Monday, September 03, 2012

The Kansas GOP has Thought Itself Out of Another Good Politician

[This is a submission to the Wichita Eagle; we'll see if they take it. Update, 9/7/2012, 1:00pm CST: a shortened version of the article was printed in the Eagle here.]

When state Senator Jean Schodorf read the article in Sunday’s Wichita Eagle about her announcement that she’s leaving the Kansas Republican Party, and saw herself quoted as saying “There’s no room [in the party] for people who actually think in moderation,” she probably shrugged her shoulders, figuring that informed readers will understand what she meant.

And of course, they will. After losing her place in the party in last month’s primary election to the strongly conservative Michael O'Donnell, essentially for failing–at least in the eyes of many riled-up, activist voters–to be sufficiently committed to the hard-right, pseudo-libertarian-constitutionalist ideology which Governor Sam Brownback has helped to triumph over Kansas’s long-standing moderate conservative faction, her frustration with the lack of respect in today’s Republican party for “moderation” in government is obvious.

Those happy about Schodorf’s defeat will chuckle over her word choice, which suggests that the party doesn’t welcome those people (presumably like her!) who don’t think too much. And those frustrated with a Republican party now cleansed of many of Kansas’s traditionally moderate voices will point to her departure from the GOP as evidence of the reality of her meaning.

But before the news cycle moves entirely beyond this misquote, let me make an observation on its behalf. I think that Schodorf unintentionally made an important point about the role of “think[ing] in moderation” in our political system.

Our national government, and our state governments, follow a separation-of-powers model of democracy, not a parliamentary one. That is, we have different branches of government, filled with representatives who are elected on different cycles. Strong party unity, an essential feature of successful parliamentary democracies (where the whole legislature and executive is elected at one time), has been only an occasional feature of our system; the incentives which motivate politicians rarely point in the direction of strong ideological uniformity.

Recognizing this fact, generations of political leaders in the U.S., on both the national and the state level, have developed practices to make the “checks and balances” of our system into an invitation to compromise. Real statesmen and women, throughout our history, have almost invariably been pragmatic deal-makers, who borrowed ideas as appropriate to craft legislation that could both address real political problems and minimally satisfy all the different politicians needed to pass the bill. Almost never has any elected party governed effectively over real political problems while also pushing forward a unified ideological agenda.

The Republican Party today, nationally as well as here in Kansas, has become a vehicle for a small group of wealthy, determined people who are enamored of just such a unified ideological agenda. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney may not represent that movement terribly well, but his VP pick, Rep. Paul Ryan, a self-described intellectual and devotee of Ayn Rand, certainly does. Brownback, with his embrace of the supply-side economics of Arthur Laffer, does as well. And those high-paying interest groups which rolled out all sorts of ads to convince Kansas voters that Schodorf was on the wrong side of a desperate ideological struggle against impending socialism–they don’t just reflect that movement, they embody it.

Whether one likes or hates this anti-government agenda, one can’t deny that it is simply besotted with ideas. It is a movement which insists that one must get one’s thoughts right: get them in line with the Founding Fathers (or a small select portion of them, at least), in line with Ronald Reagan (the popular myth of him, that is, not the actual historical record), in line with a certain understanding of the purported anti-Americanism of the Obama administration.

The problem with all this high-end ideological thinking, however captivating it may to those engaged in it, is that it doesn’t match the structure of our system. Our form of democratic government almost never works properly if those elected to power see themselves as intellectual revolutionaries. The separation-of-powers, if it works at all, works best when elected representatives are willing to “moderate” their thinking at times, and get pragmatic, practical, solution-oriented, and compromise for the sake of getting things done.

It is possible that this particular intellectual crusade, unlike almost every other previous one, will actually be good at solving real-world problems, at negotiating differences and finding effective compromises. I have my doubts, though. When Schodorf talked about the need to “think in moderation,” she wasn’t just making a point about the need for sensible, balancing voices in government, she was also unintentionally pointing out that, under our system, ideological pre-occupations and litmus tests rarely keep the gears of government–the paychecks for soldiers, the refunds of taxes, the parks and schools and roads–in working order. For that, you need practical people, not Constitution-waving fanatics. Schodorf, a smart and experienced political leader, understood that. I strongly suspect that relatively few of this new bunch of Republican winners here in Kansas who identify with this latest purifying movement do as well.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Only quibble I have is asking whether you would feel funny writing about the "Kansas Grand Old Party."