What’s Actually Wrong with the Republican Party

This piece by Jonathan Bernstein alerted me to this Washington Post op-ed by Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein. Mann and Ornstein suggest that the problem with the Republicans is that they’ve gone too far to the right and are subsequently unwilling/unable to compromise in beneficial ways. The result is more detrimental government gridlock.

I think Bernstein is correct that the problem is not a matter of how “conservative” the modern Republican Party has become. Those unwilling to compromise aren’t more ‘conservative’ than their colleagues. Bernstein uses the term ‘radical’ to describe this absolutist approach to governance seen most clearly in the House Majority. On this blog I use the term “moderate” as the opposite to this radical approach, one which embraces compromise as a foundational political principle.

But it’s also not an accident that the Republican Party has paired this kind of radicalism with their conservatism. Since the New Deal, the Republican Party has peddled anti-government rhetoric in various and increasingly virulent forms as a central tenet of conservative ideology. And beginning in the 1970s, Republicans who prioritized absolutism over compromise began to win control of the party. That these were often the same Republicans whose conservative views were tied to their evangelical Christianity was no historical mistake either. By now, the Republicans have become so adept at this language of government-as-villain that they were even able to maintain it when they had control of all three branches of the federal government. When they lost that control in 2006 and 2008 it became that much easier to paint Democrats as not only the opposition by the enemy.

There’s no enduring philosophical reason that conservatism must include an anti-compromise, ideological-purist approach. Such conservative icons as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan certainly didn’t believe it was an essential part of their ideology. But all those years of anti-government rhetoric have painted the Republican Party into a corner. And some of them have come to believe it in the most extreme sense.

This ‘radicalism’ has so permeated both the leadership and grassroots activism of the Republican Party that I’m not sure we can speak of it any more as being separate from conservatism. More than almost any policy prescription, gridlock has become the fundamental goal of conservative politics. As we were reminded in the Republican presidential primaries, even a plan in which spending cuts outweighed tax increases by 10:1 would be unacceptable to the Republican leadership. Non-absolutist strains of conservatism seem to be almost dead save for of a few pundits (e.g., David Brooks) and blue state politicians (e.g., Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney).


(The Economist provided an early review of Mann and Ornstein’s new book. The reviewer levels the same criticism as Bernstein, faulting them for failing to differentiate between aims and means. I’m eager to read it to see whether they lay out the connection between means and ends. And the proposed solutions intrigue me.)

2 Responses to What’s Actually Wrong with the Republican Party
  1. Jacob Morgan
    April 30, 2012 | 12:59 pm

    Just a small thought:
    I may have read into it too much, but you talk about the representatives who intentionally gridlock the process in a way that implies they are acting individually. But in fact, they are representing a large chunk of the voters who they are supposed to represent. There is a very large part of America that doesn’t want the government to keep growing, and gridlock is the only method to prevent the government from getting bigger.
    Compromise is only ‘how’ the government gets bigger, but there hasn’t been a compromise in recent history that makes government smaller. Or in other words, there hasn’t been a compromise in recent history that leads to more freedom. (Republicans and Democrats equally guilty)

    What I’m most curious about though, is why are you right? This whole article contains the pretty blatant statement that your ideas are correct and the deviation from these ideas makes someeone else (the republican party) wrong. You clearly feel that your stance is firmly planted on the correct foundation, but what is your defense of your entire basis for government?
    Single payer systems, government funded college, etc. I haven’t ever really understood how you defend the stance. I mean, if you skip over that, and assume “the government should control healthcare or education” then I actually agree with most of your ideas as logical and practical.

    Where’s the bridge that would get a person over the “why should the government have the right to do X, Y or Z, just because one group under the government wants it?” logic chasm.

    Lots of people want government healthcare. Lots of people don’t want government healthcare. You are in one group, so you think that group is the correct one, but in reality, you are proposing a government that can do anything that the majority decides betters the quality of life for most of the people.

    • Jason
      June 2, 2012 | 12:05 pm


      I’m finally getting back to blogging and to your excellent questions. But in addition I’d like to say how much I appreciate our exchanges and the tone of your questions. Though we disagree on some pretty fundamental issues and my language in this post was pretty blunt, your response has been even and inquisitive. That seems increasingly rare as the election cycle heats up and it makes me doubly glad for our exchanges.

      I also want to say that I appreciate your dedication to the Constitution. I’ve had some political discussions of late in which people treated Constitutional arguments as a weak excuse: they wanted their way regardless of whether it was justified within our system of government. While we may disagree in our interpretation of the Constitution, I’m glad we both recognize its primacy on political questions.