March 4, 2011

Posture, not policy

GOP actions emphasize symbolism over solutions

In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, many political observers attributed the rout of Republicans to a troubling cause: the party’s agenda was centered primarily around fairly abstract ideological goals and opposition to Democratic proposals, and contained relatively few constructive proposals for addressing the country’s problems. The GOP’s massive victory last year has been widely taken as a sign that this problem has been addressed, since its candidates were able to inspire more public enthusiasm than their Democratic counterparts. However, a close look at three major stories from the past few weeks suggests that the forces within the GOP that wield the most power are primarily interested in posturing rather than governing.

First, consider Fox News’s recent decision to suspend two of its hosts, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum; the network did so because both have expressed interest in forming exploratory committees for possible presidential runs. The mere fact that the Republican primary race might begin with formal announcements from two talk show hosts suggests that much of the party is relatively uninterested in finding conservative solutions to the challenges we face. Instead, they are looking for the candidate who is best at expressing right-wing bromides and putting down the other side. Furthermore, both men are notable for the degree to which they have focused on producing spectacles that boost their prominence at the expense of fostering debate on important questions; Mr. Gingrich played a major role in creating last year’s controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” while Mr. Santorum spent the final year or so of his Senate term fretting about the serious threat that an emerging Iran-Venezuela alliance posed to American security.

The ongoing budget showdown in Washington also provides evidence that much of the party is not very serious about fiscal responsibility. Republicans in the House are refusing to vote for a bill that funds the federal government through the end of this fiscal year unless Senate Democrats agree to a set of spending cuts. If the two sides cannot agree, the government could run out of money within a few weeks. The most important feature of this debate is that the cuts the Republicans are aiming for will have virtually no effect on the size of the national debt, since the categories of spending that they target make up less than a fifth of the federal budget. It is true, of course, that even small spending reductions have value as symbols of a commitment to fiscal responsibility. However, only a party whose interest in policy goals was primarily symbolic would be willing to risk the damage that a government shutdown would inflict on ordinary Americans who depend on government services, as well as the still-fragile economy, for very few concrete benefits.

The final story that reflects this trend is the way that the right has rallied behind Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s effort to weaken the ability of most public-employee unions in his state to engage in collective bargaining. Walker has persisted in his effort even though its stated rationale (reducing the size of state employees’ health-care and pension benefits in order to deal with Wisconsin’s budget problems) is no longer relevant–his union adversaries have agreed to accept the cuts as long as their bargaining power is preserved. Indeed, he is actually making it harder to resolve the state’s fiscal difficulties by responding to their compromise proposal with continued confrontation. Furthermore, the governor has exempted the public employees who tend to favor Republicans (firefighters and police officers) from his push, which suggests even more strongly that he is more interested in political posturing than in governing. The conservative movement’s eagerness to take up his cause in spite of his proposal’s counterproductive and crassly political character indicates that it, too, is focused more on targeting the right’s enemies than on solving problems.

How does the behavior described above differ from the posturing that politicians across the world practice regularly? While the typical elected official is often willing to turn to spectacle in order to cover up a failure or to avoid confronting a difficult problem, the above cases all involve GOP leaders who regard the production of spectacle as their primary activity. Even when they risk doing serious harm to the things they claim to regard as most important, such as fiscal discipline, prosperity, and even the party’s long-term political prospects, they are willing to do so for the sake of considerations that relate entirely to image and symbolism. These concerns certainly have their place, but a party has a serious problem when it is willing to make them primary.

Ajay Ravichandran is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy.