The Republican party is in shambles. As the federal government hums back to life after a two week shutdown, sending thousands of furloughed employees back to their cubicles, reopening tourist locations and turning on the panda cam at the National Zoo, Republicans are left to clean up the mess within their party. While there are a multitude of reasons for the government shutdown, it’s apparent that the conservative Tea Party faction holds the most blame. This right-wing splinter illustrates the danger of a fragmented party, and its influence needs to be reined in if Republicans hope to have a successful run in the 2014 elections.
In what began as an ideological battle over the role of government in the health care exchange, the bitter partisan divide somersaulted out of control. Indeed, “the last two weeks presented a tough contest between philosophy and tactics, between national priorities and local realities” (Robertson). According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 74 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Republicans handled negotiations over the budget. Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott told the Washington Post, “I do think we need stronger leadership, and there’s got to be some pushback on these guys who think they came here with all the solutions” (Tumulty). Yet, in many ways, the Republican party is indebted to Tea Partiers as the emergence of the Tea Party after President Obama’s 2008 election was a critical force for Republicans in the 2010 elections. Across the country, Tea Party activism strengthened many GOP primaries and increased party turnout. “Even if the Tea Party eventually subsides, it was undercut Obama’s presidency, revitalized conservatism, and pulled the national Republican Party toward the far right” (Skocpol).
This indebtedness is resulting in a fragmented party lacking cohesion and direction with numerous top players. On one end, there’s Sen. Ted Cruz capitalizing on the shutdown by building a national following and fundraising. Footage of Cruz filibustering for 21 hours on the Senate floor will no doubt greatly aid future campaigns, especially the part when he read his daughters a bedtime story. The Atlantic reported that over the last quarter, Cruz’s PAC raised $797,000 during the period of his filibuster, which is nearly twice what he raised in the prior quarter (Bump). Then on the other end of the political battle, the shutdown was seen as House Speaker John Boehner’s major crisis in his leadership so far. His inability to rally House Republicans to stop the shutdown threatens the conservative majority, and his own speakership.
The revelation that U.S. government has exploded in partisanship is old news. Both party elites have grown increasingly polarized on all three of the major domestic policy agendas: social welfare, racial and cultural issues (Layman). Perhaps the most frustrating element to this rise in polarization is that it’s generally not reflected among the American people, which is indicative of the ideological isolation of national politicians. Citizens’ positions on public policy issues show very little indication of increased mass polarization over the past few decades. “To date, there is no conclusive evidence that elite polarization has stimulated voters to polarize, on the one hand, or withdraw from politics, on the other” (Fiorina). It’s clear Republicans are acting based on their own motivations, rather than responding to the needs and wishes of their constituents.
Gary Miller and Norman Schofield contend that party realignments occur due to the interaction of candidates and activists. The Tea Party can be considered an organization of activists — the explosive rise of the party became the cultural and political phenomenon of the era after Obama was elected. Supporters took to center stage in outfits dressed like Paul Revere, shouting at members of Congress and filling soundbites in all types of media outlets, all in an effort to revitalize the deeply conservative base. Miller and Schofield note that candidates will engage in “flanking” moves so as to enlist coalitions of disaffected voters, at the risk of alienating some of their traditional activist supporters. Tea Party policies moved Republicans to the far right, realigning the party with conservative values that hadn’t been embraced in ages.
But now, in the face of a weakening party, the party needs to shift once again. This time, back to the center. Soul searching among Republicans is necessary if they want keep their seats and ensure another government shutdown will not happen again. The Atlantic’s Jon Lovett says it best, “America needs a strong, rational, positive, practical conservative movement. It needs that bulwark against liberal delusion and hubris. It needs a voice that says we are imperfect, that life is complex, that government can create need even as it meets need, that you can’t fix everything and freedom is worth some danger and sorrow. And there are smart, honest conservatives at the ready to be that voice, to help govern practically and sincerely with that voice, but they are drowned out by the guttural scream of craven utopians raging against reality” (Lovett).
Bump, Philip. “The Ted Cruz Filibuster Paid Off – for Ted Cruz!” The Atlantic Wire. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
Fiorina, Morris, and Samuel Abrams. Political Polarization in the American Public. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Layman, Geoffrey C., and Thomas M. Carsey. “Party Polarization and “Conflict Extension” in the American Electorate.” JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
Lovett, Jon. “How the GOP Slowly Went Insane.” The Atlantic. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
Miller, Gary, and Norman Schofield. “Activists and Realignment in the United States.” American Political Science Review (2003): n. pag. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
Robertson, Campbell. “From the Right, Despair, Anger and Disillusion.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
Skocpol, Theda, and Vanessa Williamson. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Tumulty, Karen. “Republicans Reassess after Shutdown Debacle.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.