UC Berkeley News


The Republican right, and how it grew
Poli sci's Paul Pierson, co-author of Off Center, insists it's not the country that's changed - it's conservatives' control of the political machinery

| 26 January 2006

Paul Pierson (Deborah Stalford photo)
By most reckonings, the Grand Old Party has been in the throes of a yearlong hangover. Since routing the Democrats in November 2004 - tightening their hold on both houses of Congress and re-electing the president without benefit of Supreme Court intervention - Republicans have stumbled badly, rocked by criminal indictments, corruption scandals, accusations of cronyism, domestic-spying revelations, and widespread disapproval of their handling of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, already facing trial on conspiracy and money-laundering charges, resigned this month as House majority leader after his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff made headlines. Even Karl Rove, George W. Bush's closest adviser, operates in the shadow of the ongoing CIA-leak investigation.

All of which, by most reckonings, is good news not just for Democrats, but for everyone who fears the GOP bandwagon is taking the country in the wrong direction. One prominent Berkeley political scientist, however, warns that outbreaks of schadenfreude are premature. Republicans, says Paul Pierson, "have defied the normal laws of political gravity in the United States," and it's far from clear that physics will kick in anytime soon.

In fact, Pierson contends, the leadership of the Republican Party is more entrenched, more extreme, and less accountable to the electorate than ever before. "America's great democratic experiment is under assault," he argues in a new book, writing that Republican-brand democracy bears less resemblance to a competitive marketplace than "the sort of market that gave us the Enron scandal, in which corporate bigwigs with privileged information got rich at the expense of ordinary shareholders, workers, and consumers."


Pierson is the co-author, with Yale University's Jacob Hacker, of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, a refreshingly breezy read that has won praise from liberal pundits like E.J. Dionne, Paul Krugman, and Eric Alterman - who called it "the most illuminating book on contemporary American politics to be published in over a decade" - and earned the pair an impressive 45 minutes of radio fame with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. They've also collaborated on opinion pieces for The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and The New Republic, and tried their hands at blogging for the Washington Monthly and TPM Café websites. (They have their own website at www.hackerpierson.com.)

In the wake of the 2004 campaign, analysts everywhere proclaimed that U.S. voters had grown more conservative, a premise that also underlies such influential books as Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Pierson and Hacker cite evidence to suggest that America's much-touted conservative shift is a myth. Yet instead of appealing to centrist swing voters in the traditional manner of politicians, they argue, Republicans have largely abandoned the moderate middle, joining with the party's activist base to push the pendulum ever farther to the right. And despite a political system of checks and balances expressly designed to impede action, the GOP has been remarkably successful - particularly given its hair's-breadth electoral edge - in enacting what the authors view as a radical domestic agenda.

The book went to press before the party's troubles snowballed into what Time magazine dubbed an annus horribilis. But Pierson believes the deeply entrenched power of congressional leaders, developed and consolidated during the so-called "Republican revolution," is apt to withstand the buffeting of recent months.

"We're not trying to make a prediction about who's going to win the [2006] elections," says Pierson, a lanky, youthful Oregon native who arrived at Berkeley in 2004 from Harvard, where he had taught government and political economy since earning his Ph.D. from Yale in 1989. "What you can say, and what we try to say, is that Republicans have protected themselves against big storms by developing this system we call 'backlash insurance'" - defined in Off Center as "an assortment of strategies and procedures that party leaders use to keep quavering moderates in line and shield party loyalists against political retaliation by moderate voters."

Excerpts from Off Center (Yale University Press, 2005):

Polarization has certainly made it harder for the parties to agree, and sometimes gridlock has indeed reigned. Yet, as the testimony of disaffected moderates in the Bush administration suggests, it is not just political rhetoric that has become more extreme. It is the governance of the nation itself. Somehow, ruling Republicans have found a way to do what Democrats, when they held the upper hand in similarly close political fights, either would or could not do: put in place policies that are far from the moderate center.

* * *

What is the great force that pulls Republican politicians to the right? In a word, the "base." The base is the party's most committed, mobilized, and deep-pocketed supporters: big donors, ideological activist groups, grassroots conservative organizations, and, increasingly, party leaders themselves.

* * *

Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed his own democratic spirit by stating, "If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell, I will help them. It's my job." We share the sentiment. The problem we are concerned about is not that America's political elite is heading in the wrong direction, though we believe it is. It is that this elite is increasingly pulling American government away from its citizens.

* * *

The obvious problem for Democrats is that the appeals that they might use to reach downscale voters are less naturally resonant with the affluent than are the Republicans' anti-tax, anti-government themes.…The deeper problem for the Democrats, however, is organizational. At the height of the post-New Deal party system of the 1950s and 1960s, a powerful network of organizations, integrated with a locally rooted Democratic Party structure, represented middle-income Americans on pocketbook matters. These organizations have dramatically weakened, leaving many who once depended on them unmoored from the kinds of intermediate groups that are necessary for true influence.

* * *

The role of Republican moderates over the past decade has rarely transcended the theater of feigned conflict. Centrist Democrats in the House, increasingly frustrated in their efforts to forge compromises across the aisle, derisively joke that a House Republican moderate is someone who throws a ten-foot rope to a drowning man twenty feet offshore.

