In general, Stratfor deals with U.S. domestic politics only to the extent that it affects international affairs. Certainly, this topic has been argued and analyzed extensively. Nevertheless, the shutdown of the American government is a topic that must be understood from our point of view, because it raises the issue of whether the leading global power is involved in a political crisis so profound that it is both losing its internal cohesion and the capacity to govern. If that were so, it would mean the United States would not be able to act in global affairs, and that in turn would mean that the international system would undergo a profound change. I am not interested in the debate over who is right. I am, however, interested in the question of what caused this shutdown, and ultimately what it tells us about the U.S. capacity to act.
That is one reason to address it. A broader reason to address it is to understand why the leading global power has entered a period when rhetoric has turned into increasingly dysfunctional actions. The shutdown of the government has thus far not disrupted American life as a whole, although it has certainly disrupted the lives of some dramatically.
It originated in a political dispute. U.S. President Barack Obama proposed and Congress approved a massive set of changes in U.S. healthcare. These changes were upheld in court after legal challenges. There appears to be significant opposition to this legislation according to polls, but the legislation’s opponents in Congress lack the ability to repeal it and override a presidential veto. Therefore, opponents attached amendments to legislation funding government operations, and basically said that legislation would only be passed if implementation of healthcare reform were blocked or at least delayed. Opponents of healthcare reform had enough power to block legislation on funding the government. Proponents of healthcare reform refused to abandon their commitment for reform, and therefore the legislation to fund the government failed and the government shut down.
Shutdowns and Shifts in the U.S. Political System
Similar shutdowns happened during the 1990s, and I am not prepared to say that divisions in our society have never been so deep or partisanship so powerful. I’ve written in the past pointing out that political vituperation has been common in the United States since its founding. Certainly nothing today compares to what was said during the Civil War, and public incivility during the Vietnam War was at least as intense.
What has changed over time is the impact of this incivility on the ability of the government to function. Consider the substantial threat that the United States might refuse to pay the debts it has incurred by consent of Congress and presidents past and present. In private life, refusal to pay debts when one can pay them is fairly serious. Though this is no less serious in public life, this outcome in the coming weeks seems conceivable. It is not partisanship, but the consequences of partisanship on the operation of the government that appear to have changed. The trend is not new, but it is intensifying. Where did it start?
From where I sit, there was a massive shift in the 1970s in how the American political system operates. Prior to then, candidate selection was based on delegates to national conventions, and the delegates to conventions were selected through a combination of state conventions and some primaries. Political bosses controlled the selection of state convention delegates, and therefore the bosses controlled the delegates to the national convention — and that meant that these bosses controlled the national conventions.
There was ample opportunity for corruption in this system, of course. The state party bosses were interested in enhancing their own security and power, and that was achieved by patronage, but they were not particularly ideological. By backing someone likely to be elected, they would get to appoint postmasters and judges and maybe even Cabinet secretaries. They used the carrot of patronage and the stick of reprisals for those who didn’t follow the bosses’ line. And they certainly were interested in money in exchange for championing business interests. They were ideological to the extent to which their broad constituencies were, and were prepared to change with them. But their eyes were on the mood of the main constituencies, not smaller ones. These were not men given to principled passion, and the dissident movements of the 1960s accordingly held men like Chicago’s Richard J. Daley responsible for repressing their movements.
The reformers wanted to break the hold of the party bosses over the system and open it to dissent, something party bosses disliked. The reformers did so by widely replacing state conventions with primary systems. This severely limited the power of state and county chairmen, who could no longer handpick candidates. These people no longer controlled their parties as much as presided over them.
Political parties ceased being built around patronage systems, but rather around the ability to raise money. Money, not the bosses’ power, became the center of gravity of the political system, and those who could raise money became the power brokers. More important, those who were willing to donate became candidates’ main constituency. The paradox of the reforms was that in breaking the power of the bosses, money became more rather than less important in the selection of candidates. Money has always been central to American politics. There has never been a time when it didn’t matter. But with the decline of political bosses, factors other than money were eliminated.
Through the next decade, reformers tried to get control over money. Though they had gotten rid of the bosses, getting money out of politics proved daunting. This put power in the hands of business, which by hook or crook, Citizens United or not, was going to pursue its interests through the political system. But in general its interests were fairly narrow and were not particularly ideological. Where before business gave to party bosses, it now donated to candidates and political action committees. Of course, if this route were closed down, still another route would be found. The candidates need money, businesses need to protect their political interests. Fortunately, most businessmen’s imagination stops at money, limiting the damage they can do.
An Unexpected Consequence
There was, however, an unexpected consequence. The reformers’ vision was that the fall of the bosses would open the door to broad democratic participation. But the fact was that the American people did not care nearly as much about politics as the reformers thought they ought to. Participation in presidential primaries was frequently well below 50 percent, and in state and local elections, it was far lower.
