Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

A Decentralized Politics

Power has become too concentrated in national parties.

The rise of Donald Trump and the visible chaos within the GOP presidential primaries have forced Republicans to engage in some deep soul-searching. Many limited-government conservatives, whatever their past frustrations with the GOP, feel their party slipping away from them. A world in which Donald Trump is the Republican presidential nominee seems to them to be a world in which there is no limited-government party in American politics. Without conservative leadership from the top, they fear, conservative governance seems impossible.

One response to the prospect of such a transformation of the party has been for Republicans in Congress to preempt the presidential nominee’s ability to set the agenda, by offering a concrete policy platform of their own. This has been a principal aim of House speaker Paul Ryan’s important effort to develop policy task forces, to address the issues of national security, tax reform, overregulation, health care, and poverty. But the work on this project has been slow, and it is unclear that it will produce anything capable of meaningfully influencing the campaign.

That the nomination of a presidential candidate who has not run on a conservative agenda seems so likely to transform the character of the Republican party highlights the degree to which we have come to think of the president as the agenda-setter-in-chief in our constitutional system. But that the House leadership’s response would be to organize an effort to craft a preemptive, unified agenda of its own highlights an equally important and related phenomenon: that we have come to think that parties are defined by their leadership’s ability to craft a clear, coherent agenda, present that agenda to voters, receive a mandate from the people, and carry it out once in power.

This is a top-down way of thinking about policymaking, and it assumes a role for the parties that is not obvious, let alone required by our constitutional structure. There is merit to this approach, of course. Agendas can unite us, lift our sights beyond self-interest, and rally us to action in moments when action is sorely needed. When the stakes of politics are as high as they are today, such unity of action and purpose can be quite important.

Still, it’s helpful to contemplate the origins of and alternatives to this model of party action, as they may tell us something about how to approach a potential Trump presidency, as well as about how to grapple with tensions within the Republican party that long predate the 2016 presidential campaign.

The vision of party politics that we’ve adopted in America can be traced to what political scientists in the 20th century called the “responsible-party model.” Its proponents were frustrated by the apparent dysfunction of American politics inherent in the tension between what Willmoore Kendall called the “two majorities,” one in Congress protecting minority interests and one in the executive branch striving for swift action on behalf of popular majorities. As an antidote to such dysfunction, “responsible party” proponents such as Woodrow Wilson pined for parties unified enough at the national level to present a clear, coherent agenda to the American people and achieve an electoral mandate across all branches to carry out that agenda once in office. Led from the top by the president and promising unified national action made possible through the centralization of administrative authority, such parties would sideline local party bosses, who had previously held sway through their mobilization of regional votes. National parties would instead mobilize national coalitions along class lines, prizing a unity of action made possible only through the neutralization of competing internal power centers.

The problem for conservatives eager to implement a party-driven national agenda of their own is that this model of politics is inextricably linked to the progressive vision of governance. Conservative scholar James Piereson, reviewing the work of the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider, one proponent of responsible parties, observes:

A strong president, administrative centralization, national parties, loose construction of the Constitution, class politics — this is Schattschneider’s program of party government, but it sounds suspiciously like the institutional program of the Democratic party as it was reconstituted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Founders had an alternative approach to parties and government, one grounded in their fear that national class politics might devolve into tyranny of the majority. It was reinforced by the decentralized governing institutions that would be dismantled by the progressive revolution. As author Kenneth Kolson, summarizing the Madisonian perspective, writes:

In America the only real check against tyranny lies in the domestication of the legislature. The best way to do this is to implant in the legislature many distinct motors, each tending to carry the body in a different direction, and thus only for a short distance. The legislature must be broken up into many small parts; that is to say, it must be sown with the seeds of party.

And so it was. The Framers built a large republic of diverse interests across wide regions. They wrote a Constitution that would grant those competing sectional interests their due say in national questions and channel their will through a constitutional system of separated powers capable of only limited action absent consensus on major questions. Such a system would naturally foster parties that would forge consensus, particularly in Congress, across diverse interests, and the constraints imposed by the Constitution limiting federal authority and protecting the people’s rights would foster a presumption against federal intervention on any one interest’s behalf to the detriment of another.

