So far in what was originally supposed to be a single post’s worth of musings, I have covered two basic points regarding what I believe to be the possible collapse of the Third Party System sometime in the near future:
First, that parties and party systems have a history – that there was a time before the current arrangement, which implies that there will be a time after it, and that the parties currently making up the Third Party System have changed dramatically over time.
And second, that when previous party systems have collapsed it has been because the internal weaknesses of one of the main parties in the system were severe enough to prevent them from responding well to an external crisis.
Guess what I see now? A Third Party System where at least one and possibly both parties fit that bill.
There are a number of crises that we face at this moment, none of which we are dealing with in any particularly graceful or responsible way and all of which have the potential to destroy a political party unable to come to grips with them.
We are a single power in an increasingly multipolar and technologically leveled world – the binary structure of the Cold War isn’t even a memory for the college students in my classroom these days, the pace of technology means that even non-state actors can now be a genuine threat to powerful states, and trying to figure out a workable system of security in this new world, one that doesn’t subvert the US from within, has so far escaped us. Further, we are living in a world of unstable energy supplies and a deteriorating environment and climate, and we refuse to have the grown-up discussions necessary to recognize these facts let alone deal with them. Also, through a combination of grotesquely irresponsible fiscal policy and poorly thought out warfare we have managed to convert a debt problem into a debt crisis in the last dozen years, one that leaves the country vulnerable to any number of threats from both internal and external enemies.
Most importantly, though, there is the historically high and increasing level of inequality in the United States. If there is a single problem that will destroy the Third Party System, I’m guessing it will probably be this.
Inequality is a problem on several levels, but the main difficulty it will produce if left unchecked is the collapse of the American economy as it is currently constructed. We live in a consumer economy, one driven by demand rather than supply. That kind of economy requires a broad middle class prosperous enough to spend its money on goods, and preferably a lower class that has at least some disposable income as well. This is what creates jobs – all that talk about the wealthy as “job creators” is so much gold-plated horse waste dumped on the general public by spinmeisters eager to impress us with how shiny it is. The wealthy did not become wealthy by wasting money – if there is no demand for their products, they won’t create jobs to make more of those products. Demand, not supply, creates jobs.
But the middle class has been under concerted assault for decades now and has actually begun to shrink. When it collapses it will take our economy with it – and, in turn, our political system and social network. Liberal democracy is based on a strong middle class, for reasons I have discussed in other posts on this blog. And our social system – the network of community groups, volunteer organizations, housing patterns, education systems, and so on, the things that define the whole Tocquevillian pattern of American life – is also based on this widespread middle class. Take out the big prop in the center and the whole tent falls down.
Related to this is the fact that economic inequality has become deeply intertwined with moral issues in this country. Look at the data. The biggest issues in American politics over the last three or four decades have been Culture War issues, most of them having to do with sex, religion (often confused with morality), or some combination of the two, with occasional forays into race. And the single biggest predictor of what side you’re on in this Culture War is income level, followed shortly by educational level (which is deeply tied to income level anyway). The poorer and less educated you are, the more likely you will find yourself on the right-wing side of the Culture War. There are exceptions, of course – individuals are often outliers in statistical models – but the general pattern holds true regardless.
Economic inequality is one of the biggest problems facing this nation, and the plain fact is that neither party really wants to discuss it. Like slavery in the Second Party System, economic inequality has become the issue that has to be ignored for the Third Party System to function. It didn’t used to be that way – much of the Third Party System’s energy between 1900 and 1970 was spent in debates over that very issue, in fact – but it has become that way over the last three or four decades, a period not coincidentally identical to the Culture War.
But also like slavery, ignoring economic inequality is not an option if you wish the larger nation to survive. I have not devoted any space to the Occupy Movement in this blog, in part because I haven’t seen any genuine solutions come out of it for the problems they identify, but the one thing that must be said for them is that they have forced this issue back into the public consciousness in a way reminiscent of the Free Soil Party with slavery in the 1840s. For that alone the Occupy Movement deserves the thanks of a grateful nation. Whether either party in the Third Party System is strong enough to survive this discussion today is an open question as far as I am concerned.
Of the two parties, it is clearly the Republican Party that is in the most trouble right now.
Face it – if the Republican Party had any reserves of political strength, moral fiber or intellectual heft left to itself, none of the frontrunners for this year’s presidential race would have been anywhere near the nomination at this point. The staggering weakness of these candidates is perhaps the most obvious sign that between 2008 and 2012 the Republican Party has finally come undone. This is not necessarily fatal – the Democrats recovered from an equivalent position after their nadir between 1968 and 1972 – but it took them nearly a quarter of a century to do so even with the boost they got from Richard Nixon actually being a crook.
The Republican Party’s big problem is that their two main wings have reached a point where they are no longer either compatible or focused on winning or governance.
