Thursday, January 05, 2023


In the House of Representatives right now, one party, and only one party, is screwing the pooch. Surely this is a rare moment when even the op-ed page of The New York Times will forswear bothsides framing ... right? Would anyone seriously write a "guest essay" for the Times claiming that the debacle in the House is emblematic of a problem afflicting both parties?

Yup, someone would. Here's the op-ed, from NYU law professor Richard Pildes. The headline seems reasonable:
Why the Fringiest Fringe of the G.O.P. Now Has So Much Power Over the Party
As does the lede, up to a point:
For the first time in nearly a century, we have witnessed the stunning spectacle of a Republican Party so fractured it has struggled in multiple rounds of balloting to choose a speaker of the House. This Washington drama reflects....
Reflects what? The GOP's takeover by infantile bomb-throwers?

This Washington drama reflects larger structural forces that are changing American democracy.

Revolutions in communications and technology have transformed our democracy in more profound ways than just the more familiar issues of misinformation, hate speech and the like. They have enabled individual members of Congress to function, even thrive, as free agents. They have flattened institutional authority, including that of the political parties and their leaders. They have allowed individuals and groups to more easily mobilize and sustain opposition to government action and help fuel intense factional conflicts within the parties that leadership has greater difficulty controlling than in the past.
And the first person who comes to Pildes's mind as an exemplar of this trend is -- naturally -- a Democrat. Guess who?
Through cable television and social media, even politicians in their first years in office can cultivate a national audience. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered Congress, she already had nine million followers on the major social media platforms, more than four times the number for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an order of magnitude more than any other Democrat in the House. Recognizing the power social media provides, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a provocateur in the opposition to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid, has said he wants to be the A.O.C. of the right.
Except that AOC actually tries to govern, while it's clear that Gaetz has no interest in doing so. You might not like all her tactical decisions, but she cares about policy, whereas Gaetz and many of his colleagues are just in it for the cable and podcast appearances.

But Pildes has now established his thesis -- that Both Sides Do It and the most notorious Doer of It is a Democrat -- so he's free to ignore the fact that he can't name another up-and-coming Democrat with AOC's degree of celebrity, and that the people who most embody the problem are all Republicans.
Despite being stripped of her committee assignments, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, raised more than $3 million in small donations in the first quarter of 2021, a staggering haul for a new member of Congress. National attention on cable and social media reward the provocative, the outrageous and the ideological extremes. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York transformed herself from a moderate to a “warrior” for Donald Trump, a move that helped engender a torrent of small donations.
Of course, Stefanik didn't transform herself for the money -- she transformed herself because she couldn't be in the mainstream of her party without being a Trump acolyte.
... members no longer need to serve on important committees to gain national profiles or attract campaign funds and, with modern communications tools easily available to individual members, can still readily mobilize opposition to proposals. Those challenging Mr. McCarthy for speaker know they run the risk of being punished in their committee assignments, should he eventually prevail. But that threat no longer carries the weight it once did in an era of free-agent politicians.

Many members also benefit from being in increasingly safe seats, which leaves them unconcerned about general elections and encourages playing to more ideologically committed primary voters. The power to gain a national audience and raise more than enough funds through small donations has also encouraged the rise of politicians who are in the game more for the attention and opportunities it provides than for governing. The risk of cable television hosts turning on them is a much greater concern than failing to get particular committee assignments.
But Pildes still hasn't answered the obvious question: Why has nothing like this happened among Democrats? Democrats can raise big bucks on the Internet. Democrats have their share of safe districts. Democrats have some popular cable shows. What's the difference?

Pildes has a theory:
The Democratic Party shows one way parties can overcome these fragmenting forces that threaten to pull them apart: the specter of major electoral defeat. In the current moment of unity, it is easy to forget the bitter conflicts between more moderate and progressive wings that the party managed to overcome only in the last year.

... It took the near-death experience of 2021 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey for progressives to give up their demands and permit the infrastructure bill to pass on its own, eventually followed with an Inflation Reduction Act that had been significantly reduced in scope.
We'll ignore the fact that there were simple majorities in both houses of Congress prepared to support the earlier versions of these bills -- Senate moderates rather than progressives were the roadblocks. And we'll ignore the fact that none of this infighting shut down either house. The question Pildes never asks himself is this: If concerns about electoral defeat concentrate a party's mind, why isn't that happening to Republicans now? They had lousy electoral cycles in 2018, 2020, and 2022. Yet they've only become loonier.

Finally, at the end of the second-to-last paragraph, Pildes concedes this about the Democrats:
Fewer of their members also seem more interested in performative politics than legislating.

This is the main problem: Many Republicans want to be Fox- and podcast-ready extremist edgelords, and few if any Democrats see their work the same way. But bothsidesing the problem is a surer route to publication in the opinion section of The New York Times, so bothsidesing is what Pildes gives us.

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