If you are a Republican, decentralization of power is a cornerstone of your party and political philosophy. After all, Republican demonization of Washington and the federal government stems in part from a belief that government is too large and power too centralized.
“Only government that sends power back to the people can make America confident again,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan in a speech at the Library of Congress last week.
You hear the same and more from Republican candidates for president on down to the grass roots. Yet conservatives are perpetually frustrated because both parties spent most of the past century expanding the federal government’s responsibilities and capabilities, arguing that human need, national security and the growing complexity of modern society demanded it.
If Republicans are looking for a model of genuine decentralization, however, they have an excellent example close to home. The GOP, after all, is increasingly decentralized itself.
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And, wow, what a mess.
Why can’t the party govern the House of Representatives despite its large majority? Decentralization. How can Donald Trump turn the Republican presidential primary into a dark circus? Decentralization. Why do Republican politicians lock themselves in to untenable positions that they know make no sense? Decentralization.
In the House, Ryan is faced with the same Republican conference that his predecessor, John Boehner, failed to tame. There is the Freedom Caucus, which has forged its identity in opposition to party leadership. There is the “hope yes, vote no” caucus, whose anonymous members would like to support the party leaders but fear that the type of person who ends up in the Freedom Caucus will run a primary against anyone whose anti-government credentials slip. Those two groups make up the majority of the House Republicans.
Ryan and the party are unable to protect members from a right-wing primary challenge. Why? Yup. Decentralization. Political financing, especially in the GOP, is a scattershot affair, with super-PACs, “social welfare” groups, billionaires, interest groups and various political committees with the words “tea party” in their mastheads all pursuing separate agendas, many of which don’t happen to overlap with party leaders’ desires. With power and money dispersed, the GOP is too weak to defend itself against its own allies.
That’s how a competent and broadly popular speaker gets overthrown. It’s also how former Majority Leader Eric Cantor was consumed in a Tea Party conflagration. The entertainment wing of the GOP, which needs a more plentiful supply of outrage than the Democratic Party alone can muster, must occasionally eat its own. Radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, who each attract almost 10 million listeners a week, aided by right-wing web sites, targeted Cantor for his eventual destruction by a marginal opponent, Dave Brat.
Viral populism – the kind that hears Trump’s primal growl and roars back in harmony – has been building for years. Rush Limbaugh, another independent conservative power center, said that Republicans who refuse to support Trump’s crude and unworkable blockade against Muslims are basically in league with the terrorist group Hamas. Meanwhile, Grover Norquist’s anti-tax group and a small cadre of billionaire funders keep the party wedded to preposterous, debt-financed tax cuts for the wealthy that neither economists nor most voters can remotely justify.
Like a teetering kingdom beholden to petty fiefs near and far, the GOP can’t move in strategic steps without being checked by some minor prince bearing grievance, self-interest or fetish. If this is what the party hopes to inflict on the White House, it may once again meet resistance at the polls.
Would a Republican president in 2017 be able to resolve the party’s power dilemma? Conservatives would surely rally around such a savior. But with the White House and Congress under Republican control, expectations among interest groups and the base would run dangerously high. Republicans have promised wholesale repeal of the Obama era. Many Republican voters won’t be happy until the 21st century is repealed with it.
That’s a tall order. It’s also an inherently destructive one. Ted Cruz, a front-runner in Iowa, has not shied from answering it, promising to unleash a “grassroots tsunami” to smash the Washington “cartel” to pieces. The party encouraged a similar groundswell on its right a few years ago. It, too, became a tsunami. Someday, Republicans will recover from it.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.