By Mike Koetting August 14, 2020
Perhaps I flatter myself—or flatter you—but I believe that most of the people who read this blog accept the basic notion that most difficult social and political issues don’t have easy or even clear answers. There is a tendency to view all broadly assertive statements with a question about the other side of the coin and etc. So it’s unusual for me to launch a post with a clean, aggressive prescription, in this case that the only way to address America’s political malaise is the electoral annihilation of the Republican Party as it now stands.
Now, there are so many things this assertion does not mean that they will have to be addressed separately in a later post. Until then, today’s post outlines the context for this assertion.
Two Party System
America has a relatively unique political structure—a strong president elected more or less directly by the people and two independent legislative houses with broad powers. Far and away the more common arrangement is a multi-party parliamentary system where the parties elect a prime minister.
While the idea of two parties is not inherent in the American Constitution, it has become so much a feature of the landscape (and state law) that it is hard to imagine a change. There have been third party initiatives at various times, and some of these have definitely changed elections and shaped subsequent events. But they were mostly one-time efforts. The last change in the broad structure of the American parties was in the 1850’s when the Whig Party could not reconcile its northern and southern branches and was replaced by the Republican Party with its relatively clear anti-slavery position.
The two party system has worked well enough in America. But, as numerous political commenters have noted, it worked because the political parties were relatively flexible and tended toward the middle. Years ago a political science professor explained it to me like this:
Imagine a stretch of beach with just two vendors. From a consumer standpoint, optimal location would be for each to be in the middle of his half. But in reality, each will “cheat” toward the middle, assuming that people on their far side would figure it was still closer to that vendor than walking past that vendor to other one.
The result was that differences between the parties, while still generally clear, were blurred enough at the edges that deals got made, legislation got passed and the country managed its way through World Wars, a Depression, a Cold War, expanded the social safety net, and started to enforce the meaning of citizenship for Black Americans. Not a bad half-century’s work.
We aren’t there any more. Any number of academics from all perspectives have shown that the US political landscape is more polarized that at any time since the period leading up to the Civil War, when slavery versus non-slavery was a dichotomous choice. While differences are greater or lesser around specific issues, the below table makes it clear how much the landscape has changed over the last 50 years.
What caused this change? I believe it is a combination of larger changes in the society and deliberate political choices.
The biggest change is in the idea of what compromises the rights of citizens. I don’t want to be simple-minded about this. In hardly any corner of American life are the issues of prejudice and discrimination solved; likewise, few places display the same open racial animosity that existed in 1960. Moreover, the issue of rights of citizens has become more complicated, expanding to a whole range of issues around gender, immigration, gender-orientation and others.
Still, in uneven and disputed ways, a material majority of the country has come to accept this wider-range of the definition of rights. Again, I am not suggesting there is a “liberal” unanimity of view. There isn’t. Nor does the country need it to function. But there has been a new center of what is “mainstream”. As there has been a new mainstream, there have been new definitions of what is “too far off mainstream” to be accorded the same status as differences within the general ambit. I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of the philosophical rights of minorities. Such discussions are important, but for a different day. The point here is that over time certain positions come to be sufficiently outside mainstream thought that society is simply done with them.
These boundaries change over time. For a long time it was acceptable within the political arena to argue that the country should continue to tolerate slavery. Now it’s not. Other differences might not be as a categorically stark, but they are just as important in explaining what is going on in our society. Without denying that some “political correctness” gets silly, much of what is derided by segments of the country is simply an attempt to outline the norms as they have evolved over time—norms that these groups are not prepared to accept.
The second significant change is the shrinking percentage of the non-Hispanic, white population. It has fallen by one third since 1940 and all signs suggest it will continue to decline.
Both of these changes leave a material portion of the country fearful and angry. Yes, there are legitimate policy issues around how the society incorporates these phenomena, including some thorny issues about individual freedom in democracy. But there is a group of people who are, in my view, irrationally angry at the fact that the rules of the game seem to be shifting in ways that affront them and that they cannot control. It is plausible that throughout modern history there has always been such a crowd. But how much do we want these people to influence our national discussion?
Which brings us to the issue of specific political choices.
The New Deal represented the ascendency of a vision of society in which the well-being of the majority was more important than the ability of individuals to purse their ends without limits. While this view enjoyed wide support, it was by no means universal. Those who were radically opposed to this view did not have much political leverage in a two party system where the other side had the majority.
In the Sixties, however, the landscape started to change. The Democratic party had existed for years—pretty much since the Civil War—as a coalition of economic progressives with staunch segregationists in the South. But for reasons both moral and political, the Democrats began to embrace rights for Blacks. The Republican party countered with the Southern Strategy which, among other things, brought the disaffected segregationists into the Republican Party. The latter group included a large part of the people I have described as irrationally angry and fearful.
There were other changes. Some moderate Republicans—hard as it is to remember now, Republicans were the party of civil rights until Richard Nixon pivoted South—gravitated to the Democratic party. Some union members, disconcerted by the changes described above, became Republicans. Other Democrats, fearful of further defections to the Republicans, became more cautious. The net effect was to make the Democratic Party more willing to acquiesce to Ronald Reagan’s specific attempt to begin rolling back the New Deal. And by their tepid responses, they became complicit in his attacks on the very nature of government.
Enter Newt Gingrich. He was not willing to settle for a war of attrition against the New Deal and, with the “Contract with America”, launched an all-out assault. But it wasn’t just the substance. McKay Coppins, who refers to Gingrich as the man who broke American politics, describes it thusly:
The way Gingrich saw it, Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along. His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself.
He undertook a thorough process of turning the Republican staff organization from a policy oriented staff to a staff oriented almost exclusively to getting the best spin for Republican slogans. He issued detailed instructions on the best language to use to create divides, down to suggestions on the use of alliterative nicknames to demean other party candidates. All issues became rhetorical and the historic practice of policy compromise that had supported a successful two party system deteriorated.
The extremity of the Contract with America—in its attraction to both the more fearful portion of the population and those relentlessly offended by the New Deal—sent the Republicans down a road that is flatly inconsistent with America’s two party system. It is not clear there is a way back.
This is the story to which I will return in my next post.