The Sciences

The Perils of an Enraged Base

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionJul 27, 2011 10:00 AM

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by Jon Winsor It goes without saying that both parties love an energized base. Energized bases vote. They raise funds. They volunteer. They can move big agendas. But dispassion is not their strong suit. The words “debt ceiling” never appear in this recent Michael Gersen column, but the subtext is pretty clear:

[There is a recent tendency to] constrain politicians with blood oaths… The imposition of oaths beyond the Constitution… assumes a certain theory of representation — the belief that politicians are merely mechanisms for the expression of public sentiment. They are, in this view, computers to be pre-programmed for desired outcomes. When Edmund Burke was presented with a similar argument, he agreed that the opinions of constituents “ought to have great weight” with a representative. “But his unbiased opinion,” Burke continued, “his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.” This exercise of judgment, he argued, is not consistent with “authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience.”

In other words, an enraged base shouldn’t trump an informed politician's conscience--because leaders are often closer to the facts than, say, the activists back in the district who got them elected. If a politician listens to experts and is convinced that something needs to be done about climate change, or if financial experts tell leaders about the serious consequences if the debt ceiling isn't raised, then “mature judgement”, not “public sentiment” should determine their decisions. As Gerson points out, the Tea Party tends to think the opposite. In an interview, Stan Collender (a former staffer on both the House and Senate budget committee) talks about speaking to the Tea Party Republicans after the 2010 election:

After me were the Tea Party state chairs from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. And they spent the next 45 minutes screaming at these members, saying, plainly, we elected you and we can unelect you. And this was at longtime members like Joe Barton, who long predated the Tea Party. I never have seen members of Congress treated like that. Especially by their friends… The marching orders were, first, you must not vote to extend the continuing resolution [that would keep the government open through 2011] unless it, in their words, “defunds Obamacare.” Number two, you must not, under any circumstances, vote for an increase in the debt ceiling. Period. No conditions. [my emphasis]

This kind of heated absolutism sounds a lot like what conservative David Frum worried about a few months into the Republican congress last year (in a post titled “Backing the GOP into a Paranoid Corner”):

I often wonder: Has the need to fund our cause by mobilizing fears actually crippled our cause… Most people cannot sustain cynicism for very long. If your fundraising imperatives require you to SAY that Obama is a Marxist, most of those who repeat the slogan will come to believe it. If your fundraising requires you to pretend that Obama caused the economic crisis he actually inherited, over time you will genuinely forget how the crisis started and why it has lasted so long. An enraged base will entrap the party. If Obama really is demoniacally determined to impose socialism on the United States, there’s no working with him. We can only fight him until we defeat and destroy him or he defeats and destroys us. So what happens when Congress and president must work together? To balance the budget after the recession ends for example? The party will have positioned itself so that any Republican who tries to do anything constructive will stand accused of selling out. As far as our voters are concerned, nothing can happen unless we control everything – and no deal is possible unless we get entirely our own way. That is not in fact the way the leadership of the GOP thinks. The GOP is better than its material, and its leaders are reasonable people with feasible goals. But a mood is growing in the Republican base that despises the higgling and haggling of real politics – preferring freedom from responsibility and the grim satisfactions of radical alienation. [My emphasis]

Republicans have built an extremely effective infrastructure for mobilizing sentiment, for stoking alienation against government and the political opposition. But as we’re seeing now, this isn’t a great basis for taking the best advice and governing effectively (indispensably, expert advice--we're looking at you, Michele Bachmann).

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