Opinion The 3 Fantasies That Keep Congress Dysfunctional

We’ve seen this fantasy play out repeatedly this year in the House, where a small band of right-wing zealots forced Republican leader Kevin McCarthy through 15 rounds of voting, to give them a virtual veto over legislation before they would give him the votes to become speaker. Nine months later he was out, ousted by the same crew for the unforgiveable sin of striking a compromise with Democrats to avoid an economically disastrous debt default and a politically disastrous government shutdown. The melodrama that followed shut down the House for three weeks and led to the selection of one of their own, Mike Johnson, as speaker — a victory that, in their view, validates their strategy and is the next step in a divine plan to return Donald Trump to the White House and elect a MAGA-controlled Congress in 2024.

These zealots assume that the public has been so brainwashed by the political, media and academic establishment that they’ve long since given up trying to convince colleagues or voters of the rightness of their cause. To them, it is self-evident that Obamacare should be repealed and spending for food stamps and education cut in half, that climate change is a hoax and billionaires are overtaxed, that no one should be able to get an abortion under any circumstances but anyone should be able to buy a bunch of AK-47s. Unwilling to engage in persuasion, they rely instead on coercion, seizing every opportunity to take their caucus, their leaders or the country hostage until they get their way.

Recently I asked Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, one of the most determined of the right-wingers, what he imagined would happen once his crowd gained power and was able to impose their policies on that broad swath of the country that opposes them. He predicted that most voters would respond with a mixture of grudging respect and acquiescence — a most Trumpian view of leadership. And if governing required some compromise with opponents, Roy told me that would be okay because it would be done from a position of strength rather than weakness, much as a victor negotiates terms of the enemy’s surrender.

What Roy, Trump and their ilk cannot see is that conquering the Republican Party is not the same as conquering America. A meaningful majority of Americans find their policies to be extreme, their methods odious, their leaders foolish and their vision for America untethered to reality. Their bully-boy tactics are unlikely to succeed with an evenly divided Senate, a Democratic president or even a conservative Supreme Court struggling to maintain its own legitimacy. And were they to try to seize power (again) through nefarious means, the country’s elite — judges, civil servants, state officials, military and business leaders — would do whatever it takes to stop them, just as they did on Jan. 6.

The Progressive Fantasy

Political fantasy, however, is not limited to the Republican Party. The one thing that unites the Democratic cloakroom these days — aside from their righteous outrage at the behavior of Republicans — is the unshakeable conviction that Americans agree with them on just about everything. Democrats imagine that if they can just maintain party unity and stick to poll-tested talking points, they will run the table in the next election, win control of both the White House and Congress and finally enact the progressive agenda that Americans have wanted all along. In this new New Deal fantasy, the Trump wing of the Republican Party will finally be crushed and Democrats will become the dominant governing party for a generation.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who heads the party’s Progressive Caucus, calculates that two thirds of Americans agree with Democrats on everything from abortion, gay rights and immigration to health care, universal pre-K and paid parental leave. The only reason the Democratic agenda has not been enacted, she explained to me recently, is because of the anti-majoritarian structure of Congress, with a gerrymandered House and a filibuster-constrained Senate, where 40 members representing only 11 percent of the population can frustrate the popular will.

“With even a slim majority in Congress,” Jayapal told me confidently, “we could push through what a super-majority of Democrats want—and what a majority of the American public wants.”

In reality, America is not the progressive paradise Democrats tell themselves — and us — that it is. While a majority of Americans favor modest increases in legal immigration and a pathway to legalization for those here illegally, they don’t favor a ban on deportations or providing food, shelter, medical care and public school education for those who cross illegally. Most Americans’ response to the wave of car-jackings, store lootings and drive-by shootings isn’t to demand the end of cash bail and an all-out assault on “structural racism.” While concerned about global warming, they’re not on board with shutting down oil and gas production, paying higher prices for gas and electricity or giving up airplane travel. Even before the recent Supreme Court decision, a majority would have banned most abortions after the first trimester. And while most people have come to embrace gay rights and gay marriage, they are deeply offended at being labeled homophobic bigots because they don’t think transgender females should compete on the girls’ swim team or share locker rooms with their teenage daughters.