All of this depended on a degree of decentralization that our politics has lacked for a long time, a testament to progressives’ success in imposing their alternative view of political order. Under the politics of the administrative state, compromise between interests connected to political power means that everyone with a seat at the table gets a little of what he wants, at the expense of those with no voice in the process.

But signs of a return to the sort of decentralized politics the Founders envisioned have emerged in recent years. Party establishments can no longer rig the game of their nominating contests and no longer hold monopoly control on fundraising networks. Mass media are no longer in the hands of a few brokers of access to the people; social media, online video channels, and other new media have displaced the network news. These trends toward a politics with fewer barriers to entry for those eager to challenge the dominance of party leaders have enabled the rise of such politicians as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, Mike Lee, and Jim Jordan. And, yes, they have enabled Donald Trump, too.

The trouble for conservatives and for the country is that, under an administrative state never contemplated by the Founders, individual political actors can easily use their independence not to veto federal interventions threatening local interests but to hold party leaders hostage to their own corrupt demands, from pork spending to regulatory carve-outs. Recognizing the perverse incentives that the combination of decentralized congressional politics and big government has created, some conservatives are pessimistic that Republicans will rise above the politics of pork unless strong party leadership can bring them to heel. In the wake of the  coup against House speaker John Boehner, former American Enterprise Institute president Christopher DeMuth advised Boehner’s eventual successor, Paul Ryan, to encourage very conservative party members to line up behind the next man to take the speakership and remember that “a Congress of solo practitioners has become a powerful engine of executive-led government growth.”

This outlook is far too pessimistic about the possibilities presented by a politics with fewer gatekeepers and fewer norms of deference to party. It assumes that the centralizing trends in politics are here to stay, and that the best we can hope for is to contain the decentralizing elements that create perverse incentives for self-interested actors to expand the administrative state for their own benefit.

But perhaps it’s the decentralizing forces that are here to stay — and perhaps they can be harnessed to break down the centralized politics on which the status quo in government depends. Decentralization offers the possibility of a politics that is dominated neither by narrow parochialism nor by the corruption of the national special interests that too often co-opt our national parties’ agendas. It might well open voters’ eyes to matters of concentrated benefit and diffuse cost and foster bottom-up organization of those voters left out of governing coalitions and squeezed by those in power, thereby providing a voice to those who have lacked one in a system designed to shut them out. Decentralization offers the possibility that public-spirited politicians might follow the better angels of their nature without fear of retribution by the ruling class. It makes a politics of principle possible in a system designed to run on the most cynical harnessing of self-interest.

A decentralized politics need not be one of gridlock and dysfunction; it need not amount to what political scientist James Q. Wilson called the “atomization” of politics; it need not encourage and reward self-interested individualism among officeholders. It might instead be a politics in which new associations and collaborations become possible — in which new, smaller centers of power emerge in Washington, exerting a healthy pressure on the centralized sources of authority and against the agenda-setters when their work looks to lead us astray. That means that members who exercise their vetoes on Congress’s agenda would do so in unison, toward collective purpose, rather than individually, for personal gain. It means an approach to policy development restricted neither to committees of jurisdiction nor to individual policy entrepreneurs with no prospect of seeing their vision carried into law. Decentralization, in short, can allow elected officials to build new things together in new ways rather than foster chaos or gridlock as individuals.

This is the story of the Tea Party and of institutions such as the House Freedom Caucus. It’s a story that will continue regardless of what happens in 2016, or 2018, or 2020. It’s a story of political change that mirrors the sorts of economic and social changes that the liberal tradition of Adam Smith has taught conservatives to embrace: creative destruction, from the bottom up, of failing top-heavy orders, not for destruction’s sake but to build something better. Even if the result of a decentralized politics is sometimes inaction, inaction is often the right answer when the alternative is perpetuation or expansion of failing programs. But, given the work needed to restore federalism and constitutionalism in our government, conservatism must be about more than opposing things. How best to channel the current forces of disruption — to find new ways to work, together, toward noble purposes — is the great question we face in politics today.

These forces will frustrate all, no matter how noble or ill their intent, who seek to shape politics to conform to their ideal designs. In a season when the question of who will lead our parties seems so important, the disruptions of recent years should remind us that our politics can and should be about more than any one man elected to any one position. That’s a good thing.

– Mr. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America. Mr. Reses is its director of strategic initiatives.

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