Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This Sums It Up Nicely

I've been thinking much the same thing lately, but rather than hash out my own take on what appear to be the Republicans' Last Days (ironic, ain't it?), I'll just pass this along, from the TPM blog and the commentator formerly known as NCSteve. (I tried to link to the blog entry but for some reason the page wouldn't allow it. Probably my technological incompetence at work.)

Is This the Beginning of the End for the Republican Party?
October 13, 2008, 7:50PM

Political parties are not immortal, even in this country.

The Federalists ceased to be a national party in 1800 and subsequently ceased being even a regional party with a national voice as a result of their opposition to the War of 1812. The lack of effective opposition after the Federalist Party's demise allowed simmering tensions within the Democratic Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison to come to a boil and it fissioned into the Jacksonian faction, which became today's Democratic Party, and everyone else. The remaining bits and pieces swirled around for a bit, forming minor parties and coalitions and within a fairly short time, these parties, along with the remnants of the Federalists,, coalesced into the Whigs.

The Whigs were hampered in developing a coherent ideology because doing so would have required them to confront the slavery issue head-on. Doing that, they knew, would have alienated voters in one region or the other. Instead, they stood for a vaguely defined nationalism that favored Congressional supremacy over the executive, programs of internal improvements, a protective tariff, and a slightly more "energetic" central government than that favored by the Democrats.

The Whigs were just credible enough of a threat to cause the Democrats to keep a lid on the tensions between those who were strongly in favor of slavery and those who were merely not against it. (In practice, in other words, the Whigs bore a surprising resemblance to the kind of barely credible threat that the Republicans dreamed of reducing the Democrats to the heady crazy days between the 2002 midterms and the Schiavo debacle.)

The Whigs' imperative need to avoid taking strong policy positions caused them to look to old war heroes for presidential candidates. Unfortunately, both of the heroes they managed to get elected quite promptly died in office. Between the lack of ideological vigor, the inability to get a strong personality elected President and the growing unavoidability of the slavery question, in the 1850s, the Whigs just unraveled. Their leaders either quit politics altogether or drifted into other new, fringier parties like the American a/k/a "Know Nothing" Party (think Lou Dobbs if he lived in antebellum America), the Anti-Masonic Party ("Against Secret Societies!"), and the the Free Soil Party (against the expansion of slavery into the west).

In 1848, the Whigs won their last presidential election. Their candidate, Gen. Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican American War, of course, promptly died. In 1852, the Whigs nominated Gen. Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812 and of the Mexican American War. Scott was resoundingly defeated by Franklin Pierce--not exactly a political superstar--and thereby managed to survive another ten years. By 1856, there wasn't anyone left in the Whig party of sufficient stature to merit a nomination. Their sad little convention that year nominated Millard Filmore, the head of the Know-Nothings, and went home, never to meet again.

Also in 1856, another little fringe party started and promptly began competing with the Free Soilers for former Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats. They called themselves Republicans. By 1860, the Democratic Party was also splitting in two, between the "not necessarily against slavery" and the "if you're not for it you're against it" factions, the Republicans swept up the remnants of the Whigs, the Free Soilers and--gingerly and with a certain amount of nose-holding--the Know-Nothings and won the election, their second.

If the Civil War had not followed, the split in the Democratic Party might well have become permanent and the party dissolved. As it happened, once slavery was abolished, northern and southern post-war Democrats found they could deal with one another once again. Since then, factions have hived off of the two major parties only to eventually rejoin the mother party or drift over to the opposition--the Bullmoose Party split off and rejoined the Republicans. The Dixiecrats split from the Demcorats, rejoined, split off again as the "American Party" of George Wallace, rejoined again and then their members answered the siren song of Richard Nixon's southern strategy. The LaRouchites -- okay, actually I've never known what the fuck those loons were all about or why, exactly, it was they nominally Democrats.

My point is that the persistence of the Democratic and Republican parties in the face of splits that previously would have been fatal has lent them an air of unquestioned permanence over the last century and a half. The Republicans may have fantasized about the end of the Democratic Party, but eventually they had to close up their skin mags, zip up and and let someone else use the stall. The Democrats survived and came roaring back from their low ebb following 9/11 just as the Republicans came back after Nixon's disgrace made many suspect they were washed up as a national party.