Since the 1920s, the Republican Party has been divided into its Wall Street Wing and its Social Conservative Wing. And for most of that period, the Wall Streeters have pretty much run the show. The Social Conservatives have been useful tools for getting out the vote and distracting the electorate from the economic consequences of what the Wall Streeters were promoting, but right up to the mid-1970s that was about all they were.
The interests of the Wall Streeters are fairly straightforward. They seek political power in order to promote private enterprise. Private enterprise is not necessarily free enterprise – there’s a difference. Wall Streeters are perfectly happy, even eager, to use the power of government to benefit private corporations in a way that libertarian free market ideologues find distasteful. They seek a small government whose main function is the active promotion of corporate profits. This can be through removing or blocking regulation of corporations; redistributing tax dollars into private corporate contracts (defense contracts, for example); exercising strict control over unions, environmentalists, or other challengers to corporate interests; and in general the privatizing of any government function that Wall Streeters feel they could turn to their financial gain, such as health insurance or old age pensions. That government often handles such things more efficiently and effectively is not their concern – that they are not receiving the profits from these activities is. They also tend to want an isolationist foreign policy, since wars and entanglements create costs and uncertainties which reduce profits, though they’ll support intervention on occasion.
This group has the money in the Republican Party. They also have the brains. They want candidates who are electable – purity is nice but results in not winning and therefore not getting their way. They are generally willing to work with their political opponents to get the best deal possible for themselves, because they’re used to doing that with their corporate opponents and are smart enough to play a long game most of the time. They can be ruthless, short-sighted, cold-hearted, arrogant and greedy, but they understand that the only way for them to win the game is not to destroy the board.
The Social Conservative Wing of the Republican Party may not have the brains but they do have a few wealthy patrons, a couple of first-class strategists, and most of the energy these days. They have been the driving force behind much of the party’s success over the last few decades. They have been there all along for nearly a century – it’s just that now they’re calling the shots. And the Wall Streeters do not like this.
Their interests are more complicated than the Wall Streeters. They tend not to care about money very much at all and instead focus on moral issues – Culture War issues, in modern terms. They have a vision of a pure and Godly nation and they intend to see that vision fulfilled if they have to overturn every legal and Constitutional restraint in their path. For most the last century this platform has been built around the twin pillars of sexual restrictions and evangelical Protestantism, particularly a Biblical literalist, anti-intellectual, deeply fearful and wholly anti-modern strain of Christian fundamentalism that sits uneasily within the larger spectrum of Christianity no matter how much it claims to represent – or even be – the larger whole. There is also a strong racial component in this group – they regard this as a white man’s country, with other races (even Native Americans) as interlopers, and they bitterly resent the strides made by non-whites toward equality.
The fact that there is currently a black president in the White House really, really twists their knickers.
They want to impose by law a patriarchal culture where women are little more than the property of successive men – fathers, husbands, even brothers – and charged with little more than reproduction and silence. The fact that some of the most outspoken advocates of this are women is just one of those ironies. They want a theocratic state with the intrusive power to regulate all aspects of morality – they do not believe in privacy, they do not believe in individual freedom, they do not believe in small government and they certainly do not believe in democracy. This is Big Government Conservatism, an authoritarian movement designed to impose a moral dictatorship over the heathen land, and it is aimed squarely at your personal beliefs and practices. They would like nothing more than to turn this country into a Fundamentalist Christian version of Iran. This too is ironic, since they also want a messianic foreign policy focused on removing the heathen from the world, at missile-point if necessary, and, at present, Iran is their top target.
When it comes to candidates, this group values purity over electability – which should not be surprising, given its emphasis on rigidly defined morals. They are averse to compromise, utterly convinced of their own righteousness (a delusion which no amount of internal scandal or evidence of perfidy can dent) and unwilling to work with anyone they regard as impure, which is pretty much everyone except their own card-carrying members and not even all of those. They have all the great Romantic virtues – they are gallant, uncompromising, vivid and true to themselves – but they are more than willing to destroy the board rather than see anyone else win the game and this makes them an existential threat to the republic. We need to start treating them that way.
These two groups have co-existed uneasily within the Republican Party for decades now. But with the shift from money-driven politics to values-driven politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Social Conservative Wing has become ascendant in terms of setting the agenda, writing the platform, and mobilizing the votes. The Wall Streeters have been willing to use them to gain power, but have made very little attempt to implement that agenda as it conflicts on many points with their own. The Social Conservatives are no longer willing to be patronized. The Wall Streeters are unhappy about being supplanted and even more unhappy about being radicalized out of profit opportunities.
And as a result, this coalition is now at the brink of collapse.
The driving force behind this is that with the ascendency of the Social Conservatives, economic issues are now being cast in moral terms. Taxes, debt payments, health care insurance, budget deficits, unions, environmental regulations, and other fiscal matters up to and including warfare – things that Wall Streeters tend to see as bargaining chips in service to their larger goal of profit – are considered moral absolutes by the Social Conservatives. This leaves the party as a whole with precious little maneuvering room on basic political issues – something Social Conservatives celebrate as a stepping stone toward moral purity, but which Wall Streeters see as closing off avenues unnecessarily and quite possibly harming their long-term goals. Social Conservatives regard this attitude as a uniquely offensive form of betrayal and cast out these naysayers as RINOs.
