How Republicans Can Get Things Done

What the GOP can learn from Democrats about how to govern.

House Speaker John Boehner and U.S. President Barack Obama.
House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Gary Cameron/Reuters and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Like many Republicans across America, I spent a fair amount of time on Tuesday night high-fiving other Republicans. The midterm elections were a smashing success for the GOP, which greatly surpassed my characteristically low expectations. But when I woke up, bleary-eyed and unready to face the morning, I realized that despite this mammoth GOP victory, it was extremely unlikely that it would translate into solid conservative policy achievements. The fact that President Obama is still in power is the most obvious reason. The other less-obvious reason is that Republicans are just not as good as Democrats at achieving their policy goals.

The Republican and Democratic coalitions are both political parties in the same way that whales and lemurs are both mammals, or that Finnish and Hungarian are both Finno-Ugric languages. Though they share some very broad characteristics, they are profoundly different. Our failure to understand the differences between the two parties sows confusion and resentment, so I’d like to clear things up.

One of the more amusing aspects of our politics is that Democrats will often accuse Republicans of being in the pocket of this or that special interest while Republicans insist that Democrats are wild-eyed ideologues. This is almost the opposite of the truth. It is Republicans who are the ideological ones, while it is Democrats who, in the wise words of political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins, are “a coalition of interest groups whose interests are served by government activity.” I realize that this is a massive oversimplification, but bear with me, because I think it illuminates why both parties keep falling in the same old patterns.

The Democratic Party is a collection of interest groups that seeks to, among other things, redistribute income and wealth from people who are not Democrats to people who are, or who will be, and they do a pretty good job of it, even when they lose elections. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic did an excellent job of explaining why this was the case way back in December 2002, after a big Republican midterm sweep not unlike this week’s. Scheiber explained that the biggest headache for any masochist setting out to lead congressional Republicans was that “unlike interest groups on the left, which tend to accept the transactional nature of government, many movement conservatives have a genuinely coherent worldview they want to see reflected—in its entirety.” To put this differently, while Democrats generally recognize that half a loaf is better than none, “[t]he right wing of the Republican Party is simply incapable of accepting the kind of compromises a Senate majority leader must make,” or for that matter a speaker of the House, or a president.

Am I claiming that my fellow conservatives are always wrong to claim that Democrats are wild-eyed ideologues? No, of course not. There are plenty of ideological progressives in the Democratic Party, some of whom are wild-eyed. (Trust me on this one.) For the most part, they are European-style social democrats who believe that America would be a richer, fairer society if we had a bigger, more powerful government—staffed by credentialed experts, naturally—that can redress various inequalities and injustices through technocratic means. The chief political difference between ideological conservatives in the GOP and ideological progressives among Democrats is that ideological progressives recognize that they’re usually in the minority among their fellow partisans. Progressives understand that they’ll often have to take a back seat to, say, public school teachers who want education policies that advance their interests, or first- and second-generation Americans who want an immigration policy that puts family unification first, or a renewable energy policy that isn’t necessarily the best way to fight climate change. Ideological progressives succeed because they know they have no choice but to persuade their fellow Democrats. They’ve been trained to make the case for why their policies are best for members of interest groups X, Y, and Z. This in turn teaches them how to persuade moderates in the electorate at large.

The beauty of the way Democrats approach politics is that their willingness to accept half a loaf means that they can keep making incremental gains even when they appear to be “losing.” Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of California–San Diego and the author of Social Democratic America, puts it beautifully: “Small steps and the occasional big leap, coupled with limited backsliding, will have the cumulative effect of significantly increasing the breadth and generosity of government social programs.” That is, conservatives can try to nibble at the edges of new social programs, but they’ll rarely succeed in rolling them back completely.

Consider Obamacare, perhaps the most controversial new social program in recent memory. Ideological progressives often insist that Obamacare is in fact Republican legislation, even though virtually no Republican lawmakers backed it. It is also true, however, that the beneficiaries of Obamacare’s coverage expansions are disproportionately Democratic-leaning, and the law makes it much easier for overburdened state and local governments to shift some of the burden of providing health benefits for their retirees to the federal government. Though I don’t doubt that the motivations behind Obamacare were sincere, it happens that it does a lot of good for Democratic voters, which reflects the willingness of ideological progressives to sell universal coverage within the party.

Republicans are rarely this slick. They’re far more likely than Democrats to be true believers who put ideology above all else and who struggle to achieve their concrete goals. They struggle because unlike ideological progressives, ideological conservatives believe that most people already agree with them, and that when they fail to win a particular policy fight, it’s because something shady and underhanded is going on. The fact that there are far more conservatives in America than liberals is, in a funny way, a liability for the right. Liberals understand that they can’t win without moderates; conservatives will only concede this unfortunate fact reluctantly, if at all. The result is that Republicans spend much of their time banging their heads against whichever wall happens to be close by.

To be clear, both major parties are half-coherent mishmashes of different interest groups. But the biggest, most influential interest group in the Republican Party consists of ideological conservatives. Yes, Republicans are beholden to big business and Wall Street, perhaps more so than Democrats. To the lasting chagrin of the donor class, however, Republican elected officials have little choice but to bend to the demands of the most ideologically zealous members of the Republican rank-and-file. Talk to GOP donors who make their fortunes in financial services or technology, and who call Manhattan or Palm Beach or La Jolla home, and you’ll find that few are passionate about the pro-life cause or gun rights. If anything, many of them would love to jettison the devout evangelical ideologues who do so much to define the party’s public image. But they’d never dare, as these voters are the heart and soul of the modern GOP. They’re the ones who turn out in off-year elections and who vote faithfully in primary races to punish RINOs.

The conservative ideology these voters share is not super well-defined. Some on the left mock Tea Party conservatives for, say, calling for smaller government while defending Medicare to the death, or for championing socially conservatives causes while claiming to be defenders of individual liberty. The straightforward interpretation is that this is simple hypocrisy. A more convincing view, which I owe to Emily Ekins, the director of polling for the libertarian Reason Foundation, is that the preference for limited government is rooted in what she calls a “reap what you sow” understanding of economic fairness. Simply put, this is a belief that people should be rewarded in accordance with the contributions they make and they should bear the consequences of their own mistakes. Many conservatives see Social Security and Medicare as fundamentally different from other social programs because, as FDR and LBJ intended, they are widely understood as something akin to insurance programs, paid for by worker contributions. As C. Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane have carefully documented, this is far from the truth. Most Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries get far more out of these programs than they pay in. Yet the closely related idea of conditional reciprocity, in which, in the words of legal scholar Amy Wax, entitlement to public resources is “conditional on each person’s reasonable effort, consistent with ability, to support himself and his family,” strikes me and most other conservatives as fundamentally sound. Not all Republicans embrace this brand of moralism, to be sure. But it definitely informs how grass-roots conservatives understand the policy debate.

The challenge for ideological conservatives is to first recognize that not all Americans share their convictions. And as if that won’t be hard enough, they’ll then have to learn from ideological progressives how to sell conservative ideas to people who don’t already buy into them. Yes, yes, Ronald Reagan Milton Friedman freedom bald eagles yadda yadda. How will such-and-such Social Security reform that’s in line with conservative beliefs make members of this or that group better off? How will Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform deliver better care to Grandma? How will family-friendly tax reform benefit middle-class single moms? Conservatives hate thinking this way. But if they ever want to translate victories like Tuesday night’s into lasting policy achievements, they’re going to have to learn.