The Return of the GOP Shutdown Gollum

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After their big election win two weeks ago, GOP leaders in Washington pressed one key point again and again: No shutdowns. Certainly no impeachment. And more generally an end to the government by showdown and crisis which has been their order of the day since coming to power in early 2011. And yet here we are, not two weeks into the new era of unified GOP control on Capitol Hill (albeit in the majority-elect phase) and we’re already down to our first shutdown showdown. Indeed, shutdown is emerging as the ‘mainstream’ response to the President’s impending immigration executive order, with impeachment the preferred response of your more forward-leaning GOP electeds and Fox News whips.

The upshot is clear and shouldn’t surprise us: government by crisis is built into the DNA of the current GOP. And leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, despite their efforts since just after the 2010 election, are largely powerless to control or discipline it.

This last point is really important to remember: the purported post-government by confrontation era didn’t begin two weeks ago. It supposedly began in 2011 and 2013. Twenty years ago, under Newt Gingrich, Republican majorities had a leader who fully bought into the logic and mentality of confrontation. But that was never the case with Boehner or McConnell either. Indeed, both view Gingrich’s chaotic four years of power as a formative cautionary tale. But the truth is that it is almost impossible to wring this out of the party because not only its ideology but its internal dynamics are based on the perception of holding off inevitable threats to American culture its core supporters cherish.

That vision is based on a core pessimism about America’s future – or more specifically, an underlying belief that the country is moving away from them and that either heroic action or building structural impediments to change are required courses of action.

Core Democratic partisans endlessly lament that their party can’t exercise the kind of fierce party discipline exercised on the other side of the aisle. Why can’t Democrats have a constant run of primary challengers which scare party moderates into lockstep support?

Part of the answer is based in the sociology of the two parties. The same attributes that Republicans tout as showing strength and resolve in foreign policy also equates in domestic terms into a more authoritarian, leadership based approach to politics. Another side of this coin is what we generally recognize as a more empirical, less ideological posture among Democratic voters.

In both parties this basic difference is a strength and weakness. The other difference is structural. The composition of the GOP is equally important. The Democrats, as they have been for more than a century and arguably deep into the 19th century, is a coalition party in the way the GOP is simply not. Both are coalitions in some degree of course. In a two party system in a vast country they cannot not be. But the ideological core of the GOP – what we used to call the GOP base and now frequently goes rebranded as the ‘Tea Party’ – is a much bigger share of the party than anything comparable on the Democratic side.

That, again, is both a strength and a weakness. But on both counts it makes shutdown style politics something that is not going away anytime soon, something the GOP simply can’t quit.

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