The gap between the “Left” and the Democratic Party is growing
. While factionalism
has always been a part of party politics, the unique features of American politics, combined with changes in the relationship between media, politicians and the voting public have conspired to create the groundwork for a fundamental shift in American politics.
In America, party membership has a little relationship to ideological alignment. A Vermont Republican may, quite likely, be to the left of a Texas Democrat, even though the Republicans are generally considered to be to the right of Democrats. It is more useful to think of the two main parties as a two halves of a monopoly locked in a constant battle for market share of voters.
The terms “left” and “right” in American politics don’t really have any true underlying significance. Many authors have posited more complex models based on more than just liberal and conservative, and other commentators have suggested more elaborate, multi-dimensional models. In any case, what we specifically identify as “right” and “left” are meaningful only insofar as there are a number of likeminded people who choose these labels for themselves. When I speak of the Left in this essay, I refer to those who think of themselves as “Progressives” or the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
The fact that political alignment has only a coincidental overlap with party affiliation has been one of the distinguishing characteristics of American political life. The philosophical boundaries of each political organization are in a constant state of flux. When one sees Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan finding significant common ground on several contentious issues, it becomes quite apparent that party identification and one-dimensional Left vs. Right models just can’t capture the full flavor of the American political scene. More significantly, it means that there are inherent opportunities for parties to experience large shifts in their political membership.
There are, in political science, phenomena
known as realignment
. Without worrying about details
that are primarily of interest to political scientists, let’s take a look at how these are manifesting themselves today. Realignment occurs (very nearly every 36 years or so) when large groups of voters of one or more ideological blocks change party allegiance. There are ways this can happen; one party may be so overwhelmed and unable to compete on an issue that they are simply rendered impotent, in which case the other party gains temporary dominance, based on that one issue. Other times, there is an extraordinarily divisive issue that doesn’t split neatly along party lines – voters then realign themselves according to a new party structure which reflects these deep intraparty divisions. The other phenomenon, dealignment, is considerably more nebulous, as it not certain that it has ever happened in this country and is, therefore, largely a theoretical scenario. Under a dealignment, voters become less and less inclined to affiliate with a specific party, choosing instead to vote for candidates of either party, i.e. they become independents. It is my opinion that dealignment would probably be temporary; should a large number of voters reject one or both of the main parties, it simply means that some group or another will start to claim and woo them – although it may not be either of the main parties. This is how third parties have come into being and ultimately forced an existing second party out of existence. In any case, what realignment and dealignment do mean is that massive shifts in voting preferences and changes in life-long voting patterns have happened before and will probably happen again.
The last realignment occurred in 1968, coincident with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Until that time, much of the American south voted Democratic – a holdover from the Republican leadership of the north during the American Civil War. Since many southern Democrats resented the passage of that act, they rebelled against the Democratic Party. While there was a brief period of upheaval, many of these voters and politicians realigned themselves with the Republican Party simply because passage of the Civil Rights Act demonstrated (to them) that they were no longer influential enough within the Democratic Party to retain significant leverage and protect their specific interests. Coincidentally, this realignment resulted in the anti-communist, pro-defense wing of the Democratic Party to migrate to the Republican Party, giving rise to the decades-old problem the Democrats have had with credibility on national security issues. This lack of credibility on security is one of the largest single problems that Democratic candidates are now confronted with in the post-9/11 environment.
Doing the math, we note that 36 years from 1968 brings us to 2004. This, in and of itself, doesn’t presage any specific change. Events from 1968 onward have, however, laid the groundwork for a spectacularly volatile political landscape, which would appear to be coming to a head in the very near future. These four long-term factors (investigative journalism, media in political campaigns, the birth of the modern protest movement, and the growth of malignantly partisan politics) that have had such a strong influence since the last realignment have created a fertile ground for political change. These trends have allowed the events since 2000 to take on an astonishing life of their own; a life that appears to be ripping the Democratic Party into shreds before our very eyes.
