The Republican Party is a mess. Trying to replace Speaker John Boehner produced a month long drama, full of accusations, recriminations, and verbal warfare. Even if Paul Ryan (R-WI) temporarily binds the party’s wounds, the bitter presidential primary and countless upcoming legislative debates (on entitlements, government spending, and cultural issues) threaten to rip them open again. To quote Taylor Swift, band aides don’t fix bullet holes.
How did things get to this point? An answer requires but 4 words: rhetoric and its consequences.
For decades, elected Republicans from Strom Thurmond to Barry Goldwater to Newt Gingrich delighted in throwing rhetorical red meat to base voters, and using increasingly shrill and apocalyptic language to describe government, Democrats, and compromise. Even fairly moderate Republicans like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush shamelessly employed similarrhetoric that often differed from the polices that they pursued.
Their verbal assaults portrayed Washington as an unseemly sinners’ den full of craven politicians who ignored the wishes of voters, and worked to “steal” money from hardworking Americans. Perhaps worst of all, Washington suffered from leftist groupthink.
These politicians transformed mere ownership of homes in Washington into abandoning the values that once warranted support from voters. Such charges toppled congressional luminaries, including Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) in 2004.
Indeed, candidates and elected officials crafted this rhetoric for political advantage. Fiery one-liners and hyperbolic characterizations drew attention, and shaped clear distinctions between the parties.
Famously, Gingrich stoked an ethics war, aiming to destroy the House of Representatives in order to gain control of the chamber after decades in the wilderness. Thrusting aside previous norms of decorum, he bombarded Democrats with brutal charges, portraying himself as engaged in a “civil war.” He used a political action committee to train legions of candidates to employ similar tactics.
To a degree, Gingrich and his peers walled off politics from governing. They knew how to cut deals to keep the government operational, while moving policy in a conservative direction.
Politically, this rhetoric aided in the capture of the White House in 1980 (arguably, Reagan was the first conservative president since Herbert Hoover), Congress in 1994, and the House of Representatives in 2010. Overall, Democrats have only had complete control of the government for 4 of the last 35 years.
Yet, the cynical utilization of fire-breathing language had a drawback—a lot of everyday voters took it seriously. They came to believe that government was every bit as evil as the politicians claimed it to be. Every Democrat had radical, ominous designs, and even the most conservatively designed government programs opened the door to socialism.
Demonizing Democrats and declaring government to be the problem (as Ronald Reagan did) transformed compromise into an increasingly dirty word among Republican primary voters—today compromising is treasonous. Thus, conservatives howled, first in frustration, and later in rage, as supposedly conservative Republicans from Reagan to Gingrich to both Presidents Bush reached landmark accords with Democrats that violated their principles.
George H.W. Bush even famously promised "Read my lips, no new taxes," at the 1988 Republican Convention before eventually reversing course and reaching a bipartisan budget agreement that set the course towards a balanced budget (a conservative goal). Many on the right, however, branded him a liar, an apostate, or worse.
Almost cyclically, this rhetoric propelled new classes of increasingly conservative outsiders into office in wave elections in 1980, 1994, 2010, and 2014. Each time the newly minted legislators vowed that Washington would not corrupt them (unlike their predecessors). Many refused to move their families to Washington, instead traveling home each weekend. Some (including Speaker Ryan) even resorted to sleeping in their offices to demonstrate frugality and avoid "going Washington."
Each cycle raised expectations among conservatives—pragmatic impulses became increasingly dubious in their eyes. They trusted that, if elected, Republican candidates would deliver on a wish list of conservative policies that blithely ignored political reality. Most of these policies had no greater chance of enactment than the Michigan punter does of forgetting the nightmare ending to last month’s Michigan State game.
Republicans have had unilateral control of government for just 4.5 out of the last 59 years, and even then, they never had more than 55 Senate seats. This predicament left moderate Democratic senators (whose defection could end a filibuster) controlling the fate of the Republican agenda.
Beginning in 1988, a new phenomenon fed this process—conservative media. Media maestros like Rush Limbaugh quickly became Republican coalition leaders.
Yet, they possessed fundamentally different goals from elected Republican leaders. Rather than prioritizing building a big tent party and governing, they aimed to produce the best content possible, to remain authentic, and to connect with consumers.
Bold content, firm convictions, incendiary language, and controversial screeds produced great radio and television. By contrast, governing required nuance and compromise, and trying to explain the legislative process could put even paying students to sleep, let alone consumers with ever increasing media choices. Thus, hosts dressed their ideas in colorful language and fed rhetorical fires; over time, their sermons reaffirmed the instincts of many conservatives to demand purity.
Often when Republicans faced responsibility for governing, conservative entertainers had a greater synergy of purpose with outsiders, who aimed to purify the party, than with insiders trying to govern. Outsiders promised conflict, accusations of betrayal, and other invective that produced compelling content. By contrast, insiders offered explanations and excuses that threatened to bore and exasperate listeners. Hosts simply cared about what would generate the best ratings and the most advertising revenue.
Conservative media pressured politicians to promise things that they could not possibly deliver (such as abolishing Obamacare while President Obama remained in office).
The rise of conservative media further ensnared Republicans, leaving them increasingly navigating treacherous waters—not doing things so irresponsible as to permanently damage the party or the economy (like failing to raise the debt ceiling), while simultaneously demonstrating sufficient loyalty to principle to satisfy an increasingly high bar for purity.
Especially as primary elections became the major locus of electoral competition in a geographically polarized country, politicians had to mind their base and its media champions, or risk defeat. Incendiary rhetoric proved to be boon in primary elections, even as it began to damage Republicans in general elections.
New media (talk radio, cable news, and the blogosphere) and social media also empowered relatively junior, extreme members of Congress (like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)), who in earlier generations would have had minimal power and no megaphone, to pressure leadership into adopting stances that often offered no way to save face.
While Democrats, too, employed hyperbolic rhetoric, they refrained from attacking compromise. Their ideology helped in this regard; as the pro-government party, Democrats had to prioritize functional government over ideological purity to at least some extent. Dysfunctional government threatened their claim that government could be a force for good in society.
Republicans, however, had no such brake. Decades of promising a conservative panacea, and vilifying government and Democrats left them bitterly divided, with little maneuverability and doubt as to whether they can govern. Moving forward, more realistic rhetoric poses substantial risks in Republican primary elections (as evidenced by the success of the most rhetorically extreme candidate in the Republican presidential primary field), but continuing down their current path threatens a descent into electoral oblivion.