Our Low Tolerance for Change

by Yuval Levin

Do you know how the Washington Post explained where things stand in the ongoing House leadership race to its readers today? Under the headline “The GOP Sinks Deeper Into Chaos,” Karen Tumulty’s analysis piece started like this:

Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party. The most powerful and crippling force at work in the ­once-hierarchical GOP is anger, directed as much at its own leaders as anywhere else.

The New York Times, too, spoke in its headline of the race “Putting House in Chaos” and noted that 

The turmoil in the House only added to the uncertainty for the Republican Party, which is also dealing with a contentious presidential primary campaign in which obstreperous outsiders continue to ride the Tea Party swell against establishment politicians. While the presidential race has many months to sort itself out, House Republicans have little time to spare to restore order.

Some House Republicans themselves contributed to this narrative of woeful pandemonium and the rending of garments. The Post story quotes Rep. Peter King thus:

With no obvious replacement for Boehner in sight, “it is total confusion — a banana republic,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “Any plan, anything you anticipate — who knows what’ll happen? People are crying, they don’t have any idea how this will unfold, at all.”

Good grief people, get a grip. It has certainly been an action-packed week in the House, sure, but what in the world are they talking about? Maybe my standards are skewed by having been a junior staffer for Newt Gingrich in 1998, but I just don’t see the chaos, or the crippling, or the sinking. 

John Boehner has led the House Republicans for about eight years, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the party’s history. He announced he was leaving under fairly dramatic circumstances, to avert a leadership challenge and a shutdown fight. Now the House Republicans are having a leadership race. It appears to be an actually contested race. The early frontrunner, Boehner’s deputy, found he didn’t have the votes and rather than risk an unpredictable test on the floor he withdrew and delayed the internal party ballot. Now the party is basically looking for another consensus candidate, and Boehner will stay on as speaker until it’s all resolved. 

It’s true, therefore, that we don’t yet know who will next lead the Republicans in the House. Maybe more candidates will enter the race. Maybe there will be a consensus candidate, or maybe there will be several contested ballots. That’s how congressional parties choose their leaders. Democratic elections for leader at any level are unavoidably contentious—they’re contests for support. Is the party or the House leaderless in the meantime? Not really. Will this be an endless, chaotic process, like the two-months-long, 133-ballot election that made Nathaniel Banks the Speaker of the House in the 1850s? It won’t. It looks reasonably likely to be a pretty standard party leadership election in a democracy, and our particular system of government actually allows such elections to be much less “chaotic” for the country than they are in most other free societies. Most people won’t notice. 

That this leadership race has everyone reaching for the smelling salts may be an indication of how low our tolerance for change has become in national politics. We often talk about this period as an era of change and uncertainty, and in some important respects it surely is. But in our politics we are actually quite averse to uncertainty and therefore pretty short on change. Republicans have had the same leaders in the House and Senate (Boehner and McConnell) for more than eight years. Democrats have had the same leaders (Pelosi and Reid, both of whom are 75 years old) for a decade. 

And it’s not just our politicians who are skittish about changing horses. For all that voters plainly are frustrated, re-election rates remain very high for both houses of Congress, and we are now nearing the end of the third two-term presidency in a row—which hasn’t happened since the Jefferson/Madison/Monroe administrations. 

There has also been remarkably little institutional change at the federal level in our time. The congressional budget process is 40 years old. The two parties’ presidential nominating processes are too. We are out of the habit of modernization, and the sight of even modest procedural uncertainty makes us uneasy. 

That attitude sometimes causes us to treat what is basically just regular politics—like a congressional party fighting over who should lead it or a budget process not going smoothly or an actually competitive presidential primary—as evidence that the system is in crisis and the wheels are falling off; it’s as if the coronation Hillary Clinton had dreamed of is the ideal model of election and anything more tumultuous is pandemonium. 

Shouldn’t conservatives and constitutionalists welcome such hostility to change and uncertainty? I think we absolutely should not. Our constitutional system creates broad bounds within which we are expected to govern ourselves as a nation, using an assorted and counterbalancing set of means possessed of a democratic character to varying degrees. That means change is a constant, since the Constitution is premised on the assumption that we are never likely to get things right. But that change is forced into a set of procedural grooves that gives us a good shot of telling the worst ideas from the rest—and so of helping us avoid getting things really horribly wrong. 

The bounds set by that system have been judged by progressives of various sorts to be too constricting, and they have sought in their place to pursue a vision of social democracy that pushed the envelope of the constitutional system and sometimes reached beyond it. But over time, their own approach to government has hardened into a much more rigid system than the one it sought to replace. It seems to me that what we’re witnessing now is not the resistance to change inherent in our system of government but the decay and decrepitude of that progressive alternative to it. 

Over the past half century and more, our society has been growing more decentralized, individualist, liberalized, and diffuse. This has been both good and bad. But it has posed enormous challenges to the centralizing mentality of the progressive vision of government, and our public institutions have been growing more and more disconnected from the ethic of the larger society, and therefore also more and more dysfunctional and sclerotic. The kind of decentralizing modernization we now need in government would be, in some important respects, a return to the logic of our constitutional system, and it would be at the same time a way of catching up to the changes transforming our society. But the system we have is intensely resistant to such changes, even as it is frequently at a loss about how to make itself functional. 

Reforms along decentralizing lines are especially needed in Congress, both because it is the heart of our constitutional system and because it is particularly dysfunctional, and has reacted to the decentralizing forces pulling all of our major social institutions apart in a particularly counterproductive way. I think whoever wants to be the next Speaker of the House should run on a platform that commits to that kind of modernization. 

But however various candidates run, and however the race goes, let’s not confuse a leadership election with the end of civilization.  

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