This guest post comes from David Riehm, treasurer of the American Solidarity Party of Minnesota. It is a counterpoint to my own recent argument that, with the collapse of the current Republican Party, a new major-party alternative will quickly assert itself to oppose the progressive agenda. It’s more pessimistic than I am — which is impressive, because I am very pessimistic indeed — but nevertheless a thoughtful look at where things stand.
In recent months, I have heard a lot of comparisons between the ongoing reorganization of American politics and the political reorganization which occurred just prior to the Civil War, in which the Whig Party collapsed and Abraham Lincoln’s GOP rose from its ashes. This has been accompanied by discussion of the contemporary issues around which a replacement for the GOP can be expected to organize in the next 2-6 years.
I think, however, that a better historical comparison for our present situation may be the aftermath of America’s first political reorganization, colloquially known as the “Era of Good Feelings”. This was a period of one-party rule in the US which began with the total collapse of the Federalist Party in the 1816 elections and did not end until the formation of the Whig Party in the early 1830s. It seems quite possible to me – likely, even – that the Democrats have a period of similar dominance ahead of them.
There simply is no single political issue today which unites Americans as opposition to slavery did in the 1850s, when the GOP formed and elected Lincoln. Instead, just as Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans largely co-opted the platform of the Federalist Party, the Democratic Party has effectively co-opted the original GOP platform, leaving it a jumble of disunited interest groups more likely to fracture into a multitude of ineffective third parties than to reorganize into a new one. (That the GOP cannot survive long as presently constituted, I think, goes without saying.)
A Co-Opted Platform
The post-1960s GOP, which reached its political apex in the Reagan era, was founded on the three-legged stool of 1) strong national defense, 2) economic conservatism, and 3) the so-called “moral majority”.
National defense is the most obvious area in which the Democratic Party has shifted dramatically to the right. The 1960s anti-war left has been almost completely expunged from the Democratic coalition. Politically, Hillary Clinton’s muscular foreign policy proposals, or even Obama’s “light touch” interventionism, would have been unthinkable to the anti-Vietnam protesters who burned their draft cards and harassed returning soldiers. Culturally, the contrast between George Carlin’s profound cynicism towards the military and the willingness of contemporary political comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to “Support the Troops” is truly remarkable.
The transition of the “moral majority” to the Democratic party is less immediately obvious, because the same Christian voting blocs who supported Reagan still pledge fealty to the GOP nearly four decades later. What has changed, however, is that the Christian voting blocs no longer represent the American moral consensus.
This is partly due to the growing irreligiosity of Americans, particularly among (former) Catholics and mainline Protestants. Additionally, mainstream opinion on the key issues of concern to the “moral majority” in the 1980s, including the war on drugs, getting “tough on crime”, and opposition to gay marriage, has undergone a near-180 in the intervening years. (Abortion is a notable exception to this trend, but the fact that 36% of Democrats are pro-life, compared with 41% of Americans overall, calls into question the true importance of this issue to most Americans’ politics.) It is increasingly the Democrats, and not the Republicans, who are considered to occupy the moral high ground in mainstream American culture.
Finally, the least obvious Democratic shift, towards economic conservatism. While recent acrimonious debates over the size of the national deficit might seem to belie this, it is easy to forget that the Democratic party of 1980 was staunchly pro-union, and therefore anti-trade and anti-immigration. It was Reagan’s party that pushed free trade and amnesty for illegal immigrants. (Ironically, these very policies contributed to the shifts in the American electorate that have undermined the GOP in 2016, as these immigrants disproportionately became Democratic voters.)
A Hollowed-Out Party
These Democratic policy shifts have reduced the GOP to 1) an unnecessarily aggressive foreign policy, exemplified by Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq and ongoing fearmongering against accepting government-screened refugees from Muslim countries; 2) defending a “moral majority” that Americans increasingly don’t buy into, and 3) cuts in taxes and benefits as the main component of their economic conservatism, which was always the least popular aspect of their platform (except among the big donors who funded the party).
In recent years it has kept itself on life support by embracing the embittered remnants of the unionists whom the Democrats discarded in favor of free trade and globalism, and validating their anger and frustration. As the first linked article above points out, however, the Trumpsters’ anti-trade, anti-immigrant views clash with the interests of the GOP establishment, and Trump’s lasciviousness is driving away the remnants of the “moral majority”.
In summary, the GOP is being consumed, not by a single unifying issue like the Whig party, but by a gradual hollowing-out of its platform as the positions of the opposing party and of the broader electorate have shifted. The writing was on the wall when they were forced to embrace the Tea Party in 2010, which was always more economically populist (and flat-out racist) than the establishment wanted to believe and was never really compatible with the rest of the Republican coalition.
For those looking for the unifying issue(s) that will siphon off Democrats into a new party with the remnants of the GOP, I offer this possibility: There isn’t one. The Democratic platform is just too well-aligned with the views of the American electorate right now for any alternative parties to be viable.
Democratic-Republicans’ dominance ended only on their terms, with the populist schism of Andrew Jackson. I think what we have before us is a long period in the wilderness, waiting for the Democratic big tent to get restless and split. This is not to say that third party activity is futile, but we should plan to be in it for the long haul.