GELFAND ON POLITICS-Pundits love to talk about the old days when the major political parties each had liberal and conservative wings, and out of that, some semblance of rational governance could take place. Budgets and transportation bills were crafted with enough support from each party that the good old USA could muddle along even in its worst days, and do something great in its best days. The Republican Party of course makes that impossible nowadays, since it is run by crazies who are intent on hamstringing everything that is federal.
Some writers prognosticate the self-annihilation of the Republican Party, assuming that the 40 year downward spiral the GOP has engaged in will ultimately push away enough voters to make it a permanent minority party. It's a pretty thought, but when you look at the House of Representatives, it's a little hard to believe.
I'd like to share a strategy for returning our country to some ability to govern itself, to pass budgets on a rational basis -- well, semi-rational -- and to appoint judges. Perhaps it's based on our experiences of 1968 and 1972, but I hope it will look to be a defensible idea.
My view, and not an original one by any means, is that the American people have a window of comfort when it comes to political philosophy, and they are intolerant of candidates and parties who go outside of that window. The late 1960s and early 1970s were an era in which large numbers of Americans resented being dragged into a ruinous Asian ground war which took the lives of upwards of sixty thousand young Americans. A lot of us found ourselves supporting the remnants of a Democratic Party that had led us into the war, but now wished to repudiate the idea. Out of that came the failed candidacy of Hubert Humphrey and the landslide loss of George McGovern.
I suspect that if you were to ask an average voter about specific policies championed by either of these presidential candidates, you would have found a substantial level of agreement about much of what they stood for. But the Democratic Party as a grassroots organization had painted itself into a corner which was perceived to be unpatriotic by many. The opposition took to slogans like "support our troops" and the ugly epithet, "America -- love it or leave it."
These slogans had little underlying intellectual content, but the idea of losing a war and thereby ratifying the unspoken, horrifying understanding that the loss of life had been in vain were thoughts that were too upsetting to a large number of voters to be accepted into conscious thought.
The Democrats had one other problem with a significant collection of voters. It began with court rulings that forbade public schools from imposing religious expression upon their students, and continued with resentment over the civil rights adjustments of the 1960s. In short, the Democrats were painted as being anti-religion, pro-desegregation (there's a term for the younger generation to look up!), and somehow anti-military, which resonated among some voters as anti-American. You could hear it in the words they tossed about, including communist. I used to point out that people who used that word wouldn't have recognized a real communist if they tripped over one, but it was a handy catch-all term for anybody whose views they disagreed with.
One reason the Democrats were hit so hard with this triple whammy was that the changes came rapidly in the middle and late 1960s. Change is hard, and violent, dramatic change is hardest.
The Republicans of recent years had one advantage, because they moved rightward slowly but steadily. I hate that metaphor about boiling a frog (look it up if you don't know it), but it applies in this one case. The Republicans changed from year to year, but not so much in any one year as to provoke the kind of nationwide response that we saw in the presidential election of 1972.
The past few years under the presidency of Barack Obama have been different. The Republican strategy of fighting every single thing, on almost every single day, has resulted in governmental stasis that cannot be endured much longer. The Republicans have been doing their best to redo the Democratic Party errors of the 1970s, except going in the opposite direction. Their government shutdown and opposition to rational economic policies have done great damage to the country, and people in the moderate center have come to realize these facts.
So what to do about the problem? One possibility is that changing demographics will render the Republican Party a semi-permanent minority party. This, if it is to occur, will take quite a few years. There is another possibility, if the Democrats can facilitate it.
The strategy is to allow the center right to break off from the Republican Party and to become in effect the conservative wing of a broadly based Democratic coalition. The Democrats would become, in effect, the equivalent of the conservative and liberal wings of the old Democratic Party. The Republican Party would be left to fester as a smaller remnant of what it has already become, a reactionary core of hard-rightists who will continue to hate and to obstruct, but less and less effectively.
How this could happen is a difficult question, because the positions taken by the opposing parties have not been so polarized since the days of the 1860s. But the Republican Party positioning on social issues and race are becoming anathema to more and more of the population, in particular the young and the female. Two generations have grown up since the days when it was considered acceptable to be openly racist, and the same can be said for the time that has elapsed since the advent of America's sexual revolution. The Republican fantasy of a 1950s paradise full of segregation and chastity is less and less acceptable to larger and larger fractions of the population.
But these generational trends will only have their effects over time. It's what we do as a nation in the next few years that this discussion is about. That's where the following concept is important.
Suppose that enough moderate Republican voters decide that they can't stomach what their party is doing. They don't have to do anything dramatic, like registering as Democrats. They merely need to vote for conservative Democrats who more closely represent their ideals. The braver of these rebels can reregister as independents. That word has a nice ring to it, and signifies the refusal to countenance either the insanity of the current Republican Party or the strings that tie the Democrats to organized labor and left wing ideology. This kind of political ideology might not be a good fit for people like you or me, but it might very well work for the five or seven percent of the Republican electorate that the Democrats would need to gain in order to become the solid majority party for a generation.
Notice that this concept postulates that some people will be more motivated by the bad behavior of the Republican Party (and its attendant risks to our future) than they are by their inherent political ideologies. Andrew Sullivan recently linked to a theoretical study suggesting that a grand realignment of the major parties is unlikely because there are few voters who are true moderates. We shouldn't expect that conservative voters, normally loyal to the Republican Party, will suddenly cast off their conservatism. But we can hope that some conservatives will realize that the party they were born into is no longer representative of traditional conservative values. They will recognize that it has become the radically reactionary party. These voters -- and there don't have to be a lot of them -- may choose to dissociate themselves from the Republican Party based on its observed behavior rather than on its professed ideology. They need merely to provide a new cloud of swing voters for a political realignment to happen.
I have a term for that great mass of centrist voters who would help create the new majority coalition. I think of them as independent Democrats. They consist of people who are not necessarily registered as Democrats, but will vote for a Democrat most of the time simply because the Republican Party has become too toxic to be allowed to hold power over us. Those who are registered as independents (officially "decline to state" in California) but who vote for sane Democrats most of the time belong to this category. Come to think of it, I'm an independent Democrat who is registered as "decline to state" in California.
The newly minted independents can do something that I think of as colonizing the Democratic Party from the right. By creating a new coalition that represents a minimum requirement of mere sanity, the new Democratic Party can become a ruling coalition that could take and hold both houses of congress. In effect, a new Democratic Party with significant moderate-left, center, and moderate conservative wings would be like the old system in which members of both parties crossed party lines every now and then.
If this is to happen, the current Democratic Party has to nurture its newly found moderate conservative wing. It has to make clear that it is willing to make some compromises in order to avoid another George W Bush presidency or a Republican Senate. What those compromises would need to be is a substantial question. I don't think there are any easy answers. But if we are to avoid going through another 12 years like we have just endured, it is imperative that the Democrats figure out how to develop a grand coalition.
One part of this strategy that will irritate a lot of the old guard is that the party will have to protect its center-right wing, because it will be those voters who deliver Democratic victories through the middle years of this twenty-first century. Perhaps the next twenty years will be full of advances taking the form and nature of the Affordable Care Act, that is to say, imperfect fitful advances with all the blemishes that a democratic system suffers. But think of the alternative.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org) [hotlink]]
Vol 11 Issue 92
Pub: Nov 15, 2013