The first, and perhaps most significant of the long term effects is the rise of the continual campaign. Now, for many offices, inauguration simply means the start of a new round of fundraising and campaigning. Even as presidential primaries are pushed earlier and earlier, the so-called invisible primary (in which we see Howard Dean locked in a savage battle with other candidates for pole position when the real primaries start) has started even earlier yet. In the House of Representatives, candidates must start their 2-year reelection campaign as soon as they take office. The result of this constant background buzz of electoral politics is to always keep the voter’s opinion in play. The affiliation of all but the most dedicated party faithful and political activists is always up for grabs. The voter’s favor is constantly bid on, begged for, argued about and eagerly sought by both parties for years on end. While much of this may not be obvious at first, consider the fact that Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell may never even run for the Presidency, yet political observers are interested in their prospects for a 2008 candidacy – a full five years before the election. The effect of the constant campaign is to weaken the party loyalties of all but the most extreme – forcing moderates away from the party faithful. The only people who can be counted on to support the party are increasingly extreme in their views, while moderates have tended to increasingly describe themselves as independent. We can see that moderate voters from both sides of the aisle have been leaving since the sixties – for instance
, the number of voters who describe themselves as Democrats has fallen from 45% in 1968 to 32% today, while only 30% of voters now describe themselves as Republicans.
Secondly, the Watergate scandal left fundamentally changed the role of media in political debate. While Watergate was not the birth of either advocacy or investigative journalism, it was a watershed moment for the American media. After Watergate, many in the media started to see journalism less as an impartial chronicler of unfolding history, but rather as the vanguard of a moral crusade to expose lies and protect both individuals and the public. This didn’t come into full bloom for a number of years; one can almost imagine the career arcs of a whole generation of journalists who grew up watching Watergate unfold before their little journalism school eyes. The first big scandalous lesion on the body politic was Abscam in 1980, followed in later years by new scandals erupting on TV screens at an ever-increasing tempo. The litany of outrage then went on to include Iran-Contra, the Donna Rice-Gary Hart sex scandal and the S&L collapse under the elder President Bush. We then transitioned to the entire catalogue of indignation that personified the Clinton administration: Whitewater, Vince Foster, FBI investigations of political opponents, Travelgate, traitorous foreign campaign contributions, and finally, Monicagate. In the 2000, both presidential campaigns were, to a very large extent, concerned only with spinning the latest disastrous allegation while digging up even darker and more sordid details about their opponent. Since the election (or as some readers would have it “selection”) President Bush has been accused of conspiring to allow 9/11 to happen, invading Afghanistan at the behest of Big Oil, invading Iraq to take control of its oil for Haliburton, and falling off a Segway
in order to ensure the primacy of Detroit steel and, by extension, Texas oil. Whether or not any of these allegations have any merit isn’t ultimately important, what is significant is that these stories have intellectual currency among the party faithful and extremists. The constant stream of vitriol and vile slander from both sides of the aisle has continually driven former party moderates into the ever growing independent camp. An ongoing atmosphere of scandal now means that the loudest party activists go into each election cycle with blood in their eye and a bellyful of bile
– with no room for compromise in their personal crusades against evil – while the bulk of voters become increasingly disenchanted with the entire process and seek only the least repellent candidate.
The third development is the birth of the modern protest movement
. While public protest has had a long and fruitful history in the United States, the Vietnam War era protests have a different tone and culture. The protests of the late 60’s and early 70’s have been mythologized and given a place of primacy among activists. Unfortunately, quite often protests don’t actually convert the unconverted any more than a campaign rally woos supporters of other candidates. They are, by and large, means to assemble choirs to be preached to. This leads to something called “Incestuous Amplification” in military circles, defined by Jane’s Defense Weekly as “a condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation.” Furthermore, this dichotomy has the effect of (at least in the short run) heightening the divide between the true believer and the rest of the populace – or the divide between the political fanatic and the more cynical centrist.
What makes modern protest even more problematic is that protests over the last few years have all but lost any sense of ideological consensus – or even coherency. One would not be terribly surprised to see a “Free Mumia” placard at an anti-WTO protest although the two subjects have absolutely no relation to each other. Today’s protests have made their tent so large that the only thing they have in common with each other (other than an innate dislike for the current President) is their fondness for chants, slogans and indignation. This embrace of dissonance means that it makes all the sense in the world to associate a whole raft of extremist causes. This has had the effect of creating some very odd cross-branding mechanisms. It’s been seen at any one of a number of mass rallies – protestors arguing about trade policy, environmental problems, human-rights, war, oil, unions without a single cohesive understanding of why they are out there, what they hope to achieve and where they think their going with all the chants, banners, street-performers and “Bush=Hitler” signs.
The fourth development in American politics since realignment has been the slow death of bipartisanship and the increased demand for ideological purity. A few decades ago, politicians were fairly comfortable with compromise, logrolling
and bipartisanship. The event that serves as a benchmark for the end of bipartisanship was the filibuster of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Regardless of the particular merits of Bork as a jurist, prior to that nomination custom dictated that Congressional approval of Presidential nominations was a courtesy, rather than an ideological knife fight. This strongly divisive partisanship doesn’t extend purely to judicial nominations
but also manifests itself in the campaign aids which selectively recapitulate voting records, out of context, as a means of quickly suggesting a given candidate is somehow, not ideologically pure. There are some who regard this incivility as a result
of the “constant campaign” while still others argue that it was an inevitable result of the increasingly “sound-bite” nature of modern campaigning. Ultimately, the root cause doesn’t matter, since the problem itself is becoming so entrenched that a return to an older political culture is all but impossible.
These four trends have been creating a greater and greater pressure that has transformed party loyalists into powder kegs of political extremism. During the ongoing Clinton-era scandals which hit a fever pitch over Monica Lewinski, the left semi-seriously gave birth to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. The creation (or to some, recognition) of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy shows that a measurable portion of the Democratic Party had started to feel themselves to be a ideological group under threat of constant subversion from some large murky entity that threatened everything they held to be good and true. The media scandal machine had whipped up the Clinton-era conspiracists into a frenzy, which hit a fever pitch with the impeachment proceedings. This sour taste late in Clinton’s second term gave a particularly acrimonious edge to the 2000 campaign in which the son of President Bush would be battling against the running-mate of the most popular Democratic President in recent memory. This, of course, had all the makings of a bitter feud, rather than election as usual.
Without rehashing the bitter disputes over the 2000 election, which is still being fought in some corners three years later, it is clear to see that the faithful of both parties were incredibly invested in the process and outcome of the election. It is probably safe to say that regardless of who became President, some people would, for the first time in living memory, both question the legitimacy of the President and feel that the election result confirmed their worst fears that the country was sliding into totalitarianism. Had Gore won, a number of people would be decrying creeping Stalinism. Since Bush won, a central tenet of the far Left has been the fear that the dark shadow of Fascism has been cast across the land.
By itself, this would have probably faded with time. However, the events of 9/11 have had several important effects on the Democratic Party. First, a number of relatively centrist Democrats who have adopted a fairly hard-line stance on issues of national security have found themselves castigated in recent months by the Left for their “collusion” with (as they see it) an illegitimate and truly evil President. Second, 9/11 has precipitated two wars, which both occurred in rapid succession – an event quite unusual in American history.
Since opposition to war is a touchstone to some segments of the American body politic and the protest movement is a central part of the mythology of these groups, protests against the war were inevitable – along with the conspiracy theories that seem to inevitably accompany such opposition. Unremarkable by itself, these protests gathered together a large number of people who were (for the most part) fundamentally in opposition to the current administration. Protests gathered them together, riled them up and gave them only one outlet for their anger – further protest. It was with these protests, especially those against the Iraq War, which the Left started, unbeknownst to them, mobilizing for the 2004 Presidential elections. While the pre-primary period is generally used to excite and mobilize the party faithful, Democratic candidates were confronted with a party faithful – the anti-war Left – who were already chomping at the bit and ready to do battle. In fact, these folks had been ready to do battle before the inauguration of the current President. Spurred on by attacks on President Clinton, embittered by a close defeat in the 2000 elections and whipped into a froth first by the Afghan and then the Iraq Wars, the party faithful were in a mood for blood – not compromise
Given this background, it is not surprising in the least that the bulk of the leading Democratic candidates have been lambasted for failing to vocalize the frustrations of the Left by dogmatically opposing the President on all issues – especially those relating to National Security. The party of Truman, Stevenson and Kennedy now, of all things, seems capable only of putting the spotlight on candidates such as Dean, whose relief at the end of the murderous Hussein regime was grudging at best. This, combined with what now seems to be a chronic lack of Democratic credibility on national security issues, seems to show that the Democratic Party has been overrun
by the “Mogadishu Democrats
Traditionally, candidates have run to the extremes in the Primaries and veered back to the center in the general election. However, events over the last few years mean that Democratic weakness on national security issues has become entrenched, even a defining characteristic of any promising Democratic campaign. As has been suggested in other articles, a substantial portion of this country is Jacksonian
in their view of foreign politics. Now the Democrats have all but cut themselves off from that base of support at a time when the American people have precious little patience for niceties and the Kumbaya School of Foreign Relations. Many who subscribe to a more Jeffersonian worldview have been appalled by the fervor with which the anti-war Left has prevented
the quickest and most direct means of toppling a blood-thirsty dictator. The cross-branding and unlikely alliances that the anti-war and anti-WTO and anti-World Bank protests have given rise to also means that much of the protest movement, and by extension, the far Left, has been tied into aggressive anti-capitalist protest. This has gone fairly far to drive off even Hamiltonians and cripple the Democratic Party’s ability to find some voting block to mitigate their lurch to the left.
The only faction of the American populace that this movement has not alienated completely is, perhaps, Wilsonians. But the extraordinary desire of the Left to diametrically oppose the President on all issues, including the now-infamous sixteen words
jeopardize, paradoxically, even the support of the Wilsonians. Depending on future results on the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the presumably inevitable future claims that evidence was planted, the far Left could drive off even this last bastion of support. That is, assuming, that they weren’t already driven off by the anti-war movement’s weak response to more than a decade of violated treaties, agreements and UN resolutions.
What does all mean in terms of realignment? Well, as indicated earlier, sometimes realignment occurs when one party or the other is unable to compete effectively on a given issue. In the years leading up to this election, the Democrats have been shown to be perpetually weak on issues of security and defense. But this extraordinarily vocal stripe of the Democratic Party that has made itself heard in the last few months, have all but destroyed
the ability of the Democratic Party to make any successful claims on national security issues. Combined with the fact that the Democratic Party is being seen, in some corners, as hoping for a sour economy and an embarrassing quagmire in Iraq, the Democrats are sinking and sinking fast.
This brings us, more or less, to the present. Naturally, any guesses about the future are suspect, so I present the following merely as one possible scenario of many. In the long run, the ability of the Republicans to continue to woo moderate voters as long as the War on Terror continues means that they can more safely ignore the fringes of their own party (Buchanan and Robertson) and hopefully, reach out, once again, to the Reagan Democrats. This may mean that the Republicans will dominate the Executive Branch for the remainder of the War on Terror, just as they did for all but four years of the remainder of the Cold War following the 1968 realignment. What holds the biggest possibility of massive shift is whether or not they can continue to gain more seats in Congress. If they manage that, then there is a possibility that the Republican Party will lose coherence and unity, simply because they no longer have a strong opponent to fight against. It is also possible that such a fight may end up alienating either the party extremists or the centrists. If the Party is willing to part ways with extremists to occupy a more favorable position on social issues, then the religious right may, in fact, go back to the Democrats. Although it seems unlikely from this point of view, one must remember that prior to the last realignment, the Democrats were home to the then Southern Democrats. The Democratic Party has always been one of inclusion, managing to unite seemingly disparate groups. The party that campaigns for gay marriages as well as unemployed steel workers could manage to do worse than take on board a decidedly pro-protectionist, isolationist religious right.
UPDATES: Orson Scott Card writes
about the failure of labeling and the polarization of the body politic. Peter Beinart suggests
another mechanism behind the rise of Dean and the apparent fracture of the Democratic Party.
UPDATE: Orson Scott Card also gives his take
on media bias (which just goes to show, I should slow down enough to avoid making 843 updates).
UPDATE: Dr. Frank has a very
regarding dissecting the far Left. It is interesting (to me) that he essentially gives 1968 as the birth date of the far Left, which coincides with the last major realignment.
UPDATE: A decisive and well-constructed post on division in American politics can be found here
, as well as a bit of further musing on political tribalism here