What’s particularly curious about the Democrats’ “the-country-agrees-with-us” fantasy is that it gets stronger the farther they drift from the political center. Recently, Jayapal was heard to declare that “the American people are quite far away from where the president and even a majority of Congress are” in terms of support of Israel in the war in Gaza. In fact, depending on what poll you look at, Americans are more than twice as likely to sympathize with Israelis over Palestinians in the current conflict. When you live in a progressive bubble, however, the vox populi can appear to speak with amazing clarity.

With Republicans rushing headlong into their own La-la land of defunding the FBI and the IRS and drilling for oil in national parks, it’s hardly surprising that Democrats have come to believe that the public is on their side. But as they should have learned in 1994, 2010 and again in 2022, this overconfidence invariably leads them to overplay their hand and try to push through an aggressively progressive agenda, costing them control of Congress. Two recent books — Where Have All the Democrats Gone? by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis and David Leonhardt’s Ours Was the Shining Future — chronicle how the Democrats’ progressive drift has alienated its working-class base.

The consequence of both of these partisan fantasies has been two decades of legislative gridlock and dysfunction. Democrats who fantasize that Americans are on their side are no more inclined to compromise with the right-wingers who now control the Republican caucus as those Republicans who fantasize that having God on their side will allow them to impose their radical policies on a country that doesn’t want them.

Both fantasies blind them to the reality that, in our deeply divided democracy, compromise is not only a good thing but inevitable. Unable to prevail and unwilling to compromise, both parties have decided that they would rather kick the can down the road and tell themselves that if they just hang tough and stick together, total victory is just over the horizon.

The Moderate Fantasy

The only members of Congress who haven’t been swept up in these partisan reveries are the dwindling band of moderates in both parties. What keeps them going is a different fantasy, one in which they join forces to buck their leaders and force onto the agenda the kind of bipartisan compromises that Americans want and need.

These moderates love to tell anyone who will listen about all the exciting bills they are working on with members of the other party. For New Hampshire’s Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, for example, who chairs a caucus of 100 centrist Democrats, it might be legislation creating a new energy conservation tax credit or substance abuse programs for prisoners or help for ski resorts struggling with the effects of climate change. For Rep. Dave Joyce of Ohio, who heads the 50-member Republican Governance Group, it’s bills addressing the fentanyl epidemic, PTSD among first responders or suicides among active military. But when you ask why they haven’t even managed to get a committee hearing for any of these common-sense, common-ground proposals, they can only shrug and offer some lame excuse about the tight congressional schedule. And when it comes to those high-profile brawls over the budget, the debt ceiling, the House speakership or the holdup of military appointments in the Senate, their efforts have been half-hearted and ineffective.

The political math behind the centrist fantasy is sound. With slim majorities in both the House and Senate, the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus or other bipartisan gangs have more than enough votes to block consideration of the highly partisan bills that typically emerge from committees unless their demands are met. That’s the kind of parliamentary hardball that comes straight out of the Freedom Caucus playbook. But unlike the right-wing zealots, the moderates invariably wimp out. Too often they cave to pressure from party leaders who see such bipartisan freelancing as a threat to their own power and the party unity on which it is based. They fear being criticized or socially ostracized by members of their own caucus. And, with reason, they live in constant fear that their family and staff will be cyberbullied by the party’s base voters.

But perhaps the biggest reason moderates wimp out is that cooperating with the other party isn’t rewarded, at least not politically. For starters, it increases the chance of drawing a challenger in the next party primary. And no matter how closely moderates work with members of the other party, because they invariably hail from purple states and swing districts, they are almost certain to be targeted for defeat in the next election by the other party’s campaign committee. If you doubt it, just ask Peter Meijer, the freshman Republican from Michigan whose reward for having the courage to vote to impeach President Trump was to have Democrats donate $2.4 million to his victorious far-right primary opponent in the 2022 Republican primary. (The Democrats’ cynical bet paid off; they won the seat in the general election.)

In the end, the centrist dream of forming a bipartisan governing majority is no more grounded in reality than the Republican fantasy of seizing power through force of will or the Democrats’ conceit that the country is behind them. Unfortunately, as long as leaders and members cling to these delusions, a dysfunctional Congress will continue to spin its wheels, sinking deeper into the rut of mindless partisanship and irrelevancy.