All those people who treat politics like baseball may have to start again. All those statistics about what happened in off years down through our history, all those references to recurring political phenomena, like the impact of the weather on elections, are null and void.
We’re moving from government as we have known it — a system of two parties modulated by bipartisanship on many issues, where factors other than ideology matter to members of Congress — to a new order in which party loyalty trumps conscience.
Congress is acting more like a parliament than a congress. People who have been clamoring for a Congress more like the British Parliament, with features like “Prime Minister’s Question Time,” have got more than they wanted. They’ve got something like the British party system, and it is not a step forward.
While watching the Brits go at it on C-SPAN is good sport, and certainly tests the mental acuity and verbal dexterity of the players, it is an inflexible way of governing.
Despite the jolly repartee and the openness of discussion, the House of Commons can be a sterile place. The individual member feels impotent and frustrated. Unless a member loves constituency work with a passion, they can feel very unloved by the parliamentary legislative process.
The former Conservative M.P. Matthew Parris has written brilliantly about the impotence of the backbenchers in his autobiography. He abandoned elective politics for journalism, where he felt he could be more effective in shaping public policy.
The dirty little secret about Britain in particular, and parliaments modeled on Westminster in general, is that they aren’t kind to mavericks and are institutionally structured to keep them down or out. Private consciences cannot be aired easily, if at all. A cri de coeur may have to be embedded in a question on an aside in a debate late at night. It won’t be reflected in a vote when “the whips are on” — party discipline in force. The rare exception is a free vote of the House of Commons on a matter like the death penalty.
Here in the U.S., despite the emasculation that goes with party discipline, the Republicans are well down that road. And one wonders, can the Democrats be far behind?
The dynamic across the aisle is becoming asymmetric, and the only Democratic response will have to be a closing of ranks. Something unique to the American system is being lost here.
The genius of Congress is its ability to hear minority voices and, on occasion, for the administration to make common cause with the opposition — as President Clinton did with the Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But the Republicans have given up one the great freedoms of our system of government. They have sacrificed on the altar of discipline the special freedom to vote as you see fit.
Sadly the move to party authoritarianism hasn’t come from within the party — although Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and House Republican Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, are enjoying it — but from the forces that are shaping conservatism from without.
First among these forces is right-wing broadcasting. It’s a vicious and relentless goad to Republicans to move ever further to right, to embrace positions not of their own making.
Then there’s the party rump, characterized by the Tea Party movement. It’s implacably at odds not just with the administration of Barack Obama but with the times we live in. It yearns for another America in another time. It doesn’t want to face the cultural, demographic and political realities of today. But it’s in tune with the conservative broadcasting colossus, and it will have a large and negative affect on the Republican Party.
Arcing across the political sky, compounding all of this, is the phosphorous rocket of Sarah Palin. The former governor of Alaska may be in the 10th minute of her 15 minutes of fame, but for now she’s a bigger force in Republicanism than are its wiser leaders.
All of this has forced the Republicans in the Senate, and to a lesser extent in the House, to look more like the opposition in a parliament than the minority in Congress. Significantly, we’ve always favored “minority” to describe the other party rather than “opposition.” These words have described the uniqueness of Congress — its authenticity, if you will.
At least until history took a new course in 2010. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate