Sunday, March 3, 2013
Les Republicans–I Dreamed A Dream (That Nothing was Wrong with Our Party)
The challenge for the GOP is evolve or die. While many Republicans may embrace Social Darwinism, they fail to realize the reality of Political Darwinism–parties must too evolve and change or face extinction. While today we have become accustomed to the American two party system composed of Republicans and Democrats that was not always the case. Over time the Whigs and have come and gone along with the Know Nothings and other major or minor parties that have graced the political landscape, only to vanquish because they failed to roll with the times. The challenge that the GOP may be facing is that there may have been a critical realignment of the American political system but no one has told them about it. What is a critical realignment?
Over time membership, labels, and even the existence of who the major parties are has changed over time. Political scientists such as Walter Dean Burnham describe critical realignments, or realigning elections, as until recently, have occurred about every 30-40 years in American politics. Realignments were triggered by changing economic conditions or crisis that slowing build up to a very intense election that redefines the major political agenda and parties in American politics for the next couple of generations. Among the characteristics of such elections were short lived but very intense disruptions of traditional patterns of voting behavior. Major parties become minor; politics which was once competitive becomes non-competitive, or vice versa. Formerly one party areas become arenas of intense partisan competition; large blocks of voters shift their partisan allegiance.
Second, critical elections are characterized by abnormally high intensity. This intensity includes ideological polarization within and among parties and an abnormal rise in voter participation. This intensity spills over into party nominations and platforms where "rules of the game" are changed and/or the party becomes polarized. Party coalitions shift or existing parties decompose and new or third parties emerge to reflect changes in coalitions and voting.
Finally, critical elections produce new majority parties and policy programs and agendas that dominate the institutional structure of American government. These parties will continue to dominate for a couple of generations until the next realignment occurs.
Burnham has identified several critical elections over time with the first in 1800. Here the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican and the Adams Federalist parties emerge. The Democratic Republicans win the presidency and take over the two houses of Congress. This party is composed of mainly farmers, former Anti-Federalists, and those from the southern and middle southern states.
The second critical election is in 1828. The Jacksonian Democrats emerge as the major party. The Democrats now are composed of southerners and westerns representing rising middle class merchants and investors. The third is in 1860 when the Republican Party of Lincoln emerges. The Republicans represent the northern anti-slavery states and those committed to the supremacy of national power over states’ rights. The fourth critical election is in 1896 when Democrats no longer simply represent the southern slave states but they include the prairie states and farmers. The Republicans take on the Progressive banner of reform. Finally there is the critical election of 1936. The FDR landslide creates a pro-government and emerging civil rights oriented Democratic Party consisting of unions, workers, Blacks, Catholics, and Jewish voters. The Republicans are pro-business and anti-government.
Since 1936 political scientists have been waiting for their realigning Godot. Some claim it occurred in the 1960s when Barry Goldwater drove the Republicans to the right and Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights legislation that lost the south for the Democrats. Or maybe it occurred with the election of Reagan and the emergence of Reagan blue collar Democrats. One could even make the case that Obama’s 2008 election was a critical realignment that moved the Democrats in one direction and forced the Republicans further to the right as the party of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. The point is that right now the GOP is living in the Reagan past and they need to evolve and realign much like the Democrats did in the 1980s.
Realigning and reinvention is not easy. But the GOP is on the road to oblivion otherwise. Republicans have all but disappeared from the Northeast. Look to votes on issues such as the debt limits, medical marijuana, and others, the core Republican votes are in the South with even mid-west and western states bolting to vote with moderate Democrats. The Republicans are not just in danger of being the party of the two percenters, but also of just the South. They are the party of cranky, greedy old rich folks who seem not to care about anyone else. They are the party of Marie Antoinette and "Let them eat cake." To think that this is a game winning strategy for the future is more than a dream, it is a fantasy.
Addendum: One reader sent me this comment. I think it is worth posting.
Great column. History demonstrates that 1800, 1828 and 1860 were clearly
realignment elections. Arguably, there was no further realignment until
1932-36, when the Democrats replaced the Republicans as the majority party.
That majority began to unravel with the defection of the southern Democrats
on account of civil rights. In 1968 and later, the Republicans became the
national majority, but lost the Congress for a period on account of
Watergate. The Republican majority was built on a coalition of the racist
white South and the old business Republican party; but this coalition was
inherently unstable. Minnesota is probably at the forefront of the ongoing
realignment due to moderate business Republicans rejecting reactionary
right-wing positions and moving toward the Democratic Party. In Minnesota,
we have the Independent Party as a way-station for many of these people.
Its inability to elect legislators and a Governor likely limits its future,
and at the same time will increase the Democratic hold on the state. This
same realignment is occurring across the northern, far-west and into other
areas with a dominant urban population. The best evidence of this is to
compare the electoral map of 1896 and 2008, which are remarkably similar,
but the parties are reversed. If the election of 1800 was a triumph of the
agricultural vote, the election of 1936 was the triumph of the urban vote.
Since we have become an urban nation (with a significant majority living in
urban areas and living urban lifestyles) the question for the future is from
where will there come a second urban party.