Conservative politics in America has been consumed by media and propaganda. The concrete functions of political institutions — providing services, programs, and so on to constituents — have been ignored or forgotten by a growing number of Republican politicians, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who tried to flee to Mexico while his state was being crushed by a winter storm and massive power outages.
This absence may be the least-noticed political vulnerability of the Republican Party. Propaganda is indeed very powerful, but material action also pays political benefits, particularly when times are tough. Democrats should do big, popular things, and attack Republicans for failing to support them.
Democrats, for all their faults, still at least try to take constituent services seriously, and some of them are quite good at it. For instance, while Cruz scarpered to Mexico, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a second-term member of Congress from Queens, let me emphasize — raised some $5 million in aid and traveled to Houston to help disburse it. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke behaved similarly, and may have revived his career in Texas politics in the process.
Cruz is also not even close to the most apathetic Republican in Congress. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) shrugged at being voted off all committees in the House (in punishment for supporting the Jan. 6 putsch and spreading a variety of lunatic conspiracy theories). "Going forward, I've been freed," she said, arguing those pesky governing responsibilities were just getting in the way of campaigning. Her fellow freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) runs his office like a public relations firm: "I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation," he wrote to other Republicans in an email obtained by Time.
For the bulk of the Republican caucus in Congress, and the bulk of its voting base, the federal government is a sort of postmodern semiotic signifier without any material referent. Politics is something that happens entirely on TV and Facebook — an eternal quest to symbolically own the libs by buying the politically correct things, or breaking politically incorrect things you have already bought, or sticking your head in a plume of toxic smoke, and so on. By this view you vote for Trump not because he will do anything in particular for you, but because him taking office will make liberals cry.
But it turns out government does do some important things in real life, or should be doing them — like saving people's lives during a catastrophic blackout, or fighting a viral pandemic.
This also applies to the Republican decision to oppose the upcoming coronavirus relief package currently working its way through Congress. GOP leaders reportedly expect lockstep opposition, and are betting they won't pay a price for doing so. It's "bad politics" for Democrats, claims Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
But it is surely wrong to say that Republicans are making a careful political bet here. It is more that they are going for the high-risk, maximally-irresponsible gamble because that's what they have done for the last 20 years straight, and it has worked out for them again and again. They think that, because they won big in 2010 after opposing President Obama's Recovery Act in 2009 when the economy was collapsing, and because they won again in 2016 after nominating a brainless reality TV host and multiply-accused sexual predator for president, there are no such things as consequences.
But an all-in gamble is still a risk. Trump lost an easily winnable election in 2020. Moreover, the Recovery Act was practically designed as a political loser. It was less than half the size it should have been, and therefore did not restore full employment by the 2010 midterms. ("It could have been worse," is always a terrible message to sell.) Its payroll tax cut went deliberately unmentioned because dimwitted nerds said that might be more "efficient," and its infrastructure projects had many layers of fussy red tape so it didn't seem like Democrats were doing a lot of pork barrel spending.
The coronavirus relief bill is not at all like that. It is more than twice the size of the Recovery Act, and its key elements are all quite blatant — a huge pot of money for vaccines, relief money for state and local governments, a big boost to unemployment insurance, and of course the $1,400 survival checks. Both the package as a whole and most of its components are overwhelmingly popular — particular the checks, which get nearly 4-1 approval.
All that said, to actually capitalize on doing so many popular things, Democrats are going to have to fight on the terrain of messaging. Passing simple, bold policy is one half of the equation, but the other half is taking credit for doing so. The moment Democrats pass that package (and any others), they need to be loudly boasting about what they've done, and savaging Republicans for trying to stop them, in every state and county in the country. And when some natural disaster strikes (an ever more frequent proposition given climate change), they should be on the ground helping immediately, putting the hapless Republicans in the area to shame.
One faction of Republicans would let the country burn if it benefited them politically, and another faction is so crazy they don't believe in fire. That should be a losing proposition in terms of votes, but that is plainly not guaranteed these days. If Democrats can get over their bizarre neurosis about trying to buy votes with good policy, they might just make Republicans pay for leaving their constituents in the cold.