By Jack Russell
As Mainers gear up for primaries, I reflect on political parties in our time. Many think that two stable major parties have long orchestrated American politics. The Democratic and Republican Parties have dominated national political life for 164 years and 42 presidential elections. Only once since 1856 did the presidential candidate of any other party finish even second. (Teddy Roosevelt took 28 percent of the vote in 1912 as a Bull Moose Progressive.) Since the Civil War, other third party candidates have won Electoral College votes only four times.
Party banners endure, but parties are not ideologically fixed. The views, platforms and constituencies they represent evolve. The party of Lincoln, born in principled opposition to slavery expansion, is now dominated by racist, xenophobic Donald Trump.
Sometimes parties seem to change quickly, as when Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed the New Deal coalition in 1932 or the Newt Gingrich “revolution” of 1994 asserted right-wing Republican authority in Congress. And there are moments in American politics when both major parties, stressed by tensions, evolve rapidly in a dialectical battle for majority support.
We live in such a moment. In the spring of 2018, who can envision the players and dynamics in the 2020 general election, the allocation of political authority in Washington and the states in January 2021, and the allegiance the Democratic and Republican parties may inspire early in the third decade of the 21st century?
In such volatile times, only the foolish would try to assess the current tensions in each major party and the possible futures of American politics just 30 months from now. Nevertheless, onward!
In the remarkable conjuncture of 2018-20, both major parties will champion a vision of the American future. Those visions will be as opposed and dissonant as any in our past save for the fateful contest of 1860.
My space here requires that I only highlight the defining dynamic of each party. If this lack of nuance offends, I apologize.
What has the Republican Party become in the time of Trump? Early in his administration, many Republicans hinted that Trump was a passing fever whose presidential pen could be manipulated to party purposes. Eighteen months in, the Republican leadership in the House and Senate are spineless apostates silent in the daily storm of perfidious norm-breaking that Trump represents. Most members of the still standing Republican congressional rank and file are a cowering chorus whose only purpose is not to be primaried by his loyal hard base. Nearly 50 Republicans have retired or will retire.
If the report from Special Council Robert Mueller and the associated findings and actions from the Southern District of New York are devastating, perhaps Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will summon the courage to walk down the avenue with bad news, but do not expect this. The party they lead has become the full captive of the beast it has cultivated for half a century.
Future historians write firmly about race and the modern Republican Party and wonder why we did not say more. The dog-whistling began with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Richard Nixon “southern strategy” of 1968. Most southern whites were alienated by the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. Nixon saw the door open to a permanent Republican majority in the south and incremental capture of fractions of a restive white working class in the north and west. That was the electoral route to his “silent majority.”
The Republican Party has followed this path for 50 years, cultivating whites for whom race defines outlook. Watergate and the Jimmy Carter episode slowed their progress in the 1970s, but Ronald Reagan whistled along through the 1980s.
He opened his 1980 campaign with a “states rights” speech near Philadelphia, Miss., where three SNCC civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan 16 years before. During his eight years, Reagan hammered away at the social safety net with his comfortable mantra of “welfare queens” and freeloading “young bucks.”
The first George Bush won election with his Willie Horton campaign spot trashing Michael Dukakis for the crimes of a released black convict.
Bill Clinton complicated this Republican strategy and nibbled the edges of the solid red South, but the 1994 Contract with America that drove the Gingrich Revolution was code for safety net reductions and accommodations to whites whose views were dominated by race.
The second George Bush attempt to pose as a “compassionate conservative” decomposed within his first year as Karl Rove concluded that the path to his promised “permanent Republican majority” required more race-based cultivation.
The extraordinary election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to some a repudiation of four decades of Republican race-based pandering on its right flank, but the Tea Party turn of 2010 brought a new high tide that formed the obstinate Freedom Caucus in the House, a wave of gerrymandering Republican governors and state legislatures, and the base that Trump dog-whistled to his establishment-trashing election in 2016.
To be sure, an important element of the Trump vote was a “had enough” protest from white working class folks who took a chance on Trump’s populism because they felt ignored by Democrats. We’ll learn the scale and possibilities of that element this year and in 2020.
My dash through 50 years of Republican history highlights my main point: The party of Lincoln increasingly cultivated a right base they mustered with racial appeals but controlled as a fraction of their electorate. In 2015-16, Trump turned this base against its establishment puppeteers to win nomination and election. His relentless cultivation of this base as president has rebranded republicanism in his image.
Relevant Democratic Party history begins with the final fracture of the New Deal coalition during Reagan and the consequent rise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the 1980s. Their vision was to turn the party toward the center with welfare and criminal justice reform, fiscal discipline, and neoliberal acceptance of globalization. Clinton made it work as politics. His administrations delivered major job and some income growth and eventually budget surpluses.
But the post 2001 Democratic Party has struggled to compose its New Deal-Great Society heritage with the DLC “third way” accommodation of business leadership, especially from the financial sector. George W. Bush was brought low by soured wars, Katrina and the Great Recession, not because the Democratic Party offered a compelling vision of an America with better futures for the working majority.
The poetry and probity of Obama inspired great hope and some change. His stimulus drove steady recovery from the Great Recession, and the Affordable Care Act brought health insurance to 20 million. But adamant Republican opposition to Obama despite his illusioned quest for comity blunted appreciation of these gains by many white workers. Race drove the 2010 Tea Party explosion, but so, too, did anger at Washington’s bailout of Wall Street bankers that left millions of regular folks with mortgages underwater and bipartisan support for trade pacts and policies that ignored worker needs.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s team frothed up waves of policy papers and allowed a party platform improved by Bernie Sanders, but they campaigned on anti-Trump and rainbow rhetoric. They ignored eroding support in the industrial Midwest and rural weight in swing states. The shock of November 2016 has given us a Republican Party controlled by its revanchist leader and a Democratic Party without a leader, yet. What could their contest produce this November and in the battle to and through the next presidential election?
Jack Russell lives at the north end of Echo Lake.