By Asha Rangappa
Last Wednesday, the House voted to censure Representative Paul Gosar for tweeting an animated video depicting him killing his fellow member of Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although the punishment vindicated the values of basic decency and decorum we should expect from our public officials, the vote fell almost strictly along party lines, with only two Republicans, Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, joining Democrats to vote in favor of the sanction. Taken in isolation, it might seem astonishing that more Republicans would not want to condemn behavior that, if repeated or acted upon by others, could encourage violence against them. But the truth is that Gosar is a necessary vehicle in the larger Republican strategy to hold on to power, and seeing this bigger picture is crucial to understanding why the party is willing to tolerate such destructive behavior within its ranks.
In their book, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson examine what they call the “conservative dilemma”: How a party can continue to have wide electoral appeal, while pursuing policies that benefit only a small minority of voters. Specifically, when conservative parties, who are traditionally aligned with economic elites, pursue increasingly plutocratic economic policies -- like, say, a $1.7 trillion tax cut in which over 80% of the benefits will ultimately accrue to the top 1% of Americans -- they have a political problem, because it gets harder to sell those policies to large swaths of their voters. At this fork in the road, conservative parties have two options. One is to soften their economic policies so that they benefit a broader segment of the population, thereby attracting more voters to their tent. In fact, having to compete for voters based on policy, the authors argue, is what has tempered the conservative agenda in many other countries. Unfortunately, when parties respond to the conservative dilemma by doubling down on their narrow economic interests, politics takes a dark turn. This is because the party has to resort to other means to ensure electoral victory, which the authors call the “three Rs”: Resentment, Rigging, and Racialization.