In politics, a week is a lifetime.
Just one week ago, the big stories were Republican Glenn Youngkin winning the Virginia gubernatorial election and Democrats spinning out in their trademark disarray. Among other problems, the party seemed out of touch with suburban moms and dads. On top of that, progressives were hindering Democrats from passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill that might have—just by demonstrating competence and momentum—thrown Virginia Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe a lifeline.
Days later, Democrats, with the help of 13 Republicans, finally did pass an infrastructure bill. Then, rather than building on the promise of “normal” Republicanism (as represented by Youngkin), Republicans reminded everyone who they really were.
They did this with white nationalist-adjacent Rep. Paul Gosar’s bizarre and disturbing anime video (which depicts him killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). They did this with Sen. Ted Cruz’s attack on Big Bird. And they did this with threats aimed at the 13 House Republicans who broke ranks and voted for the infrastructure bill. (After Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene referred to them as “traitors” and posted their names and phone numbers, Rep. Fred Upton received death threats.)
The threats against these 13 Republicans are obviously beyond the pale, even if I’m sympathetic to conservatives who feel frustrated with their actions (National Review called bailing out Dems “political malpractice”). But just as you might criticize the 13 Republicans for disobeying the maxim “Never interfere with an enemy in the process of destroying himself,” their critics are making the same mistake. Democrats, as recently as a week ago, were in the process of committing political suicide. Cruz, Gosar, and Greene effectively looked at the mess Democrats were in and said, “Hold my beer!”
Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg has made the observation that neither party wants to be a majority party. Instead, both major political parties seem hell-bent on achieving minority status. This assessment rings true, but it deserves an asterisk: You can’t really blame the party leaders or the party apparatus for most of the problems. Social media and other innovations have made it much harder for leaders to maintain message discipline. Most of the crazy things attributed to both “parties”—things that may rightly turn off normal Americans—are the result of freelancing.
Now, in my opinion, this is a distinction without much of a difference. When prominent progressive writers, athletes, academics, celebs, or Squad members on the left say or do something radical or extreme, it matters—even though it is not officially sanctioned by the DNC. Likewise, when former president Donald Trump (who wants to punish the 13 Republicans), Tucker Carlson, or Marjorie Taylor Greene say or do something controversial, that speaks to the character of the GOP.
The interesting thing is that these actors in both parties cannot leave well enough alone. This is true both in terms of silly things and in terms of substantive policy decisions. Six months ago, Joe Biden was riding high. Then, he decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, and all hell broke loose. In the intervening months, he has maybe had one or two good news cycles. Maybe. And the really crazy thing is that the withdrawal was largely a disaster of his choosing. All he had to do was nothing.
Likewise, Republicans couldn’t revel in the Virginia victory for a few days without changing the narrative.
Again, the desire to meddle is the perfectly rational result of perverse incentives. There is money and attention and TV segments and Twitter buzz to be had for the politician willing to say or do outrageous things. So some of this is calculated and performative. Some of the craziness, though, is sincere. And some of this is simply the result of failed or unwise assumptions about what the public wants.
Whatever the motivation, crazy has consequences—the worst get on top.
Just as it attracts abnormal candidates (see Herschel Walker and Sean Parnell), the far right deters serious people from seeking office. Such was the case this week when New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced he would not run for the U.S. Senate next year. This is a big deal, since Democrats currently hold a tenuous 50-50 majority. But as Esquire’s Charles Pierce speculated, “Sununu’s disinclination to join his party’s current congressional caucus might very well be a measure of how little he wants to join in as the Republicans in the House drive the Republicans in the Senate closer to establishing a unicameral monkeyhouse instead of a national legislature.”
It has become fashionable to blame the public for our lousy politicians. And there’s some truth in that. But just because pols respond to the intensity of the worst among us does not mean that the majority of Americans are not good and decent people who just want normal political leaders.
Glenn Youngkin demonstrated that there is pent-up demand for a return to normalcy. What remains to be seen is whether anyone in politics is paying attention—and whether either party really wants to win.