Tuesday, October 11, 2005There is a lot of buzz about the new book by Hacker & Pierson, Off Center, which seeks to explain why very conservative Republicans are winning elections while the population has not moved to the right. I haven't read the book yet, so I won't get into any detailed commentary. From the commentary (at the Washington Monthly, where the writers are blogging, to reviews by Crooked Timber and Chris Hayes), Hacker & Pierson argue that the Republicans have been successful because they have built up powerful and integrated political institutions and have ruthlessly gamed the system to their advantage.
What I find most alarming but least surprising is the degree to which the Republicans' efforts a) mimic the behavior of any and all political machines, and b) the vulnerability to democracies to demagogy. With a public drunk on proverbial bread and circuses, a party in power has extraordinary leeway to get its way. Machines thrive in political environments of low attention and participation. In fact, such an environment is the essential prerequisite to the survival of machines.
Which brings me to my pet opinion on how to deal with this extraordinary challenge. There have been lots of machines in American history, and in fact the Republicans have done this before on the national scale - they controlled the government for two decades after the civil war, and were similar in their fealty to big corporations, willingness to exploit ethnic and religious tensions, widespread corruption, and ruthlessness in preserving power. And they were defeated.
How? By democracy itself. Only by educating the citizenry and bringing them into the political process in a concrete way are we going to be able to build up the critical mass necessary to drive these lunatics from power. If all we do is imitate their methods, we not only risk becoming what they are, but of simply causing a gradual escalation of political conflict that will only end in civil war. This is going to take more than framing, it will take the hard work of political organization and mobilization. We must take the failure of 2004 for what it was - a beginning.