Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




May 7, 2009

In the wake of the defection of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter from the Republican Party to the Democrats, along with what most people are predicting is the ultimate seating of Al Franken as the U.S. Senator from Minnesota, combined with the combination of the high polling numbers of President Barack Obama and the low national polling numbers of Republicans, national Democrats are feeling exceptionally giddy these days.

“Arlen Specter’s break from Republicans is the latest in a trip-hammer series of reversals that leaves the GOP more beaten and less popular than either major party has been in decades,” reporter John F. Harris and editor Jim Vandehei wrote in an April 29 piece (“GOP Is Specter Of Its Old Self”). “Amid gloating among Democrats and recriminations among Republicans, the Specter divorce is both symptom and cause of the GOP collapse—leaving the opposition party on the brink of irrelevance in Barack Obama’s Washington and facing few obvious paths back to power.”

It takes 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster, the minority Republicans’ most powerful tool in blocking the Obama and Democratic legislative agendas. With Mr. Specter and Mr. Franken on board, Senate Democrats would reach that magic number.

But some commentators are looking at an even more far-reaching effect, the end of the two-party system as we’ve known it since the rise of political parties in America.

DeWayne Wickham of Gannett News Service writes in a May 4 piece that the Republican Party “is now on the verge of disintegration” (“Specter’s Defection Shows Republicans Entering Death Spiral”). That phrase was echoed by the great Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who wrote in an April 28 blog entry that “we have a [Republican P]arty that seems to be in a death spiral: the smaller it gets, the more it’s dominated by the hard right, which makes it even smaller” (“The Specter Of Republican Marginalization”). And “History Geek Examiner” Jeff Reed, blogging in the San Francisco Examiner, writes that “if the GOP doesn't find its voice—and quickly—the party of Eisenhower and Reagan must not be surprised to find itself in the same position once filled by the party of [John] Adams and [Alexander] Hamilton: Abandoned and forgotten, a political corpse fertilizing yet another single-party Era of Good Feelings.” (“Arlen Specter And The Death Of The Republican Party”)

A word of caution: have we not passed this way before?

Twice, in recent memory, we have seen predictions of the withering away of these same national Republicans.

The first came following the presidential election of 1964, when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater moved the Republican Party farther to the right than its members wanted to go, and subsequently had his clock cleaned by Lyndon Johnson in a 486 to 52 electoral college landslide. The national Republican Party was dead, we were told.

The resurrection didn’t take long. Four years later, Richard Nixon put into place his Southern Strategy, in which he appealed to longtime white Southern Democrats who were disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s adoption of civil rights goals. That, combined with the Democratic divide over the war in Vietnam, led Mr. Nixon to victory in 1968, followed by a 1972 landslide even greater than Mr. Johnson’s, 520 to 17 over Democratic North Dakota Senator George McGovern.

Following Mr. Nixon’s impeachment over the Watergate crimes and scandal and his subsequent resignation in 1974, the national Republican Party was supposed to be dead again. It was almost immediately revived again, this time by Republican California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had led a conservative movement to shift the politics of the country to the right following the Goldwater defeat, and who himself defeated Democratic President Jimmy Carter in yet another electoral college landslide, 489 to 49, in 1980.

Two Republican presidential landslides within a few short years after two previous predictions of permanent demise. That, in itself, should give the current predictors some pause.

But further, even if the current crop of Republicans defies that particular history and manages to go itself belly-up, other examples of American political history show that this would not necessarily lead to some sort of semi-permanent Democratic dominance.

Twice in American history, we’ve witnessed the actual and complete demise of dominant national political parties—that is, political parties whose members have won at least one presidential election.

The Federalist Party, which twice elected John Adams as president, began its demise as a national party around 1816, its place in American politics taken by an organization called the National Republican Party, whose members eventually—around the early 1830’s—formed the Whigs. Thomas Jefferson’s Democrat-Republican Party (yes, it’s somewhat confusing) won presidential elections through 1820, following which the D-R party split apart, one of the factions becoming the modern Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, the Whigs won the presidency under William Henry Harrison (1840) and Zachary Taylor (1848) before eventually breaking apart over the slavery issue, some of its factions forming the Republican Party, and electing Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860.

