Talk about “the good ol’ days” of Americans politics is generally misplaced. The notion that politicians used to engage in a high-minded, cooperative process, with well-intentioned policymakers finding common ground with their opponents, is pretty silly. As long as there’s been a country, there have been periods of gridlock, partisan strife, and ugliness.
But for those who believe political conditions have deteriorated to modern lows, there is ample evidence to reinforce the thesis.
At the Washington Post yesterday, Paul Waldman reflected a bit on how congressional Republicans are dealing with the Supreme Court vacancy, and the degree to which GOP lawmakers continue to abandon traditional norms.
[Republicans] haven’t just grown more ideologically conservative in recent years, they’ve also grown more procedurally radical. Again and again, they’ve decided that the system of formal and informal norms that make the government work can be discarded if it becomes inconvenient.Shut down the government? You bet! Filibuster every bill more consequential than the naming of National Earwax Awareness Week? Sure! Bring America to the brink of defaulting on its debt? Why not! And every incentive Republican members of Congress have pushes them to be more uncompromising, more reckless, and more pure in their opposition to anything and everything any Democrat wants.
It’s an under-appreciated point. Republicans’ willingness to cause a breakdown in modern governing isn’t the result of broken laws, but rather, abandoned norms. Federal policymakers have long been able to do what GOP lawmakers are now doing, but traditionally, officials saw such tactics as simply unacceptable.
There were certain steps responsible adults in positions of authority just would not take – they could go to unprecedented extremes, but a sense of propriety led to a recognition that such radicalism should be avoided.
Modern Republicans, however, have no comparable qualms. Indeed, they’ve come to believe voters will overlook, and possibly even reward, their conduct – and facing the very real possibility that the electorate will turn over control of the House, Senate, and White House later this year, their assumptions may be correct.
But in the meantime, it’s worth appreciating the fact that the breakdown in these norms carries consequences. Before the Obama era and the radicalization of Republican politics, the idea of federal legislators trying to sabotage American policies seemed genuinely ridiculous, but that’s no longer the case. The same is true of all sorts of recent developments: government shutdowns, debt-ceiling hostage crises, cabinet filibusters, the routinization of filibusters for every bill of any consequence, partnering with foreign governments to undermine American foreign policy, the list goes on.
The way in which Senate Republicans are now responding to a Supreme Court vacancy is plainly indefensible for any objective observer, but it’s part of a broader pattern of abuses in which norms and traditions no longer have value in the contemporary GOP’s eyes.
In the post-Civil War era, the idea of the Senate majority imposing a blockade on filling a high court vacancy – rejecting any nominee, sight unseen – driven entirely by one party’s contempt for a sitting two-term president, seems absurd. And yet, here we are, and because norms have been gradually disappearing in recent years, no one seems especially surprised.
This is not to say Republicans are breaking rules or laws. They’re not. We’re talking about legal steps that fall outside what has traditionally been considered acceptable.
No one is saying Senate Republicans are required to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. But that doesn’t make their tantrum acceptable.
There are gambits that are at odds with the American tradition. As we talked about a couple of years ago, there are informal standards about accepted forms of conduct, which come with the expectation that those in positions of power will respect those norms.
Those norms have been cast aside, seen as little more than annoyances that get in the way of a conservative movement’s ambitions. There is no scenario in which this is a healthy development for American governance.