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We’re all to blame for the chaos in Congress

Grandstanding ideologues couldn’t wreak as much havoc if our political parties had more of the power that various reforms have taken away.

Republicans Matt Gaetz, right, and Andy Biggs, left, huddled with fellow opponents of Kevin McCarthy's speakership on Jan. 4.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

On the first day of the House of Representatives’ four-day saga to elect a speaker, Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw had already lost his patience. He blasted Republicans who voted against Kevin McCarthy’s speakership as “narcissists” and raged at their unwillingness to compromise for the good of the Republican Party and the country.

Crenshaw surely spoke for millions in his exasperation. Here was a textbook example of the sort of political dysfunction to which Americans have grown accustomed and resigned. Where were the leaders? Where were the team players? Why the unceasing Washington circus?

Crenshaw was right about the anti-McCarthy forces’ self-absorption. But their selfishness is a symptom of our political dysfunction, not its cause.

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Today’s political parties suffer from what Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution calls chaos syndrome. They are unable to organize themselves for collective action. Today’s parties have no tools at their disposal to encourage or discipline members to work as a team.

How did this happen? It’s because we, the people, have taken those tools away.

If party leaders of yore confronted a situation like House Republicans faced last week, they could have enticed the nihilists with attractive carrots like funds for their districts, disciplined them with powerful sticks like a threat to withhold funding from their next campaign or to nominate a different candidate altogether, and negotiated with them in private. Party members, meanwhile, would have had strong incentives to be team players, not least because party leaders wouldn’t have selected them to run for office in the first place if they weren’t.

Today, however, party leaders play little role in candidate selection. In the United States, unlike in any other democracy in the world, that role has belonged since the 1970s to people who vote in primary elections — a small, unrepresentative group that is more partisan, more ideological, and more hostile to the opposing party than the public at large.

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Similarly, whereas parties once played a major role in funding candidates, online fundraising now means candidates can raise huge sums on their own. But few Americans donate money to political campaigns. The tiny fraction who do are passionate partisans.

In addition, so-called “sunshine laws” and social media have made it difficult for legislators to negotiate in private, which allows “the people” to monitor negotiations. But most people don’t follow politics on a minute-by-minute basis. Interest groups and activists do. At the first sign of a compromise they don’t like, these groups can threaten legislators with fundraising campaigns to support a challenger in the next primary. Legislators take those threats seriously and act accordingly. It is not because they are cowards. It is because they have no choice: Either take uncompromising positions or get replaced in your next primary by someone who will.

The problem is not new, and it is not disappearing. Former Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor has written regretfully about how a handful of Congressional Republicans forced a 2013 government shutdown, against the wishes of most Republicans and most Americans. We may experience it again soon: A small group of Republicans has threatened to prevent the US government from raising its debt ceiling this spring, which would crash the global economy.

The problem is also not limited to the Republican Party. Democrats are less susceptible to it because their party is more ideologically, racially, and culturally diverse, and because the rural bias of the Senate and the Electoral College forces them to moderate some positions if they are to win in purple and red states and control Congress and the White House. Still, it would have been easy in principle for some Democrats to join Republicans in electing a speaker. Doing so would have encouraged future bipartisan cooperation, which is hugely popular with the public. But any Democrat who dared this tactic would have risked an online fundraising campaign from a 2024 primary opponent promising never to sell out to Republicans again — a resonant message among intensely partisan primary voters. Any Republican who played along would have been subject to the same.

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If party leaders of yesteryear were better than today’s leaders at brokering the compromises needed for effective governance, and if their members were more open to those compromises than today’s politicians, it is not because they were unusually good leaders or uniquely civic-minded. They were human, just like us. But they were operating within political institutions that got incentive structures right: Parties had the tools to encourage cooperation, and legislators had the incentive to respond.

Today, too many of our political incentive structures are wrong. Politicians gain attention, win low-turnout primary elections, and raise money by being incendiary, not by being team players. Well-intentioned reforms — such as sunshine laws, constraints on party fundraising, and primary elections — have rendered the parties helpless to stop them.

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Social media is part of the problem, and it is not going away. But we are not powerless to make our politics work better.

Last year, for instance, Congress reinstated earmarks, which are measures in bills that designate funds for specific projects in a single district. The prospect of such funds gives party leaders more leverage to encourage tough votes from members. It is an unseemly tool. It is also an indispensable one, employed in politics since time immemorial, and Congress has now added important guardrails to minimize the risk of abuse.

Another improvement would come if we gave the parties more power in candidate selection — a power that political parties have in other countries. For example, Rauch and University of Massachusetts professor Ray La Raja have suggested that candidates be required to obtain petition signatures from elected members of their party, just as they must obtain signatures from voters. Party leaders have a stronger incentive than primary voters to choose candidates who will be team players rather than showboats.

And we should keep pushing for reforms that ensure that Congressional districts are drawn to be competitive, as Michigan recently did. When districts are not dominated by one party, primary elections aren’t a race to the ideological fringes.

It is easy to view the spectacle of last week’s election for House Speaker with resignation and disgust. But the dispiriting dysfunction that was on display is not driven by craven politicians over whom we, the public, have lost control. It is driven by the tools and incentive structures of American politics, which we ourselves have the power to change.

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Todd Washburn, a former assistant provost for international affairs at Harvard, teaches “The Polarization of American Politics” at the Harvard Extension School.