The American political history lesson here, therefore, is that even when a major national party (the Federalists and the Whigs or even Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans) has actually died, its place in American political prominence has been taken over immediately by a newly-emerging major national, made up of factions of the demised party.

That history would suggest that even if the modern Republican Party died off as a national power, as some are predicting, the conservative political banner which the Republicans have been holding would most likely be taken up by some other party, newly-formed.

This scenario is made more likely by the fact that the current Republican travails are more the result of the party’s own bunglings and internal contradictions than by any clever strokes by national Democrats, and that the current coalition that has made the Democrats currently dominant is likely to grow so big and unwieldy that the Democratic Party will be unable to hold it together for very long.

The bunglings (if that’s not too mild a word for it), of course, consist of the woeful record of the eight year presidential administration of George W. Bush, which are so fresh-in-mind that they need not be recounted here and, in any event, are far too numerous to set out in a single column. The internal contradictions are the split between moderate fiscal conservatives and social conservatives within the Republican Party, with the social conservatives—the party’s spiritual and activist wing—now driving the moderate fiscal conservatives out.

Democratic optimists and cheerleaders see a rosy scenario in which moderate fiscal conservatives join Arlen Specter in moving over to the Democratic Party—in the same way that old-line Democrats like South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond led a massive Southern turnover to the Republicans in the 1960’s—while the social conservatives put a stranglehold on the national Republican Party, condemning it to more-or-less permanent minority status.

But the success of that scenario—success for Democrats, that is—is based on the assumption that social conservatism will remain a minority political philosophy in America for the foreseeable future. There is hope by some that the spirit of tolerance and acceptance of difference that represents the best within the hip hop generation will create a new and permanent spirit of national inclusiveness. But we have seen such hope before, in the generation that marched South in 1861 to rid the country of slavery, and in their spiritual and physical descendants who rode and bussed in the same direction a hundred years later to rid the country of racism, both to be eventually dashed in what came to be called the “backlash.” And given the strain of violent racial and sexual intolerance that lies—at best—always just below the surface of American life, one should be careful in predicting the end of fear and hate as a dominant and dominating engine in American politics.

Democrats are pleased that moderate conservatives like Arlen Specter are being driven out of the Republican Party by the party’s hard-liners, even taking to counting Senator Olympia Snow of Maine as the next possible-probable convert. They are also looking to pick up more Democratic Senators and Representatives—as was done in the 2008 elections—by running moderate Democrats against vulnerable Republican moderates in so-called “swing” states and districts.

The result of these Democratic raiding efforts, if successful, would certainly be a larger Democratic Party, but not necessarily one that would be able to pass what we would call a Democratic—much less progressive—agenda. And that would be a Democratic Party so large and ungainly, pushed and pulled both from the right and the left, that it would satisfy neither moderates nor progressives, a repeat of the bloated, directionless party of the 70’s and 80’s that was so vulnerable to the lean and hungry Republicans.

There are many political scenarios that could spin out of the current national political situation. One could be a merging in the center, moderate Republicans and Democrats forming a coalition that eventually develops into a centrist party, leaving progressives and social conservatives holding the remains of the old Democratic and Republican parties respectively, and turning the country into a three-party state. Or the death of the current Republican Party—if there is such a death—could result, merely, in the rise of a new Conservative Party, leaner, more disciplined, and better able to compete and regain political control. Or some unforeseen event could drive the country back to the right, reversing the recent Democratic Party gains. Any of those are just as possible—perhaps more possible—as the current predictions of the Democratic Party building a multi-generational dominance similar to that fashioned in the depths of the Depression by Franklin Roosevelt.

Picking away at the center is an adequate holding strategy to help prevent the immediate return of Bush-style government. But if progressives want a more permanent solution, the strategy remains the same as always—they must move the country to the left by constant teaching and confrontation and patient conversion. Progressives must develop their own governance strategy, undependent on the charisma—however compelling—of a Barack Obama. Progressives, in fact, should already begin thinking beyond Obama and planning and preparing for what will come next.

Believing that our social conservative friends will hand over permanent reins to the country by fumble and default, or that there will always be some great leader available to pull the country out of the fires, does not even merit the status of false hope. It is no hope at all.

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