Remember when Democrats swept the 2006 elections, then stormed into Washington demanding national health care reform and the repeal of President Bush’s upper-bracket tax cuts as a condition for keeping the government open? Right, me neither. Yet somehow the Republicans, controlling just one house of Congress—unlike the two held by Democrats in 2007—have completely seized control of the political agenda. President Obama has given up even on seating well-qualified nominees in his administration, let alone advancing his own policy preferences. The only question is not whether but how far Republicans will yank the direction of government their way. This is not a complaint—at least not a complaint against Republicans, who have demonstrated an admirable willingness to accept risk in order to achieve their goals. The point is merely that the two parties now operate in completely different ways.
A spate of recent budget votes in Congress underscores the radically different levels of political risk-aversion between Democrats and Republicans. In the House, Republicans voted for Paul Ryan’s budget, even with massively unpopular features that include a huge tax cut for the affluent along with a plan to privatize and then slash the value of Medicare. More shocking still, they did this despite knowing that it stood no chance of becoming law in this session of Congress.
You know what happened next: Democrats made the Ryan plan the centerpiece of a special election in upstate New York and used it to win a normally Republican district. Then they brought the bill up in the Senate in order to force Republicans to take a position on it. All but five voted in favor—again even though there was no chance that such an unpopular vote would become law. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats had to vote on Obama’s budget. The Obama plan, while not completely lacking for raw material that could be mined and processed into attack ads, steered a far more popular path by avoiding major entitlement cuts or middle-class tax hikes. How many Democrats voted for it? Zero.
For Senate Democrats, the idea of casting an unpopular vote that won’t result in a bill-signing is beyond preposterous. Democrats in Congress need to have their arms twisted even to vote for controversial bills that would become law. Republicans, on the other hand, want to shift the terms of the debate and will gladly lose seats to do it. Both parties have succeeded at their goals.
The differing styles are rooted in the distinct political cultures of the two parties. Republican ideology is uncomplicated (markets good, government bad), whereas Democrats advocate a hybrid, perpetually hard-to-explain ideology (markets usually but not always good, government sometimes necess—HEY WAKE UP!). Republicans are ethnically homogeneous, drawing 90 percent of their votes from whites, where Democrats are heterogeneous, relying on nonwhites for around 40 percent of their support. Republicans draw their economic support almost exclusively from business, while Democrats rely both on business and on groups often opposed to business, such as labor and environmentalists.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party attracts voters who value conciliation between opposing values. Numerous polls have shown that Democrats—even the most liberal Democrats—want their leaders to strike compromises rather than stand firm for their principles. Republican voters prefer the opposite. Both sides, again, generally get their wish.
During the window of time when Democrats controlled a filibuster-proof Senate majority along with the presidency and the House, dour Republicans expected them to rush through a generation’s worth of legislation. It didn’t happen. Pro-business Democrats blocked even moderate labor-law reform. Democrats from overwhelmingly white states blocked immigration reform. Democrats from energy-producing states blocked cap-and-trade. They passed health care reform only after making it acceptable to nearly all the major economic stakeholders.
But the GOP’s unity and discipline can backfire. The right-wing ideological cadres that gave Republicans the confidence to hold fast against Obama also gave them the confidence to march alongside Newt Gingrich’s 1995 plan to cut Medicare while cutting taxes for the rich and to follow George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to privatize Social Security. The Republicans resemble an army that refuses to retreat, winning some inspiring battles, but sometimes getting mowed down in waves.
The main tool Republicans use to enforce voting discipline—the threat of right-wing primary challenges—also leads them to regularly knock off their strongest candidates. In 2010, Republicans threw away sure Senate victories in Delaware and Nevada by nominating the maniacal Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. A conservative primary opponent will probably oust Olympia Snowe, giving Democrats a chance to take a seat they’d otherwise lose.
In return for imbuing their members of Congress with fanatical discipline, Republicans have a lot fewer of them than they could. Here’s one way to look at it. The House is naturally tilted toward the GOP. Democrats have more heavily packed urban districts with overwhelming majorities where their votes are wasted. The median House district is 2 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. The Senate is even more Republican-tilted, with Democrats clustered in underrepresented large states. As political scientist John D. Griffin found, “[I]ndividuals residing in states with less voting weight are quite consistently more liberal and more likely to identify with the Democratic Party.” Of the 60 Senate seats Democrats briefly controlled in 2009–2010, 22 of them represented states that had voted Republican in at least two of the three previous elections. Just four Republicans senators represented states that had voted Democratic in at least two of the last three presidential elections.
Republicans, whether consciously or accidentally, have “spent” their structural advantage in Congress on demanding near-absolute party-line discipline. Democrats have controlled far more seats than they ought to—in 2000, with the parties at parity, Bush won 30 states, but Republicans haven’t come close to holding the 60 Senate seats that ought to be their natural baseline.
Republicans do, though, keep shifting the terms of the debate further rightward. Fanaticism is an effective weapon. The only trouble is that it’s awfully hard to modulate.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the June 30, 2011, issue of the magazine.