Someone coming to this country from Mars could be forgiven for believing that we Americans live in two separate countries. In one are well educated technically savvy people who live in large cities and on both coasts. If we believe television ads, work to those people consists of well dressed young people standing around and looking intently at banks of computer screens. In the second country, a far less successful population, inhabits the interior (“fly over” country), and the South. There we see underemployed, uneducated, angry people, many with opiate habits, standing in gloomy small town streets with the outline of crumbling factories dominating the horizon.

Those well educated tech savvy types are labeled liberals but are really what would traditionally have been considered “moderates”. They are the ultimate organizational types who certainly have little need to rock a system which has served them so well. They vote Democratic. The angry and the left behind in those small crumbling towns have forsaken the Democrats and are now labeled conservative. They voted for Donald Trump because he would bring back jobs.

These caricatures hide an important truth. Neither the intelligent techies reading Fast Company while looking at ads for expensive establishment watches, nor the idle poverty plagued young playing with their cell phones, really know or care that much about politics. The people who do care, including those who are in the House and in the Senate, are the carriers of emotional baggage from an earlier time. It is what they think and do that will decide the future.

For now, in the federal government, Democratic Representatives and Senators are in the minority. The spotlight is really on the Republicans. And, congressional Republican candidates in this country have an unspoken political problem: They don’t really want anything from government that will directly benefit the voters whose support they must have to get elected. Republicans are unwilling to promise anything to the voters whose support they seek. So, their voters must be distracted, must be led to concentrate on other things. To illustrate:

1) They can talk about patriotism. We can “make America great again”. We can defeat the Chinese who try to cheat us by manipulating their currency. We can put pressure on Europeans who don’t pay their share to defend against a potential Russian threat. Defending against the Russians has become a source of conflict for many conservatives who are being told that Vladimir Putin is upholding white “European” values (It was much easier up till 1991, because Republicans candidates could say they were defending the country against Communists.). Patriotism also means that we should be able to defend ourselves by holding on to our guns.

2) They can talk about social issues. Think about those now famous “town hall meetings” that candidates hold with voters. What do those candidates really talk about? How much time do they spend talking about what they actually will be doing in Washington? Can the voters come away from those meetings with a clear picture of what their candidates do to fill their day, to earn their $156,000 per year? To be fair, it is hard to discuss the budget process with a large audience in a short period of time. And, it is important to win those people in the audience over. It’s easier to talk about the social issues of the hour (immigration and gun control are always biggies), rather then a detailed discussion of a budgetary process that members themselves are often unclear about.

3) They can hold up anger symbols for their voters to hate. Think about Hillary Clinton. Republican candidates demonized “Lying Hillary Clinton” for years and made her into a symbol for voters to despise. It worked. To avoid her voters found themselves voting for that monument to truth telling, Donald Trump. The same can be said to be true of Obamacare. Voters who can not accurately explain a single facet of Obamacare have come to hate it. Now the Republican leadership, having whipped their voters into an anti-Obamacare frenzy for seven long years, feel that they must keep hopelessly tilting at the Obamacare windmill.

Even if they wanted to help their voters, and they really don’t, Congressional conservatives are now crippled by their obsession with obstruction. Under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, who advocated victory through almost total war with the Democratic majority, Republicans learned that victory could come through obstruction. All during the Obama years (2009–2017), the Republicans did their best to stop the Democratic administration from accomplishing anything at all (the Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote). The theory was that if government could be made to look sufficiently dysfunctional, the voters would turn at last to the Republicans. But now, House Republican obstructionism has now become so built in that the Republican members know only how to obstruct! Rather than leading they have fallen into obstructing each other while the Democratic members helplessly look on.

So what can be done? We may sometime reach a point where new leadership moves Republicans back to political health (there are a lot of healthy Republicans out there in the country). Republicans have, from their beginning back in the Lincoln era, been the party of business. And, many business people, skilled at organization, have continued to be loyal to them. What Republicans can do is to work toward being able to offer real administrative competence. Democrats will always have appeal to a broader spectrum of citizens. Republicans with their business expertise could offer administrative skill. It is a way that they could productively contribute. It is certainly something people would often vote for. Unfortunately, given their current leadership, for Republicans that great gift of competence lies in the distant future.

H.J. Rishel


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