* * *

Little noticed by most Americans, a major shift has taken place in Congress over the past two decades. Power is much more centralized, and that centralized power is used much more aggressively. The Southern right-wingers are not simply titular heads of their party; they are increasingly running the show. The two features of the contemporary Congress that have most aided the majority party in pursuing off-center policies are closed rules (in which debate is tightly limited to a set of preselected amendments) and House-Senate conference committees (in which a committee consisting of senators and representatives cobbles together differing bills from each chamber). Probably the most effective means of dealing with both… is to create safeguards against their abuse by the majority party.

* * *

The core message of this book is that we need to increase the resources of the center, make elections more competitive, and foster the right kind of transparency in the political process. …The shift of American politics off center has taken years to unfold, and it will not be undone in a single moment of reform.

"How big the storm's going to be, and whether those protections are going to be sufficient, is not something that anybody can know a year ahead of an election," he continues. "But to me, the idea that capturing 15 seats in the House" - the number the Democrats need to regain control of that body - "is regarded by most insiders as an almost insurmountable obstacle speaks volumes."

At the heart of the system of "backlash insurance," the authors write, are control of the political agenda - the ability to decide which issues show up on the nation's radar, when they appear, and how they're perceived - and a facility for disguising the true nature of Republican-sponsored legislation.

As a prime example of political sleight-of-hand, Pierson cites the massive tax cuts enacted since Bush took office in 2001. By front-loading the popular but exceedingly modest benefits to the middle class, he explains, Republicans effectively camouflaged the fact that the vast majority of savings were earmarked for the wealthy. And by including "policy tricks" like phase-outs - knowing that political pressure would likely lead to further cuts - they were able to lock in a course sharply at odds with the wishes of most mainstream voters.

Even the party's own moderates, Pierson notes, have been increasingly marginalized as congressional leaders have consolidated their power, withholding campaign funds from members who fail to fall in line - sometimes going so far as to recruit challengers for primary races, where the hard-right base is crucial - and asserting control over once-independent committee chairs. (Moderates are permitted to veer from the party line when necessary to appease their constituents, as long as their votes are not crucial to the desired outcome.)

Factor in the unprecedented advantages of incumbency and an authoritarian leadership prone to closed rules and rigged conference committees, and you get a parliamentary-style ruling party that's "unusually unified and coordinated" - the mirror image of the fractious, feckless Democrats. And Pierson insists it's the hardcore right's grip on the levers of power - far more than the resonance of its message - that gives it the upper hand.

Not a popularity contest

"A lot of things that we're talking about in the book are taking place against a backdrop of two long-term trends," he explains. "One is that money's become more important in politics, and the other is that money is distributed much more unequally than it was 30 years ago. For the Republican Party, neither of those things is a problem, really, given the core organizational foundations of the party, and its domestic agenda. For the Democrats it's a big problem, because they need to raise large amounts of money, and at the same time some of their potentially most appealing issues are kitchen-table, lunchpail kinds of issues having to do with economic populism. And those two forces fall in different directions."

To the authors of Off Center, the ability to rally institutional support for a party's agenda trumps the ability to frame that agenda for mainstream voters - a contrast to the rhetoric-based views of another celebrated analyst of the Democrats' dilemma, Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, advanced in books like Moral Politics and the best-selling Don't Think of an Elephant!

"One strong reaction people have had to the book was that we didn't say more about the Democrats, and their role in all this," Pierson acknowledges. "That's mainly because we don't accept what we think is the primary way that people often think about electoral politics: that it's primarily a popularity contest between two competing sets of ideas, and two competing teams, and that if one teams wins it must be because they're doing things that are closer to what people want - their ideas are better, their ideas are more popular, end of story.

"What we're trying to point out in the book is that politics isn't just about ideas and platforms. It's about organization, and it's about how the structure of political institutions, and the ability of particular organizations to use those institutions, translates into political power."

A separate, "quite reasonable" objection to Off Center's critique, he concedes, is the low profile of 9/11 and the Iraq war, which Republicans have used to paint Democrats - including decorated military veterans - as weak on national defense. Pierson explains that he and Hacker steered clear because "we felt like we were taking on enough," and "didn't feel we had anything particularly incisive to add on that subject." At the same time, he adds, "We do think it would be a huge mistake to think that the capacity of the Republicans to successfully pursue a radical agenda is just a product of 9/11 or the changing national-security situation."

Much of that agenda was under way long before September 2001, he points out, including the Bush tax cuts and the impeachment of Bill Clinton - which the book calls "a testing ground for strategies of agenda control and arm-twisting that would become regular weapons in [Republicans'] arsenal," and which was spearheaded by Tom DeLay.

Pierson, who considers his own politics "progressive," is convinced that whatever the short-term fallout from the Republican storms, restoring the integrity of American democracy is a long-term proposition, likely to be measured in decades rather than election cycles.

Meanwhile, the mostly positive response to Off Center has been gratifying, and - for someone whose body of work is found mainly in scholarly journals - educational.

"Certainly we wanted to write a book that would have a reach beyond the academic world. But it's still a surprise to wake up in the morning and you're going to be interviewed on Terry Gross," Pierson says. The book "has gotten more attention than I possibly could have imagined."

"One of the things that's been really interesting as an academic is seeing a little bit of a slice of these different parts of the world you don't usually see, like how somebody puts together a radio program, or some of the things that are going on at The New York Times, or these bloggers and how they go about their business," he says. Then, sounding very much the youthful Oregon native, he adds, "It's pretty cool."