has pretty much been dominated by the candidates trying to expose evidence of one another's having ever strayed from any piece of the movement-conservatism orthodoxy.

I think it also helps explain the incredible lack of action by so many actual party-interested players. Look at all the Republican officeholders still sitting on the sidelines. Look at how little money has been raised for the top GOP candidates through institutional bundlers, compared to this point in '08 or '00. It's at least in part because Republicans who operate in Republican circles -- including high-level Republicans in elite Republican circles -- don't want to be known as supporting a betrayer of conservative orthodoxy. Which all of the candidates are. 

It also suggests the difficulty the party could have in trying to find a way out of the situation. I don't think it's likely that a deliberative convention would help much -- I just don't think there are any party elites who can foist a candidate upon the delegates, who are among the most devoted consumers of the movement-conservative marketplace.

I actually think, as I mentioned above, that the Presidential process is still a holdout. Ultimately they did get a real candidate in 2008, and in the end will probably get one in 2012. Compare that to, for example, the GOP US Senate primaries of 2010 (Joe Miller, Mike Lee, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle -- shall I go on?) or the reality-defiant majority in the House of Representatives.

Think of it this way: by muddling through this mess, Romney will ultimately be legitimized by the democratized process that gave him the nomination, however grudgingly. Try to imagine the party leadership coming out of a smoke-filled room trying to sell Romney to the base without that.

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