For the first time in nearly a century, we have witnessed the astonishing spectacle of a Republican Party battling through multiple rounds of voting to elect the Speaker of the House. This Washington drama reflects the larger structural forces that are changing American democracy.
The revolution in communications and technology has changed our democracy in more profound ways than the more familiar issues of misinformation, hate speech, and the like. They have enabled individual members of Congress to function, even flourish, as free agents. They have flattened institutional authority including political parties and their leaders. They have allowed individuals and groups to more easily mobilize and maintain opposition to government action and have helped fuel intense factional conflicts within parties, which leadership has found more difficult to control than in the past. it occurs.
Through cable television and social media, even politicians can cultivate a national audience in their first years in office. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered Congress, she already had nine million followers on major social media platforms, more than four times the number of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an order of magnitude greater than any other Democrat in the House. Order. Recognizing the power provided by social media, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a provocateur opposed to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid, has Said He wants to be the AOC of authority.
The Internet has also generated an explosion of small-donor donations, enabling politicians to raise large amounts of money without relying on party funds or large donors.
Despite being stripped of her committee assignments, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia raised more than $3 million in small donations in the first quarter of 2021, a staggering move for a new member of Congress. National attention on cable and social media provokes, offends, and rewards ideological extremists. Representative Alice Stefanik of New York transformed herself from a moderate to a “warrior” for Donald Trump, a move that helped generate a torrent of smaller donations.
Control over committee actions was once a powerful tool that party leaders had to encourage members to toe the party line and punish those who did not. Now major legislation is often developed in a more centralized process among a small group of party leaders rather than through committee process, which has made committee functions less valuable. In addition, members are no longer required to gain a national profile or serve on important committees to attract campaign funds, and modern communication tools are readily available to individual members, yet can easily mobilize opposition to proposals. Huh. Those challenging Mr. McCarthy for speakership know that they risk being punished in their committee actions, should they ultimately prevail. But that threat is no longer the weight it once was in the era of free-agent politicians.
Many members also benefit from being in increasingly safe seats, which leaves them unconcerned about the general election and encourages more ideologically committed primary voters to come into play. The power to gain a national audience and raise more than enough money through small donations has also encouraged the rise of politicians who are more in the game for attention and opportunities than for governing. The risk of being turned on by cable TV hosts is of much greater concern than the failure of the Special Committee to get the job done.
The simple first act of a new House – choosing the majority party speaker – has become so difficult that political parties now face difficulties in being able to manage themselves, let alone govern. Even concessions made to Mr McCarthy’s staunchest opponents in his own party made little difference. Either out of personal distaste and mistrust, or because they want to demonstrate their power to knock down a potential speaker, they maintain their defiance.
This particular fight is an indication of the new world of political fragmentation that almost all democracies are now facing. Political fragmentation is the spread of political power among so many different hands and centers of power that it becomes increasingly difficult to govern effectively.
Economic and cultural conflicts drive this fragmentation, but it has been enabled by the communications revolution. In Western Europe’s proportional-representation system, the traditionally dominant large political party has fragmented into a kaleidoscope of smaller parties. In the United States, the two major parties have split internally, with leadership having little ability to address those divisions.
The Democratic Party shows one way that the parties can overcome these fractious forces that threaten to tear them apart: the specter of major electoral defeat. In the current moment of unity, it is easy to forget the bitter conflicts between the more moderate and progressive wings, which the party only managed to overcome last year.
During those months of internal party bickering, threats and name-calling, public approval ratings for President Biden and Congress decline, it had a near death experience 2021 Gubernatorial Elections in Virginia and New Jersey This was eventually done with an Inflation Reduction Act, the scope of which was significantly reduced, allowing for progressives to drop their demands and pass the infrastructure bill on their own. Democrats had an advantage in having control of the White House, which helps discipline a party as members see their electoral fortunes tied to the success of the president. Some of their members are also more interested in demonstrative politics than legislative.
As Mr McCarthy’s bid for speaker highlights, the incentive for the opposition and the ease of mobilizing it – along with policy as well as party control – has increased. Marshalling collective power has always been more difficult, but it remains an essential component of delivering effective government. The emerging forces of fragmentation will continue to haunt leaders of both political parties, as they do across democracies today.
Professor Richard H. Pildes at New York University School of Law is the author of the casebook “The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process”.
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