U.S. House Speaker John Boehner announces his resignation. Maine Gov. Paul LePage vetoes almost all bills, won’t make executive appointments and blocks bond issues.
What do these events have in common?
You could call it “my way or the highway” politics.
Like much of American politics these days, they reflect the battle between purists and pragmatists pursuing “the art of the possible.”
Politicians on the right believe strongly in the policies they advocate. They would bring government to halt – denying even basic services – to force others to accept their policies.
In reality, they rely on their opponents being willing to accept compromises as the way of doing the public’s business. The majority might be forced to give ground on some issues to keep government from shutting down. If the minority purists win using that strategy just once, they would keep trying to control government.
The purists in Congress see themselves as having promised their constituents the legislation dictated by their conservative ideology. As a result, they believe, if they compromise, they would break faith with their voters.
Most are relatively new to elective politics, and they find themselves in conflict with more experienced members of Congress. While almost all other Republicans are also conservative, they have learned that partial progress, gained through compromise, produces better results than insisting on complete victory.
Seeing Planned Parenthood as a ripe target, thanks to videos of an organization official talking callously about disposing of fetal material for research, the purists want no further government money for the organization and are will to shut down the federal government over the issue.
If members of Congress think keeping the government in operation is valuable, they can support defunding Planned Parenthood. If not, even if they are ideological allies, they become the enemy. No matter that if GOP legislators shutter the government, they may turn voters away from the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.
Boehner wanted to prevent a government shutdown by allowing a short-term bill including funds for Planned Parenthood, though continuing the ban on funding for abortions. The bill could pass with the votes of most Republicans and almost all Democrats. Defunding Planned Parenthood had no chance.
But one of the most conservative members charged that Boehner had “subverted the Republic.” A group on the right was ready to see if they could dump him, making his survival depend on Democratic votes. In effect, they claimed to be the guardians of political truth and, if he disagreed, he was a traitor to his country.
In Washington, the insurgents are outsiders, anxious to stop the traditional operation of government by “the establishment.” In Maine, the insurgent is an insider, the governor, anxious as well to stop the traditional operation of government.
In both cases, the insurgents would rather suspend many of government’s basic services than compromise with others to gain at least some of their objectives. In a country where voter participation is relatively low and knowledge of the issues is often sketchy, they claim to know a lot about the electorate’s demands.
One recent national survey showed that the biggest problem for voters was that government was “corrupt.” That it was “too big” only came in fifth among concerns. By corrupt, another new poll suggested they might mean the country gets the best government that money – campaign contributions – can buy.
Gov. LePage, supported by a GOP Senate majority and his own good election results, could have successfully negotiated much legislation to his liking, though probably not 100 percent. Instead, he gains little, does less for Mainers than he might and, in the view of some, embarrasses the state.
By turning to referendums to get around the Legislature, the GOP also lets the voters get around their governor. If they think next year’s referendums will help the GOP presidential candidate, it could work the other way, with a winning Democrat bringing out a vote against LePage’s proposals.
The reason why the traditional system produced results was that, in a mass democracy, the only way to take action is through compromise. That isn’t a plot by “the establishment” to thwart outsiders. It’s the only way the government of hundreds of millions of people can work.
The Democrats, never a party with the kind of organized discipline favored by the Republicans since the 1990s, naturally understand compromise. By contrast, the Republicans are undergoing a real split between purists and pragmatists that could end up weakening their hold on government while failing to give the insurgents the uncompromising and absolute power they demand.