Simply put, each wing of the Republican Party is coming to see the other as an obstacle to their goals.
At this point we return to the crisis of economic inequality that this post started with, an inequality that has been largely produced by the Republican Party’s fiscal and social policies since 1980, policies that effectively reversed half a century of growing equality. The Wall Streeters see this inequality as something to be managed. They like inequality – it benefits them. But they also like a strong middle class – it contributes to their profits. Managing this requires the ability to negotiate with their opponents. It requires the ability to raise taxes to pay debts, as Reagan did repeatedly. It requires a relatively grown-up approach to governance. I have my qualms about the specifics of their program, but I do not doubt the Wall Streeters want me to thrive, honestly believe I will survive under their regime, at least to a point (however mistaken this belief may be), and are willing to leave me alone to do so. I’m more valuable to them as a consumer than as a convert.
Unfortunately, the Social Conservatives live in an absolute world. You’re either with them or against them; moral or evil; True Blue American (i.e. exactly like them) or Socialist Kenyan Nazi Death Panel Terrorist Heretic. This binary opposition has migrated from Culture War issues like gay marriage and mandatory fundamentalist prayers at high school football games to economic issues like inequality and the consequences it will inevitably bring. The Social Conservatives now hold the balance of power in the Republican Party and they won’t let the Wall Streeters compromise on anything – and eventually the crisis will bring the country crashing down.
Bottom line, what you have with the Republicans is a party that is facing a serious crisis without the internal coherence necessary to address it in a grown-up and productive manner. And as this crisis becomes more and more the driving force of American politics, that party will stretch until its two halves can no longer be contained within a single body. Either the Social Conservatives will learn how to compromise with the Wall Streeters (not likely), disappear in a blinding flash of electoral or cultural failure (entirely possible), or, as with the Northern and Southern Whigs, the party will dissolve into its component factions (also entirely possible).
What happens then is anyone’s guess.
The Wall Streeters have the advantages in the long run, for three reasons. First, they have the money and money is always going to go where it can maintain a path to power. Second, they have the demographics – business executives are constantly being created, but the Social Conservatives are increasingly a demographic of older Southern whites and their sympathizers who are in fact correct in their assessment that “their” country is passing them by but are simply wrong about the idea that the country is somehow exclusively “theirs.” And third, the Wall Streeters may well have company coming from the Democrats.
The Democrats are not in nearly as bad a shape as the Republicans. They survived their wilderness years in the 1970s and 1980s and emerged as a relatively coherent centrist sort of party, further right than their glory years of the New Deal and Great Society but clearly distinguishable from the Republican Party’s lurch toward the lunatic fringe of right-wing politics. Their Main Street wing – epitomized by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – has pretty much run the show since the early 1990s, much to the frustration of the party’s Progressives.
I suppose it is possible that the Progressives might someday hive off into their own party rather than simply be content to support the Main Streeters as the lesser of two evils. Not likely at the moment, but possible. If that happens, you will end up with a historic re-alignment and a far more complex Fourth Party System than if just the Republicans collapse.
I have no idea what that system would look like. Those who live by the crystal ball soon learn to eat ground glass. But I can offer a few guesses.
My first guess is that you’d see the Republican Party split into its component wings. I’ll bet the Wall Streeters get to keep the name – most of the lawyers will be in the Wall Streeters, and they’ll be good at that sort of thing. They’ll probably get to keep the office furniture too. If the Democrats break up, the Main Streeters may join them – they’re both pro-business (to differing degrees), both generally willing to support social safety net programs (to wildly different degrees, but since poor people are lousy customers there’s still some commonality there), and both are usually willing to play the long game and preserve the board – but they may not. The differing degrees may be sufficiently different to keep them apart. But either way you’d end up with a new party very much like the Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s, without the interventionist foreign policy necessitated by the Cold War.
The Social Conservatives will be off on their own. They might keep the Teabaggers name (though since somebody explained to them what that meant they’ve tried to avoid it – perhaps they’ll come up with something new, like The American True-Blue Hezbollah). But any group that lives and dies on moral purity isn’t going to want to let anyone else into their treehouse. They will occupy the far right of the political spectrum, run strong in the deepest recesses of the old Confederacy, and die cursing the modern world. One hopes.
And the Progressives might strike out on their own as well. Particularly as economic inequality becomes more salient and the issues it raises become more pressing, Progressives will find their ideas becoming more and more relevant in precisely the way they did at the dawn of the twentieth century, for precisely the same reasons.
There would be a general shaking out period – the American system is not built for more than two main parties, so at least one of those groups would have to go away – and something completely different would likely appear. I won’t even hazard a guess at what that might be, two steps removed from now.
But it won’t be the Third Party System.