Republicans and Democrats of 2016 have neither intelligible boundaries nor enforceable norms. As a result, renegade political behavior pays.
What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome. Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. … Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction.
The core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise. … They were visionaries, those men in Philadelphia, but they could not foresee everything, and they made a serious omission. Unlike the British parliamentary system, the Constitution makes no provision for holding politicians accountable to one another. … So Americans developed a second, unwritten constitution. Beginning in the 1790s, politicians sorted themselves into parties.
The machines and parties used rewards and the occasional punishment to encourage politicians to work together. Meanwhile, Congress developed its seniority and committee systems, rewarding reliability and establishing cooperative routines. Parties, leaders, machines, and congressional hierarchies built densely woven incentive structures that bound politicians into coherent teams. Personal alliances, financial contributions, promotions and prestige, political perks, pork-barrel spending, endorsements, and sometimes a trip to the woodshed or the wilderness: All of those incentives and others, including some of dubious respectability, came into play.
The informal constitution’s intermediaries have many names and faces: state and national party committees, county party chairs, congressional subcommittees, leadership pacs, convention delegates, bundlers, and countless more. … The middlemen could be undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive. But they had one great virtue: They brought order from chaos.
Middlemen have a characteristic that is essential in politics: They stick around. Because careerists and hacks make their living off the system, they have a stake in assembling durable coalitions, in retaining power over time, and in keeping the government in functioning order. Slash-and-burn protests and quixotic ideological crusades are luxuries they can’t afford. Insurgents and renegades have a role, which is to jolt the system with new energy and ideas; but professionals also have a role, which is to safely absorb the energy that insurgents unleash.
Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. … To some extent, the reformers were right. They had good intentions and valid complaints.
Primary races now tend to be dominated by highly motivated extremists and interest groups, with the perverse result of leaving moderates and broader, less well-organized constituencies underrepresented.
Campaign-finance rules did stop some egregious transactions, but at a cost: Instead of eliminating money from politics (which is impossible), the rules diverted much of it to private channels. … Private groups are much harder to regulate, less transparent, and less accountable than are the parties and candidates, who do, at the end of the day, have to face the voters.
Seniority and committee spots rewarded teamwork and loyalty, they ensured that people at the top were experienced, and they harnessed hundreds of middle-ranking members of Congress to the tasks of legislating. … Congress’s attempts to replace hierarchies and middlemen with top-down diktat and ad hoc working groups have mostly failed. More than perhaps ever before, Congress today is a collection of individual entrepreneurs and pressure groups.
Today, federal law, congressional rules, and public expectations have placed almost all formal deliberations and many informal ones in full public view. One result is greater transparency, which is good. But another result is that finding space for delicate negotiations and candid deliberations can be difficult. Smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, were good for brokering complex compromises in which nothing was settled until everything was settled; once gone, they turned out to be difficult to replace. In public, interest groups and grandstanding politicians can tear apart a compromise before it is halfway settled.
Conservatives and liberals alike attacked pork-barreling as corrupt, culminating in early 2011, when a strange-bedfellows coalition of Tea Partiers and progressives banned earmarking … It can be used for corrupt purposes but also, very often, for vital ones. As the political scientist Diana Evans wrote in a 2004 book, Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress, “The irony is this: pork barreling, despite its much maligned status, gets things done.”
angry fiscal conservatives launched the Tea Party insurgency and watched, somewhat to their own astonishment, as it swept the country. … In Congress, the Republican House leadership soon found itself facing a GOP caucus whose members were too worried about “getting primaried” to vote for the compromises necessary to govern—or even to keep the government open.
Using polls and focus groups, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. … Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. … politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. … Whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.
Washington doesn’t have a crisis of leadership; it has a crisis of followership. One can argue about particulars, and Congress does better on some occasions than on others. Overall, though, minority factions and veto groups are becoming ever more dominant on Capitol Hill as leaders watch their organizational capacity dribble away.
Nearly everyone panned party regulars for not stopping Trump much earlier, but no one explained just how the party regulars were supposed to have done that. Stopping an insurgency requires organizing a coalition against it, but an incapacity to organize is the whole problem. The reality is that the levers and buttons parties and political professionals might once have pulled and pushed had long since been disconnected.
The public is wedded to an anti-establishment narrative. The political-reform community is invested in direct participation, transparency, fund-raising limits on parties, and other elements of the anti-intermediation worldview. … Populism, individualism, and a skeptical attitude toward politics are all healthy up to a point, but America has passed that point. … Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.