Republican voters support extending federal background checks for gun purchasers to gun shows and creating a federal database of gun owners. That news may come as a surprise given the positions taken by major Republican candidates. That’s just the beginning.
Most Republicans say they would be less likely to support a candidate who claims that climate change is a hoax. They support the terms of Obama’ executive actions on climate change and immigration (so long as his name isn’t mentioned). Half of Republicans support an amnesty proposal for illegal immigrants. Two-thirds of Republicans under thirty support same-sex marriage.
Why do Republican candidates so enthusiastically embrace issue positions at odds with the will of Republican voters? It has become popular to blame “big money” or the infamous 1%, for the disconnect between the will of the voters and our template of available choices. It’s nice to have a scapegoat. It absolves us of ownership while keeping us comfortably glued to our couches, convinced that forces to large for us to challenge blunt our efforts.
Find me the “big money” donors who wanted Donald Trump (or Ted Cruz, for that matter) to ravage the GOP. Find me the dark cabal of secret donors who wanted Bernie Sanders to kneecap the Democratic nominee and wreak havoc at the convention. Take it from someone who has tried to influence campaigns with donor money. The big donor is a convenient myth, but the 1% is absolutely real. Our elections are decided by the 1%, but it’s not the people we generally think.
Our candidates, especially in the GOP, are utterly disconnected from the will of the voting public for one painfully simple reason – voters do not matter very much in our political system. They never have. That’s not how our system was designed.
The Politics of Crazy sought to explain our increasingly dysfunctional political climate by introducing readers to a critical concept – elections are not nearly as important as we imagine them to be. Almost all of the meaningful work of politics is done before anyone casts a ballot. Those processes are fully open and participatory, probably more so than in any other nation. But increasingly few of us choose to invest our most valuable resource – our time – in those processes.
We are experiencing crazy, dysfunctional politics because the ecosystem from which our political choices emerge is weakening from neglect. All of our major participatory institutions are weakening along a similar pace in a great global devolution of power. That neglect has been more severe on the Republican side, but the same forces are catching up to the Democrats. The power of the 1% is growing.
To further explore this concept I assembled a graphic, the Voter Participation Powerslide. This graphic lays out the number of people who have participated in certain Republican Party activities since 2000. The numbers are estimates, but fairly reliable estimates.
Look at the number of people who have, at some point in the past 15 years, voted for a Republican for President. Then compare that figure to the number who have offered their time as a precinct or campaign volunteer. See a pattern there? See a power differential?
Take all those little numbers to the right of the picture and compare them to the number of Republican Presidential voters and you end up with an interesting ratio – just a little less than 1%. Divide the number of people who have voted in a Republican primary by the number who have either directly volunteered on a campaign or served in a precinct position and you end up with about .4%.
Look closely at who those people are and why they are investing their time and energy and you have suddenly solved the central mystery of Republican politics. Our candidates embrace policies supported by that tiny minority of Republican who participate in local politics. Their composition varies by geography, but in terms of overall numbers they are white, male, old, hyper-religious, fearful, and bigoted. What gets them off their couches and into party meetings is too much free time, a lot of fear – mostly of foreigners and racial minorities, and (particularly in the South and Midwest) organizational backing from fundamentalist churches.
There are far more of them in rural and exurban areas than in cities. There are more of them in the South and Mountain West than in the nation’s more populated (and wealthier) areas. They are warming to Donald Trump because his emphasis on white nationalism is enough to satisfy their darkest fears, even if he fails to embrace religious language as much as they would like.
These are the people who decide which issues a Republican candidate can even begin to address and how they must address them. Republicans do not get an opportunity to vote for a candidate who supports climate change, basic abortion rights, or immigration reform because no such candidate can emerge from this swamp.
What about the Democrats? This is where the lingering influence of 19th century clientelism actually has some value. Democrats experience a similar, though considerably less steep powerslide. What matters is the character and interests of the people at the far right of that graphic. Democratic participation is buoyed by the presence of interest groups, especially labor, with very tangible, pragmatic demands.
Democrats are seeing more and more concentration of crazy activists at their grassroots as labor unions and traditional community organizations weaken, but the remaining influence of those older patronage-driven forces remains a sort of firewall. That firewall has been on evidence in the 2016 primary, along with its steady deterioration. It’s not clear how long practical interests can continue to hold back the Sandernistas. It’s only a matter of time before you get a Democratic Party dominated by gluten activists, vaccine deniers, and social justice warriors.
The powerslide graphic demonstrates the answer to the question ‘why doesn’t the system represent my interests.’ In short, our political system doesn’t represent my interests because I can’t be bothered to invest the substantial and fairly expensive time required to shape it. There are some good reasons most people cannot afford that investment any more. Making our system function again may require us to revisit some of our assumptions about democracy. We need to place more limits on the power of the 1%, and that starts by recognizing which 1% is really responsible for driving our system off the rails.