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There is much to commend in Thomas Schaller’s recent piece describing the built-in structural advantages that the Republican Party enjoys in the American electoral system. Some analysts believe this advantage derives from the systematic gerrymandering of legislative districts; others declare it a result of a voluntary demographic “sorting” of Democrats into metropolitan areas and Republicans to exurbia. Schaller sees that it is both and that the two phenomena reinforce one another.
Yet nearly half a century after ratification of the amendment to permit 18-year-olds to vote, there have been no additional amendments to the Constitution, save for the 27th amendment on congressional salaries, which was ratified in 1992 but first proposed in 1789! This failure to adopt further change is a remarkable but barely noticed fact. Given the current political polarization and the requirement that three-quarters of state legislatures ratify an amendment, the Constitution has become for all practical purposes unamendable. Should a sufficient number of judges who are members of the Federalist Society or acolytes of the University of Chicago’s “Law and Economics” theology become federal appellate justices, they can legislate from the bench as they please with no recourse for the citizenry via the amendment process.
In the face of a decision like Citizens United or a recent appellate court ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court) that makes Wall Street’s insider trading for all intents and purposes a constitutionally protected activity, the voter can only gnash his teeth and lament living in evil times. But to be fair, as Schaller points out, the shoe is sometimes on the other foot: Republicans everywhere are spinning cartoon-version Tasmanian Devils over the Supreme Court’s gay marriage and Obamacare rulings.
A seemingly trivial but telling clue that the Republican Party is no longer traditionally conservative but rather a radical right wing party lies in the popular choice of colors to denote the two parties. It may not have been a conscious decision, but it is in retrospect appropriate that during the 2000 election all the television networks settled on red for the GOP and blue for the Democrats.
Since the French Revolution, red has consistently been the emblem of upheaval and disruption in Western nations. Blue was just as surely associated with conservatism and tradition. The traditional psychology of colors in areas of life outside politics would seem to confirm this choice. Corporate directors do not wear red pinstriped suits to connote solidity, trustworthiness, and a reliable dividend for shareholders. Only blue will do, for red is the color of instability and change.
But is obstructionism the instinctive reflex of the GOP or only when the executive and legislative branches are divided? I would contend that it is less that Republicans hate government on principle (regardless of what they say to agitate their base) than that they hate any government not completely in their hands and serving their exclusive purposes.
Congressional Republicans certainly were not a do-nothing or obstructionist caucus during the presidency of George W. Bush. From budget-busting tax cuts for the rich, to making bankruptcy more onerous for people (but not for corporations, which on other occasions Republicans claim are people); from the Patriot Act that dismantled constitutional protections, to doubling the Pentagon’s budget, to creating the third largest cabinet agency, the DHS, to respond to the tragedy ensuing from Bush’s refusal to take his CIA briefings seriously, Republicans were the very model of activist governing. They turned a $236 billion budget surplus in 2000 into a $459 billion deficit in 2008, while in those same eight years doubling the national debt.
While many will blanch at this catalogue of horrors and respond that it was not responsible governance, that reaction dodges the question: responsible governance for whom? In 2010, the incoming Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus, memorably expressed the Republican philosophy of public service as follows: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.” Talk about constituent service!