Over the course of my adult life, both major political parties have unsurprisingly undergone change, morphing into entities that bear no resemblance to their traditional forms. Given that, it’s time to reflect on our historic two-party system, and figure out what’s best for the country in terms of the progressive ideals that are embodied in the American experiment.
The Republic Party
The metamorphosis of the GOP started with Barry Goldwater in 1964. While Goldwater lived a generation before the start of the demise of the traditional Republican party and was soundly defeated in his presidential bid, his famous quote, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” established the groundwork for the ultra-conservative movement we see today. His mutation of the GOP was somewhat sidetracked by the Vietnam War and the crimes of Richard Nixon in the 70s, but Ronald Reagan and his coterie of handlers were effective at causing the Republic party to veer sharply to the right in the 80s. The GOP intelligentsia – from Grover Nordquist to Karl Rove to today’s Glenn Beck – pushed their agenda of corporate profits above people and our God-given environment, reckless spending to build up a post-Cold War military to fight wars of choice instead of wars of necessity, and leveraged divisive issues like gay and woman’s rights to co-opt the real agenda of pursuing the American dream of equality and justice for all.
Today’s Republic Party is controlled by a cabal of corporate interests, some well-known like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and some not quite as famous such as Koch Industries which funds ultra-right wing causes like Americans for Prosperity and their Tea Party rallies. Indeed, Murdoch’s Fox News has become the de facto propaganda arm of the GOP, while much of the mainstream media is not far behind in their promotion of the GOP agenda (see, for example, the buildup to the Iraq invasion).
The Republic Party has been taken over by the Tea Baggers, so the two are one and the same. Pundits are espousing the fact that the fringe extremists like Sharron Angle, who is running for Senate in Nevada, are so out of whack that they can’t possibly be elected. (Angle believes that single-income families are best and that alcohol should be prohibited). Yet, just like it is possible to boil a frog against his best interests by raising the heat of the pot of water gradually, the American electorate is becoming inured to these extreme pronouncements by the radical right as they are repeated incessantly. Crazy extremists on the right have been elected, and will continue to be.
So the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower, Christie Whitman, and Jacob Javits is gone. Maybe even Barry Goldwater would not recognize today’s GOP.
The Democratic Party
The obituary for the moderate Republican wing is premature. Instead, the Democratic Party, and especially the current President, have moved to fill that void. And despite their current majority in Congress, today’s Democratic Party is weak and dysfunctional in its new role.
Weakness has been the hallmark of the Democrats over the past several decades, as exemplified by the candidacy of Michael Dukakis in 1988. Other Democratic candidates like George McGovern and Walter Mondale had better ideas than their Republican opponents, but were weak in the art of political manipulation. Even Jimmy Carter, who won on the coattails of Richard Nixon’s criminal actions, subsequently lost due in part to the GOP’s political pranks regarding the release of the hostages in Iran. Despite a majority in both houses of Congress since 2006, the Democrats have allowed the GOP to drive the agenda with obstructionism and intransigence. The hallmark of the President’s accomplishments to date, Health Care Reform, is a much-needed, but neutered version of what could have been accomplished if the Democrats realized that their GOP counterparts would not compromise. Indeed, the Democratic leadership gave the Republic party an unfair head start when they inexplicitly took the best option (single payer) off the table on Day One.
Barack Obama, with his pro-nuclear power position and his lack of urgency in closing Guantánamo and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, best fits the mold of a moderate Republican, not a progressive Democrat. Much of the Democratic Congress – from Senator Ben Nelson to my own Congressman John Adler – can also be characterized as Democrats in Name Only. Also, here in New Jersey, the majority Democratic state legislature, who have succumbed to the bullying tactics of our GOP governor, has unbelievably formally abdicated one of their primary responsibilities – that of writing the state budget – to the GOP. That’s in an allegedly Blue state – how about in Red state South Carolina where the best the Democrats can do to oppose troglodyte Senator Jim DeMint, is to succumb to more dirty tricks and nominate an unknown unemployed military veteran whose source of campaign funding remains a mystery?
Now that the Republicans have replaced the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan as the voice of the right, and that the Democrats have stepped into the role of moderate Republicans, what should be done about the void on the left? Those that represent the progressive side of the party like Senators Bernie Sanders and Russ Feingold, and Congressman Rush Holt should seriously consider taking their left-wing (not a dirty word) bloc and forming a political party to more effectively promote a progressive agenda at the national and state levels. It will be difficult to accomplish this against the juggernaut of corporate funding, but the modern internet helps level the playing field if used effectively. Other barriers will be the current electoral system which is controlled by the major parties, and the Supreme Court which is controlled by business interests. But clearly, if the current two-party system continues down its current path, America will become a corporate-controlled non-democratic country with a rapidly deteriorating middle class. A three-party system would necessarily require discussion, compromise, and coalition-building, which would be better than the gridlocked and feckless system we have today. These coalitions could be between Progressives and Democrats on the social agenda, and between Progressives and Republicans on limiting the reach of government on issues pertaining to personal privacy. We haven’t had a viable three-party system in the United States in over a century. And we’ve never needed it more than today.