The House Republican caucus is close to ungovernable these days. How did this situation come about?
This was not just the work of the Freedom Caucus or Ted Cruz or one month’s activity. The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.
By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.
All of this has been overturned in dangerous parts of the Republican Party. Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.
This produced a radical mind-set. Conservatives started talking about the Reagan “revolution,” the Gingrich “revolution.” Among people too ill educated to understand the different spheres, political practitioners adopted the mental habits of the entrepreneur. Everything had to be transformational and disruptive. Hierarchy and authority were equated with injustice. Self-expression became more valued than self-restraint and coalition building. A contempt for politics infested the Republican mind.
Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests. But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.
A weird contradictory mentality replaced traditional conservatism. Republican radicals have contempt for politics, but they still believe that transformational political change can rescue the nation. Republicans developed a contempt for Washington and government, but they elected leaders who made the most lavish promises imaginable. Government would be reduced by a quarter! Shutdowns would happen! The nation would be saved by transformational change! As Steven Bilakovics writes in his book “Democracy Without Politics,” “even as we expect ever less of democracy we apparently expect ever more from democracy.”
This anti-political political ethos produced elected leaders of jaw-dropping incompetence. Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. But the new Republican officials did not believe in government and so did not respect its traditions, its disciplines and its craftsmanship. They do not accept the hierarchical structures of authority inherent in political activity.
In his masterwork, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber argues that the pre-eminent qualities for a politician are passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. A politician needs warm passion to impel action but a cool sense of responsibility and proportion to make careful decisions in a complex landscape.
If a politician lacks the quality of detachment — the ability to let difficult facts of reality work their way into the mind — then, Weber argues, the politician ends up striving for the “boastful but entirely empty gesture.” His work “leads nowhere and is senseless.”
Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus.
Really, have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naive, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good? These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong!
People who don’t accept democracy will be bad at conversation. They won’t respect tradition, institutions or precedent. These figures are masters at destruction but incompetent at construction.
These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed. But they are not a spontaneous growth. It took a thousand small betrayals of conservatism to get to the dysfunction we see all around.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.