Tuesday, November 08, 2016

A Critical Election: The Impending Birth of the Seventh Party System

In about an hour I'll drive a mile or so to a little church across the street from the local Home Depot, in a neighborhood that a long deceased neighbor of mine derisively called "Dogpatch."  The name is apropos.  Unlike my own neighborhood, which consists of split level houses constructed by a developer's firm in 1972, Dogpatch is a hodgepodge of houses, all apparently constructed from individual plans, that mostly resemble the kind of houses you'd find on Tobacco Road.   Dogpatch is also home to a teenager who occasionally races his ATV back and forth in a vacant lot and a sexual predator who lives above a garage. (Every six months or so a notification card arrives in the mail.)

The Franklin County Board of Elections states that the church's name is Community Park Church.  The congregation, however, is under the impression that they worship in the Church of God of Prophecy.  Go figure.

It so happens that I own the house that my parents purchased when our family moved to Columbus in 1972.  We sold it in 1984; I bought it in 2003, for reasons that even now elude me.  In 1972 the neighborhood was lily white, aside from a single African American family whose yard abutted what my mother once referred to as our "black yard."  The Freudian slip notwithstanding, she became good friends with the mother and I attended school with their oldest daughter.  They were a likeable family and we were sorry when they moved away.

Somewhere between 1984 and 2003, most of the neighborhood's white people also moved away.  The residents are now an eclectic mix of several races and ethnicities.  For example, my next door neighbors are Caucasian on one side, Somali on the other, with an African American family directly across the street.  The house a few doors down belongs to a South Asian family and the house behind me belongs to a sizeable group of Mexicans--I have the impression that more than one family lives there--who have gradually created a nicely landscaped back yard and an equally nice patio.

Although I've lived here now for thirteen years (longer than did my family), I have no idea who most of my neighbors are.  We nod hello to one another but seldom interact.  Which might be due to some failure on my part, but I have the impression that this is generally the case:  mostly we all keep to ourselves.  All that said, the houses in the neighborhood are nicely landscaped and neatly kept up, with well-tended lawns.  It looks nicer than it did when my family lived here.  So much for the "there goes the neighborhood" philosophy common to white people.

A generation ago the yard signs that have sprouted like dandelions would probably have borne the logo of Donald J. Trump.  Today they proclaim allegiance exclusively to Hillary Clinton, and when we collectively go to vote at Community Park Church or the Church of God of Prophecy or whatever the heck it is, we will mostly be casting our ballots for Crooked Hillary and other far left candidates.

We will also be participants in a critical election.

I know, I know:  every election is supposed to be critical, with sweetness and light if our side wins and hell on earth if the other side does.  But in this case we have on our hands a true critical election as defined by political historians.

Critical election theory--now considered rather passé but still useful--contends that a few elections in American history have resulted in major realignments in our political party system.  The most commonly cited critical elections are the following:

1.  The Election of 1800 (won by Thomas Jefferson), which demonstrated that the young republic could peacefully transfer power from one party to the other and which completed the formation of the Federalist and Democrat-Republican parties, known as the First Party System.

The Federalist party disappeared after the War of 1812 and a so-called "Era of Good Feelings" emerged in which the Democrat-Republican Party was the only game in town.

2.  That changed in 1828 with the election of Andrew Jackson, who turned out to be so forceful a chief executive that his opponents called him "King Andrew the First."  Jackson, of course, is the namesake of Jacksonian Democracy (more accurately called the White Man's Democracy), and Donald Trump in many ways is reminiscent of Jackson.  Opposition to King Andrew the First led to the formation of the Whig Party, named for the British party uneasy with the power of the 18th century British monarchs.  The election of 1828 thus created the Second Party System, composed of the Whig Party and Jackson's partisans, now called the Democratic Party.

3.  The Whig Party and Democratic Party were closely competitive in election campaigns across the entire United States, until the emergence of serious disagreement over the essential nature of the American public--was it a free republic with pockets of slavery or a slave-holding republic with pockets of freedom--destroyed the Whig Party, which could not agree upon a definitive response to that question, and thus the Second Party System.  A period of realignment then occurred, with the emergence of the American Party (commonly called the Know Nothings) and the Republican Party.  The American Party displayed an interconnected view of nativism and slavery, with nativism predominating.  The Republican Party focused directly on the question about the essential nature of the American republic, answering with a resounding shout that it was a free republic with pockets of slavery--although most of its adherents objected only to the expansion of slavery into the newly organized western territories (particularly Kansas) and accepted the continued existence of slavery where it already existed.

By and large, white Southerners considered this ostensible acceptance of slavery as duplicitous and a harbinger of an eventual attempt to destroy the "peculiar institution" on which the Southern economy depended.  The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860 resulted in Southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War, followed by Reconstruction and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in America.  The period between 1854 (the final collapse of the Whig Party) and 1892 saw an emphasis on issues of nationalism (the Union victory in the Civil War essentially created a single American nation as opposed to a conglomeration of individual states), race (the destruction of slavery and the emergence of the post emancipation order), and modernization (how to respond to the economic disruptions that attended the industrial revolution, the attendant labor unrest, and the social turmoil of urbanization). This period--1854 to 1892--is denominated the Third Party System.

4.  The Democratic and Republican Parties persisted after 1892--there was continuity in that sense--but emerged from the Third Party System with political disagreements on economic matters despite the fact that some Democrats and some Republicans shared similar views on how best to manage the problems associated with industrialization and urbanization.  Thus both parties contained proponents of Progressivism, which eventually triumphed as the solution to these problems.  (The current definition of "progressive," by the way, has nothing to do with Progressive ideology in the early twentieth century; it's merely a synonym for "liberal" adopted after the political right effectively demonized "liberalism.")  Taken on the whole, however, this Fourth Party System was characterized by the dominance of the Republican Party.

