Something strange has happened in the year since conservatives celebrated the re-election of George W. Bush. The Republican Party, free at last to run the country as it sees fit, is fast becoming an object of popular loathing. First came the Bush Administration's plan to privatize Social Security, which sparked unease in the red and blue states alike. Then came the GOP's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, which three-fourths of Americans deemed inappropriate. There was the threat to "go nuclear" in order to insure Democrats wouldn't filibuster right-wing judicial nominees, withdrawn after it became clear the public didn't appreciate such talk. And we haven't mentioned Iraq, "Scooter" Libby or Hurricane Katrina yet. In an October poll, six in ten Americans said President Bush does not share their priorities; well over half now believe the Iraq War was a mistake; fewer than one-third feel the nation is on the right track.
It's enough to make you think that losing the 2004 presidential election was the best thing that could have happened to the Democrats. Why, then, does the prospect of a bold liberal resurgence seem so farfetched? Why, even as Bush's approval ratings plunge to record lows and charges of ethical misconduct hover over figures like Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, do the Democrats appear so feckless? Why is it all too easy to imagine the GOP riding out its recent troubles and holding on to power in the midterm elections next year?
In their new book, Off Center, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that the answer, at least to the last of these questions, rests in the emergence of a Republican political machine that has managed to undermine and subvert the mechanisms of accountability in our democracy. Like many pundits and political commentators, Hacker and Pierson take as their starting point the conventional assumption that in American politics the balance of power lies in the center--with the so-called swing voters, whom both parties assiduously courted last year and who, in a closely divided electorate, ought to be able to prevent politicians on either side from drifting too far to the extremes.
The recent behavior of the Democrats, at least, bears the maxim out. The party's leaders get anxious when anyone so much as utters a word that might be perceived as veering too far to the left. If the Republicans are upbraiding anyone in their ranks, by contrast, it's for signs of moderation. Again and again in recent years, Hacker and Pierson show, the GOP has enacted policies--assaults on workplace health and safety regulations; tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich; the rollback of environmental laws--whose thrust is unabashedly radical. Despite commanding razor-thin majorities, Republicans have pursued an agenda that caters to their increasingly right-wing base without paying a political price. They have gotten away with this not because America has grown rabidly conservative--in fact, as Hacker and Pierson demonstrate through polling data, a majority of citizens oppose the GOP's agenda on everything from the environment to Social Security to the minimum wage--but because the bonds between ordinary voters and elected officials have grown increasingly frayed.
Some of the developments Hacker and Pierson document to buttress this claim--rule changes in Congress that have centralized power in the hands of reactionaries like Tom DeLay; policy shifts achieved through executive orders that slip below the media's radar; legislation written behind closed doors with no public debate--will be familiar enough to readers of this magazine. What is new is the connection the authors draw between the machinations of a fiercely determined Republican elite and the erosion of our civic institutions. On the one hand, they note, the institutions that are supposed to help citizens stay abreast of what elected officials are doing--"traditional news organizations, widespread voluntary organizations...locally grounded political parties"--have grown increasingly anemic. On the other, Republican elites "craft rhetoric and policies to make it difficult for even the well informed to know what is going on." Tax cuts are thus front-loaded with provisions that aid middle-income families, while the benefits to multimillionaires are disguised and delayed. Massive corporate giveaways are woven into legislation on issues (prescription drug legislation, an energy plan) the public generally wants the government to take action on. If you are highly educated and have enough free time on your hands, sorting through the details to determine exactly who the winners and losers are is certainly possible. But lots of people don't, and given the media's growing fixation on drama and brevity, even those who make a sustained effort might remain unapprised. Consider Bush's 2001 tax cut, arguably the most important piece of domestic legislation of the past five years. Hacker and Pierson were among a team of researchers who examined every story that ran in the nation's top-circulation daily, USA Today, on the issue in 2001. Of the seventy-eight articles that appeared, the vast majority examined the politics surrounding the plan, a mere six focused on its contents and only one looked at its distributional effects. The results were not much better in the New York Times, where just seven stories explored the distributional effects.
It is hard to read Off Center without concluding that the capacity of political elites to manipulate public perception has come to overwhelm the ability of the average overworked, infotainment-saturated citizen to understand what is being done in his or her name, a depressing thought when one considers that democracy can't really function without an informed citizenry. But is deception the main reason our politics has veered off center? It's not as though Karl Rove and Tom DeLay invented lying and manipulation, after all. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were equally skilled practitioners of the craft and no less Machiavellian. Of course, back in Nixon's day the Republican Party still had a substantial number of moderates in its ranks. There were also plenty of Democrats around who didn't automatically roll over when conservatives tried to bully them. A striking thing about the litany of radical legislation catalogued in Off Center, from tax cuts to the energy plan, is how frequently Democrats in Congress caved in or went along, something Hacker and Pierson acknowledge but play down in their analysis. Their book offers one of the more original and thought-provoking takes on American politics in recent years. But the disparity they highlight between what voters say they want and what the GOP gives them is not due solely to zealots like DeLay; equally important has been the absence of an opposition party willing to stand up and fight for an alternative.