By Winston Shi
Is political gridlock going away? Not a chance. When it comes to U.S. politics, we’ve agreed to disagree.
Divided government and disciplined filibustering has prevented the American government from accomplishing many of the reforms its budget and government services desperately need. The scary part is that both major parties are fine with that. Gridlock has reached a comfortable equilibrium – a dynamic equilibrium, but an equilibrium nevertheless.
The reason that both Republicans and Democrats are content with the status quo is because they both agree that politics is about getting to 51 percent, but their goals are so different that they can’t even agree on what the midpoint of American politics actually is. The truly scary political development of the last 20 years is that our gridlock occurs because Democrats and Republicans are comfortable with the status quo. America’s federal system, which divides the spoils among all parties, allows them to believe that they’re fighting for the middle when they’re actually not.
True to form, Republicans believe their strength in state and local government makes up for deficiencies in national representation. Republicans have built strong reputations for good local government across the country. Even in Massachusetts, the center of American liberalism, Republicans have actually controlled the governorship more often than Democrats since World War II; look back to World War I, in fact, and it’s not even a contest.
And equally true to form, Democrats (who believe in channeling grand reforms through the federal government, the only practical solution for these nation-changing visions) believe that if they can win the White House and at least one house of Congress, everything else is gravy. The Democrats have acquired a clear structural majority in the White House: In 2012, Romney had to win nearly every swing state out there, and Obama just had to pick up a few. No amount of arguing that “a true conservative would mobilize the base” is going to change that.
Republicans and Democrats are basically shooting for what the other wouldn’t even call the center – they’re shooting for 45 percent, not 51. Consider, then, what this has done to American politics.
Gridlock can only happen when parties first carve out chokeholds on certain institutions or voting blocs. If the Republicans do not fear losing the House, for example, then they can use the House to do whatever they want. And in 2014, 195 House seats were universally viewed as “safe Republican” and 159 as “safe Democratic.” Why is this the case? Democrats, largely speaking, care less about state and local elections. And since it’s state governments that set the rules for House elections, the Republicans have been able to consolidate their existing strength in the House. Frankly, the Democrats’ relative lack of interest in state and local elections has played right into Republican hands. Even the left-leaning Center for American Progress reports that Republicans dominate state government: “Republicans hold 31 of 50 state governorships and have unified control of 31 state legislatures – compared to just 11 for the Democrats.” The Republicans have declared victory without actually needing to compete for the median voter.
But the Democrats are gaining chokeholds of their own. There are two real paths to change in American politics: If one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, and if the Supreme Court has a working majority. The Republican strength in the House largely precludes the first. But if the Democrats can combine the White House and the Senate, they can dominate appointments to the Supreme Court.
Moreover, demographics will not “save the day” for either party, at least in the medium run, because demographics cut both ways. Republicans like to think that the fastest-growing states are GOP leans; Democrats point to the fact that the ethnic groups growing the fastest increasingly vote for the Dems. Relying on the crutch of future game-changing demographic shifts has allowed the parties to dig in, play defense and hope for a better tomorrow. But both parties have good arguments for the demographic pendulum swinging their way. And demographic change in practice only serves to accentuate the relative centers of power that both parties have already carved out for themselves. Growth in Republican-leaning states will further strengthen the GOP House majority. Growth in Democratic-leaning populations will make the White House a Democratic affair.
The key point here, then, is that even though the Democrats have accepted gridlock for the time being, the status quo benefits the Republicans far more than it does the Democrats – and indeed, the Dems are increasingly realizing this.
The Tea Party personifies American gridlock, but that’s the point: It is essentially a static movement. It virulently opposes Barack Obama, but it is willing to accept the diminished national electability that comes with being ideologically purist because ultimately, it is OK with what we have right now. Its rhetoric is less about making America “great again” and more about inspiring a fear of change – fear of single-payer healthcare, fear of high taxes, fear of the IRS.
Objectively, the Tea Party has not accomplished much in terms of getting legislation through Congress. Rather, the Tea Party would argue that its true victories rest in the congressional proposals that it has destroyed – in the change that it has prevented.
And why shouldn’t they think so? Democrats can’t admit it, but the unsaid, unrecognized foundation of American politics is that Ronald Reagan won. After watching the Republicans win an average of 417 electoral votes during the 20 years from Nixon to Reagan, Bill Clinton conceded nearly every meaningful economic point to the Republican Party, embraced free-market gurus like Alan Greenspan and was even forced to back down on universal healthcare – the one major issue he refused to initially concede. The Tea Party didn’t think Reagan went far enough but they’ll still concede that he went pretty far, and even mainline Republicans feel pretty good about the status quo too.
For the time being, all the GOP needs to do is maintain enough influence at the federal level to stop anything from happening.
But sometimes, fate and pent-up resentment confer one party with immense, earth-shaking power. The Democrats are doing their best to refuse it: This year, even after being gifted a dominant candidate, a Republican civil war and a favorable Senate map, the Democratic base is still trying to embarrass Hillary Clinton and force the party to the left. But what if the Democrats win the sort of historic victory they’re talking about now? Not following through on the Reagan vision is one thing. Watching it get rolled back is another thing entirely.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu