The Two Party System

Political sages declare on cable television these days that what we need now is a spirit of compromise to resolve the gridlock in which our political system finds itself. That means one or another bargain in which the Liberals and Conservatives get together by trading off some of what each side wants so that some progressive legislation gets passed. They are proposing on a smaller scale the Grand Bargain which Obama for a number of years tried to construct with the Republican opposition. Although the talking heads don’t usually spell out what that means today, I suppose an example of such a compromise would be Liberals willing to accept lower tax rates for corporations and for the rich in return for, let us say, the forgiveness of student loans or a higher minimum wage. On the face of it, such a compromise won’t fly. It would offend both sides, Liberals and Conservatives each devoted as they are to their own agendas, these two essentially in conflict. Liberals don’t want to give more money to rich people and Republicans don’t want to give money to people who are middle class or even poorer than that. More important, however, is the fact that the compromise of interests is not the way American politics works. Rather, historically, it has been the case that sometimes one party and sometimes the other, for long periods of time, has a progressive agenda while the other party is made up of time-servers and blowhards who are obstructionists. It isn’t that there are two agendas that are contending with one another and so one can adopt something good from each side. Rather, one side makes sense and the other side is indefensible except to those who do not want to see any change at all. Let’s dwell on that and see where we stand now in that light.

From 1860 through 1912, the Republicans were the progressive party. They were the ones in favor of abolition and giving the ex-slave rights. They were the ones who favored civil service reform and the development of such infrastructure as a national railroad system. They were the ones who supported the expansion of corporations, though at the risk of not introducing legislation to control corporate power or to protect workers from exploitation. And then they came around there too, with Theodore Roosevelt pushing the interests of the urban immigrant poor and the working class, as well as environmentalism and the overseas belligerance that had characterized Republican politics since Grant had considered taking over Cuba and Santo Domingo. The Democrats, during that period, had been ideologically supine, defending the old order by allowing the South to adopt Jim Crow, though it did engage in Populist rhetoric whereby it defended soft money, a doctrine that would help small farmers and other debtors.

From 1912 through 1968, the mantle of progressivism switched to the Democrats. Wilson carried on the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt in domestic affairs, though he was late at the gate in taking us into World War I. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did side with the working class and minorities and was for the regulation of corporations and was also interventionist in foreign policy. The New Deal tradition stretched through the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Meanwhile, the Republicans were becoming the prisoners of corporate America and got elected when they did because they also came across as defenders of middle class respectability, which meant slow on civil rights and other emerging domestic issues.

The issue with the Republican administrations since 1968 is that they press social issues like abortion and crime (even though the rates for both of those are going down) so as to cover their main interests, which are internationalism and corporate welfare. Nixon allowed for numerous progressive measures, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, because he didn’t really care about domestic affairs, believing that nothing much could harm the American economy, and was preoccupied with foreign affairs, where he thought he could make a difference. The same thing was true of the Reagan and the George H. W. Bush administrations. Reagan followed the Eisenhower model of turning domestic affairs over to corporate interests while his cabinet managed to negotiate the end of the Cold War. Bush believed Reaganomics to be “voodoo economics” but was willing, when he became President, to delegate domestic affairs to the Republican Party so that he could pursue his foreign policy priorities, even though he sometimes “slipped” as when he thought it was only sensible to revoke his promise of “Read my lips: no new taxes”. Clinton and Obama were progressive in that they kept America out of war as best they could for sixteen years and were not able to do as much as they wanted to on domestic affairs because of Republican opposition. It is worth noting, however, that Clinton created a budget surplus and Obama created a record period of economic expansion which is still continuing as of this sitting.

So where do we stand today? The safe guess is that if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had gotten the nomination and been elected, they would have pushed the same retrograde policies as their Republican predecessors: allowing Congress to pass legislation they would sign which would make the rich richer while cutting back on entitlements for the poor and middle class. They might not have been belligerent in foreign policy because the Obama policies of leaving the Syrians alone while defeating ISIS would have continued, though they might have blustered about North Korea because there is nothing much else you can do about it. So a Republican Administration not headed by Trump would have been Trump without his uncouthness, which is the only thing that most Republicans hold against him because he has come to support the attack on Planned Parenthood and various minority rights even though that had not been his posture (except when it came to Mexicans and women) before his election. What Trump adds to the mix is his stupidity and his very bad temperment.

The Republican game plan of obfuscation has not changed and that is why it was so easy for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to come to terms with Trump. They don’t like him very much, and will abandon him as soon as they have to, which will happen when Mueller closes in or as Trump’s negatives impact on the 2018 elections, they preferring Mike Pence, who is already in the pocket of the Koch brothers. Meanwhile, the Democrats do have policies that are progressive. They want massive infrastructure, a high minimum wage, and affordable higher education for everyone, these to be paid for by long term bonds and not lowering taxes on the rich. What they do not have is a galvanizing personality to take their message to an electorate more concerned about dazzle than substance. I no longer trust an electorate that voted for Bush in 2004, even after he had his lies exposed or voted for Trump under any circumstances to do the right thing. The results in Virginia yesterday don’t change that. They only show that Virginia has become a reliably Blue state because of its increasingly urban nature. The question next year is whether North Carolina will follow suit.

The personalities decide any given Presidential election, at least for the past fifty years. But it is the demographics that decide which will be the progressive party. The Democrats were the party of the South even as they supported the Northerner Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Then the South became the mainstay of the obstructionist Republicans, even as minorities and the working class had been the mainstays of the New Deal coalition and small town Republicans had been the mainstay of their party during their period of obstructionism in the twenties and thirties and forties. The demographics, at the moment, favor the Democrats, who attract the young and the college educated, those who prosper in an information age society. That is why some Red states in the South are turning Blue. And the Democrats are likely to retain their hold on minority groups because the Republicans prefer their white, uneducated base to reaching out to new voters. So maybe the long forecast permanent Democratic majority is on its way, doubtlessly to be impacted by as yet unforeseen historical events that will shake up the political system yet another time.