Our way or the highway.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Archconservatives' Real Enemy Is Democracy

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The House Republican conference is in a pickle. It doesn't want the leader it has. It just destroyed Kevin McCarthy, its leader in waiting. And the leader it purportedly pines for, Representative Paul Ryan, may yet prove unwilling to descend into the snake pit for the sake of a couple months (weeks? days? hours?) of party unity before the occupants turn their venom on him.

The leadership vacuum will somehow be filled. But the hot mess isn't an anomaly; it's the GOP. The same dynamics dragging down the House are on display in the presidential race, where hardcore conservatives who respect political realities battle against even more hardcore conservatives who don't much care about reality and sometimes have only a tenuous grasp of politics -- and against the cynics who surf their wake.

When Senator Marco Rubio made the mundane observation that Republicans are unlikely to enact their conservative Nirvana with President Barack Obama in the White House, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seized the opportunity to paint Rubio as "defeatist." This is the same Christie who brags about using his executive authority to veto 400 bills supported by the Democratic majority in his state legislature. In contemporary Republican politics, democratic norms and constitutional prerogatives are variable: They only count when Republicans say they do.

The battle between the three or four dozen most extreme members of the House Republican conference and their colleagues is not ideological. The Freedom Caucus, or whatever the Ultras call themselves this week, is not pursuing a different policy agenda. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has had it up to here with the Ultras, wrote: "We share most of the Freedom Caucus’s policy goals."

As Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight noted, the Ultras simply want to use extreme tactics to achieve very similar policy ends.

So is the difference between Republican factions tactical? Not really. The difference between the Ultras in the House and the mainstream Republicans they delight in humiliating isn't so much about tactics as democracy. The Ultras bulk up on the former -- holding their leadership hostage, pushing the party to hold the nation's credit hostage, or government funding hostage -- but they have little use for the latter.

Barack Obama was re-elected to the White House in 2012 by a margin of roughly 5 million votes. To mainstream conservatives this is unfortunate. But it's also a fact. Not just a Democratic fact, but a small-d democratic one. The people spoke at the ballot box, and that voice cannot simply be annihilated. What's more, there are a couple hundred years of government precedent and a written Constitution to guide the balancing of conflicting interests between the president and his party and the Congress and its majorities.

But the Ultras are not big on balance. Or, really, democracy. To them, Obama is not the duly elected president of the United States, the nation's highest officer. He is an affront and an obstacle. Since he is not an archconservative Republican, and they so fervently wish that he were, they simply deem him illegitimate.

The Ultras are called "outsider" and "anti-establishment" and "anti-government." And they are in various ways. But they are mostly anti-democratic. They reserve their greatest contempt for compromise, even with members of their own party. Compromise is the viscous stuff that enables diverse interests to be accommodated and government to function. It's the stuff of American pluralism and representative democracy, fluid enough to carry multiple views but still sticky enough to make one of many.

The Ultras are at war with Democrats, with Republicans, with government itself. But mostly they are war with perhaps the greatest, if least heralded, of American political ideals: half-a-loafism. In a 50-50 nation, they don't want small bites. They want it all. Never mind that they represent a rump of one party.

Yet their influence is not confined to the House or even the Republican presidential primary. When Republican legislatures enact voting restrictions expressly designed to keep Democratic constituencies away from the polls, they are not primarily fighting an ideological or routinely tactical battle. They surely are not fighting phantom voter fraud. They are fighting democracy. And they're winning. In Washington this week, they just claimed another scalp.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net