Why the Fringe is in Charge of the GOPRoundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, far right, MAGA
Richard H. Pildes, a professor at New York University’s School of Law, is the author of the casebook The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process.
For the first time in nearly a century, we have witnessed the stunning spectacle of a Republican Party so fractured it has struggled in multiple rounds of balloting to choose a speaker of the House. This Washington drama reflects larger structural forces that are changing American democracy.
Revolutions in communications and technology have transformed our democracy in more profound ways than just the more familiar issues of misinformation, hate speech and the like. They have enabled individual members of Congress to function, even thrive, as free agents. They have flattened institutional authority, including that of the political parties and their leaders. They have allowed individuals and groups to more easily mobilize and sustain opposition to government action and help fuel intense factional conflicts within the parties that leadership has greater difficulty controlling than in the past.
Through cable television and social media, even politicians in their first years in office can cultivate a national audience. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered Congress, she already had nine million followers on the major social media platforms, more than four times the number for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an order of magnitude more than any other Democrat in the House. Recognizing the power social media provides, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a provocateur in the opposition to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid, has said he wants to be the A.O.C. of the right.
The internet has also generated an explosion of small-donor donations, which enables politicians to raise large amounts of money without depending on party funds or large donors.
Despite being stripped of her committee assignments, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, raised more than $3 million in small donations in the first quarter of 2021, a staggering haul for a new member of Congress. National attention on cable and social media reward the provocative, the outrageous and the ideological extremes. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York transformed herself from a moderate to a “warrior” for Donald Trump, a move that helped engender a torrent of small donations.
Control over committee assignments was once a powerful tool party leaders had to encourage members to follow the party line and punish those who did not. Now major legislation is often developed in a more centralized process among a small group of party leaders, rather than through the committee process, which has made committee assignments less valuable. In addition, members no longer need to serve on important committees to gain national profiles or attract campaign funds and, with modern communications tools easily available to individual members, can still readily mobilize opposition to proposals. Those challenging Mr. McCarthy for speaker know they run the risk of being punished in their committee assignments, should he eventually prevail. But that threat no longer carries the weight it once did in an era of free-agent politicians.
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