For most Americans, private life is more important than public life. There is only so much time and energy available, the issues are arcane and rarely involve things that will change ordinary citizens’ lives much, and there is little broad-based ideological passion. Citizens frequently don’t know or care who their congressman is, let alone who their state senator is. They care about schools and roads and taxes, and so long as those are functioning reasonably well, they are content.
This greatly frustrated the reformers. They cared deeply about politics, and believed that everyone should, too. But in the country our founders bequeathed us, it was expected that most people would concern themselves with private things. And in fact they do: They do not vote in primaries or even in general elections.
The primaries were left to the minority who cared. At the beginning, these were people who felt strongly about particular issues: corporate greed, the environment, war, abortion, taxes, and so on. Over time, these particular issues congealed into ideology. An ideology differs from issue-oriented matters in that ideology is a package of issues. On the right, low taxes and hostility to abortion frequently are linked. On the left, corporate greed and war are frequently linked. Eventually, a bond is created showing that apparently disparate issues are in fact part of the same package.
Particular issues meld to form ideological factions. The ideological factions take common positions on a wide range of issues. The factions are relatively small minorities, but their power is vastly magnified by the primary system. Ideologues care because ideologies contain an apocalyptic element: If something is not done soon, the argument goes, catastrophe will ensue. The majority might well feel some unease regarding particular topics, and some may feel disaster is afoot, but they do not share the ideologue’s belief that redemption can come from the political process.
This in part might be because of a sense of helplessness, and in part it might reflect a deeper sophistication about how the world really works, but either way, this type of person doesn’t vote in primaries. But ideologues do. Perhaps not all do, and not everyone who votes is an ideologue, but it is ideology that generates a great deal of the energy that contributes to our political process. And it is ideology that, for example, links the deep and genuine passion over abortion to other issues.
A candidate in either party does not need the votes of the majority of registered voters. He needs the votes of the majority of voters who will show up. In the past model, voters showed up because, say, they got their job on the highway crew from the county boss, and they had to appear at the polls if they wanted to keep it. Those days are gone. Now, people show up because of their passionate belief in a particular ideology, and money is spent convincing them that a candidate shares their passionate commitment.
After raising the funds by convincing primary voters of their ideological commitment, the general election can turn into a race between two ideological packages. The winner will only be re-elected if primary voters see him as having been sufficiently loyal to their ideology while in office.
Bosses vs. Ideology
Bosses were corrupt, and in that corruption they were moderate through indifference. Contemporary politicians — not all of them but enough of them — live within a framework of ideology where accommodation is the epitome of lacking principle. If you believe deeply in something, then how can you compromise on it? And if everything you believe in derives from an ideology where every issue is a matter of principle, and ideology clashes with ideology, then how can anyone fold his cards? You can’t go back to voters who believe that you have betrayed them and expect to be re-elected.
In the 20th century, the boss system selected such presidents as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. I was struck at how a self-evidently corrupt and undemocratic system would have selected such impressive candidates (albeit along with Warren Harding and other less impressive ones). The system should not have worked, but on the whole, it worked better than we might have imagined. I leave to others to judge how these compare to post-reform candidates like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
There is a vast difference between principle and ideology. Principles are core values that do not dictate every action on every subject, but guide you in some way. Ideology as an explanation of how the world works is comprehensive and compelling. Most presidents find that governing requires principles, but won’t allow ideology. But it is the senators and particularly the congressmen — who run in districts where perhaps 20 percent of eligible voters vote in primaries, most of them ideologues — who are forced away from principle and toward ideology.
All political systems are flawed and all political reforms have unexpected and frequently unwelcome consequences. In the end, a political system must be judged on the results that it brings. When we look at those elected under the old system, it is difficult to argue that reforms have vastly improved the leadership stock. The argument is frequently made that this is because of the pernicious effect of money or the media on the system. I would argue that the problem is that the current system magnifies the importance of the ideologues such that current political outcomes increasingly do not reflect the public will, and that this is happening at an accelerated pace.
It is not ideology that is the problem. It is the overrepresentation of ideologues in the voting booth. Most Americans are not ideologues, and therefore the reformist model has turned out to be as unrepresentative as the political boss system was. This isn’t the ideologues fault; they are merely doing what they believe. But most voters are indifferent. Where the bosses used to share the public’s lack of expectation of great things from politics, there is no one prepared to limit the role of ideology. There is no way to get people to vote, and the reforms that led to a universally used primary system have put elections that most people don’t participate in at center stage.
Each faction is deeply committed to its beliefs, and feels it would be corrupt to abandon them. Even if it means closing the government, even if it means defaulting on debt, ideology is a demanding mistress who permits no other lovers. Anyone who reads this will recognize his enemy at work. I, however, am holding everyone responsible, from left to right — and especially the indifferent center. I hold myself accountable as well: I have no idea what I could do to help change matters, but I am sure there is something.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article has been republished with permission.