And despite that, I'm really wondering if we're seeing the last days of the Republican Party.

Most likely not. Almost certainly not. But consider the following. The main difference between a two party and multiparty system is that in a multiparty system, every ethnic group, every religion, every social and economic viewpoint, can have its own party with a rigid ideology and the coalition building occurs after the election. In a two party system, however, each party must be a coalition of competing interests, viewpoints and agendas in order to thrive. The Democrats have always been better at being a big tent and, in any case, ever since the segregationists abandoned the party, the agendas of the various groups within the party are rarely truly contradictory. There is tension, of course, between left and center, and,of course, there's our delightful penchant for turning primary contests into brutal cannibalistic rituals, but by and large we get along.

Republicans, however, have become a simmering kettle of mutually antagonistic interests. Libertarians vs. authoritarians. Anti-immigration activists vs. the people who employ the immigrants. Theocrats vs. the corporatists who want maximum freedom to cater to our most base desires. Isolationists vs. neocon militarists. And, of course, professionals and intellectuals (a few real, most psuedo) who want government by reason vs. the ignorant hateful rabble who want government from the gut.

The only thing that held them together was that they hated us and a common nearly patholocial fear that our policies would lead to social, economic and moral collapse. Now that their policies have led to social, economic and moral collapse, however, all those differences have boiled over and the stupid people appear to have won.

For decades, the Republicans have been more than happy to patronize to the bigots and haters, to the rabid anti-intellectuals, the xenophobes and the just generally stupid. Heretofore, they've used those people, but they never let them run the party. In recent years, however, they let the camel get its nose into the tent when they stopped just giving the theocrats their ear and, instead, gave them a seat at the table with the corporatists and the militarists. Meanwhile loud voices appeared in the media to feed the belligerent delusional ignoramus faction's insatiable appetite for stupidity--Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Coulter, Malkin, and on and on. And slowly but surely, as those people took control of the belligerent ignoramus faction, they found themselves in a position to give orders to Party rather than taking them. Increasingly, the agenda of the Republican Party was set not by the Bill Buckleys and George Wills and the Reagan alum. No, increasingly, the agenda was being written by the people who controlled the rabble: Limbaugh and O'Reilly and Hannity and the wingnut bloggers.

And now, the victory of the belligerant ignoramus faction is complete. They've found their champion in Sarah Palin, they develop and coordinate their ideology and worldview through unhinged emails and in the comments sections of the MSM's websites and, at last, the people who used to use these ignoramuses are recoiling in horror.

The list of defectors, people who can no longerstand to be associated with a party run by its pro-ignorance faction, grows by the day: George Will, David Brooks and Christopher Buckley. Lincoln Chaffee, Chuck Hagel and Susan Eisenhower. Wall Street has abandoned the Republicans, donating more to Democrats in the ratio of 2:1. As David Brooks noted recently, the Republicans have lost the professionals--doctors and lawyers, architects and accountants.

The belligerent delusional ignoramus faction still has the neocons on their side, of course. Bloody Bill Kristol and Rich Lowery are on board for the duration but that's hardly surprising. They're just better educated versions of the belligerent delusional ignoramuses who are calling the shots now, kindred spirits. That's not a plus for the Republicans.

If one thing should be clear to us, it is that a political party run by delusional ignoramuses cannot survive. If that premise is granted, I confess that I can see only two possible futures for the Republican Party as I write today. Either the professionals, the country clubbers, the elitists and the libertarians take advantage of the seismic defeat they're about to suffer as an excuse to stamp out the power of the belligerent delusional ignoramuses, or else the ignoramuses keep control and the Republican Party follows the the Whigs and the Federalists across the bridge to oblivion.

Maybe not. There's a lot more institutional infrastructure holding parties together these days; think tanks and donor networks, PACs and national congressional campaign committees. However, one other lesson of history is that when parties die, it can happen faster than anyone imagined--one election you're electing presidents and two election cycles later, the party doesn't even exist.

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