5.  That changed abruptly in 1932, when the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression resulted in the New Deal.  Republicans derided its many government programs as socialist.  But it was really an effort to save capitalism from more extreme solutions to the economic disaster and the profound social fears that attended it.  The resulting New Deal coalition (conservative Southerners, labor, political liberals, African Americans, most Catholics, and Jews) dominated the Fifth Party System as completely as the Republicans had dominated the Fourth Party System.  Republicans who opposed the New Deal did so in vain.  By the 1950's "Modern Republicanism" had emerged which worked within the framework of the New Deal Order.

6.  There is less agreement on critical or re-aligning elections after 1932.  My own view is that for a period of time there was a widespread belief that liberalism had triumphed and that conservatism had been pushed to the fringes of American political life.  LBJ's Great Society attempted, with considerable success, to build upon the New Deal.  Barry Goldwater's 1964 challenge to liberal dominance failed dramatically.  However, the very magnitude of that failure convinced conservatives that they needed to find new ways to appeal effectively to the American voters, which basically meant white American voters.

The success of the Civil Rights Movement caused white Southerners, who had been adamant Democrats since the Civil War (thanks to the vigorous defense of segregation by the southern wing of the party) now felt betrayed when the liberal elements within the Democratic Party brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which between them dismantled the Jim Crow system.  White Southerners then shifted to the Republican Party en masse (with some using George Wallace's 1968 presidential bid as a way station).  Elsewhere in the country many whites, disconcerted by African American assertions of political and cultural power, responded to the "law and order" appeal of Richard Nixon, "law and order" being a dog whistle for continued white domination.  Meanwhile conservative intellectuals created think tanks that explored ways to explain conservatism in ways that would appeal to Americans--again mostly white Americans.  The tacit appeals to racism (the famous "Southern strategy"), coupled with a coherent political philosophy of opposition to the New Deal's "Big Government," eventuated in the election of Ronald Reagan, a Goldwater disciple, in 1980.

The "Reagan Revolution" effectively generated a Sixth Party System, in which conservative political philosophy predominated, its critique of the New Deal order gained traction, and Democrats increasingly found themselves forced to accommodate this stunning resurgence of conservatism.  Newt Gingrich's brilliantly conceived "Contract With America," which effectively persuaded Republican congressional aspirants to appeal to voters with a single message, captured the House of Representatives in 1994--the first time in forty years that Republicans were the majority in Congress.  The Democratic Party responded with a movement of "New Democrats" who attempted a strategy of "triangulation" that amounted to a shift toward the political right--ironically at the same time that the explosion of right-wing talk radio, with Rush Limbaugh at the fore, insisted that Democrats had become more leftist that ever.

We are now on the verge of a Seventh Party System.  That's about as certain as anything can be.  Donald Trump has created a revolution against the Republican establishment.  It is fired by populist rage at economic policies that have ignored the needs of working class white Americans, sacrificing them on the altar of a globalized economic order in which muscle labor goes where muscle labor is cheap, American industry languishes as industrial production has goes overseas, and good-paying blue collar jobs simply vanish.

There's also more than a whiff of white nationalism as many whites perceive--correctly--that the 500-year dominance of white Americans is about to come to an end.  My neighborhood, in that sense, is a portrait of a not-too-distant future.

What you have, then, might be called a civil war within the Republican Party, except that only one side is waging it in earnest.  The other side is in a defensive crouch.  Only a minority of Republicans, repelled by Trump, are actually going to vote for Trump's Democratic opponent.  A plurality are going to vote for Trump simply because he is the party nominee, rejecting his brand of politics but rationalizing their decision with the argument that Hillary Clinton is worse than Trump.  This second group of Republicans are in effect still generally adherents of the so-called establishment Republicans that have kept Trump at arm's length, while still formally endorsing him, and are hoping either that they can control him should he win the presidency or (privately) that Crooked Hillary will squash Trump and create the opportunity for a more or less conventional bid for the presidency in 2020.  But a substantial number of Trump supporters are true believers, and even if Trump loses they will not go gently into that good night.

As do many political analysts, I think the so-called Republican establishment is kidding itself if it assumes it can regain control of the Republican Party as we have known it.  This election will result in a major political re-alignment, possibly along the lines of the re-alignment of the 1850s, with the Republican Party playing the part of the Whig Party and simply disappearing, with an entirely new party emerging after an interregnum of two parties (like the American Party and the Republican Party) vying to become the new majority party.

Or, as with the shift from the Third to the Fourth Party System, the Republican Party will survive as a party, but with a substantially different political identity.  Even if Trump loses, the Republican establishment will have to accommodate the movement and political style that Trump has generated.  Trump himself will likely disappear from the political scene except as the head of a Trump News Network, a sort of bizarro version of Fox News.  But his supporters aren't going anywhere.  As yet there is no obvious successor to Trump in terms of organizing these supporters into a fully coherent movement.  But someone is certainly going to show up.

I'll be voting for Hillary Clinton and will therefore be a (very minor) actor in this political drama in the sense that her election will influence just how this impending realignment plays out.  But one way or another, it's coming.

1 comment:

James Epperson said...

I guess I see the potential for a "new party system," but am not convinced it is a sure thing. The GOP may save itself, long-term, by actually acting upon the kind of reflective self-criticism that was part of their post-2012 "autopsy." Doing that is going to be a struggle, though, as it will mean purging the party of some of its most loyal-but-cancerous elements. Thus, there will be short-term defeats. But a necessary first step is going to be something approaching a repudiation of everyone who stood with Trump.

Here is a speculative thought: What are the chances of a coalition of rational Republicans and centrist Democrats actually taking control of the House majority?