What You Can Get Away With When the System Gives You an Edge

The Republican governor of Arkansas was chosen to give the party’s response to President Biden’s State of the Union address. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times says she wasn’t speaking to most voters and she didn’t care:

… Sanders’s folksy affect notwithstanding, this was harsh and hard and was delivered with an edge. But then, there’s nothing wrong with giving a partisan and ideological State of the Union address; that is part of the point. The problem was that most of [her] complaints were unintelligible to anyone but the small minority of Americans who live inside the epistemological bubble of conservative media. Sanders’s response, in other words, was less a broad and accessible message than it was fan service for devotees of the Fox News cinematic universe…..

It was not the kind of speech you give if you’re trying to build a political majority. The best evidence for this is that her speech was a version of the message Republicans used in last year’s midterm elections. The result was a historic disappointment, if not a historic defeat, for an opposition party [in a midterm election]… The most unsuccessful candidates … were, in the main, the right-wing culture warriors who tried to make the midterms a referendum on their reactionary preoccupations.

I should say that this critique of Sanders’s response rests on the supposition that Republican politicians want to build a national political majority. And why wouldn’t they? Political parties are supposed to want to win the largest possible majority….“Unless there’s a countervailing force,”  the historian Timothy Shenk notes [that] “parties bend toward majorities like sunflowers to the light.

But what if there is a countervailing force? What if the structure of the political system makes it possible to win the power of a popular majority without ever actually assembling a popular majority? What if, using that power, you burrow your party and its ideology into the countermajoritarian institutions of that system so that, heads or tails, you always win?

In that scenario, a political party might drop the quest for a majority as a fool’s errand. There’s no need to build a broad coalition of voters if — because of the malapportionment of the national legislature, the gerrymandering of many state legislatures, the Electoral College and the strategic position of your voters in the nation’s geography — you don’t need one to win. And if your political party also has a tight hold on the highest court of constitutional interpretation, you don’t even need to win elections to clear the path for your preferred outcomes and ideology.

Sanders did not deliver a broad and accessible response to the State of the Union for the same reason that congressional Republicans refuse to moderate or even acknowledge the existence of the median voter; she doesn’t have to, and they don’t have to. The American political system is so slanted toward the overrepresentation of the Republican Party’s core supporters, rural and exurban conservatives, that even when their views and priorities are far from those of the typical voter, the party is still more competitive than not….