The Path to GOP Insanity

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The House Republicans are meeting in Williamsburg, VA for their annual retreat. Usually these party retreats are used to debate policies, discuss upcoming election strategies and for the members to get to know each other. This year, however, it seems that the purpose of this year's getaway is for the party leadership to try to reel in whack-job elements of the membership.

Already the attendees have heard from pollsters who actually had to explain to those listening that they should never, ever talk about rape. They have been given explanations about how it would actually be a bad strategic move to fail to increase the debt ceiling, with Budget Committee Chairman and former next Vice-President of the United States, Paul Ryan, trying to persuade his team to adopt at least a short-term extension.

The need to tame the beasts of the right-wing of the right-wing party is in part due to the political system that has evolved in the USA. First, because of the weak party system, leadership has very little control over who actually runs for office under their party's label. In parliamentary systems, for the most part, the party aparatus selects those who run on the party lists. Those who are found to be narrow-minded ideologues are generally not on the list in the next election, if even chosen in the first place, at least when it comes to major parties (Le Pen in France has never quite achieved major party status, thank goodness.) We generally don't read about zany stances by MPs in the British Parliament. But since n the USA anybody can run -- and it has become increasingly obvious that, on the Republican side at least, anyone can win in the U.S. electoral system -- unfased, right-wing vigor has become an increasing percentage of the make-up of party membership. And since they don't have to worry about party leadership in order to get a place on the ballot in the next election, they don't have to listen to party leadership when they are trying to talk sense into them.

But the crazy quotient doesn't just come from the weak link between members of Congress and their party. It also emerges from the science of gerrymandering. With congressional districts, using pinpoint data and powerful computer programs in their design, becoming safer and safer for one party or another, the fear of losing an election comes in the primary and not the general election. The incentives for a member of the House of Representatives that emerge from these ideologically pure districts is to not be outflanked by the extremes. In other words, they fear the local conspiracy theorist who might decide he or she should run for Congress more than they fear John Boehner. The worse problem for the Republican Party right now is that many of those righteous extremists not only ran for office, they were elected.