Having defiantly announced my decision to take a vacation from blogging, I was unable to resist one last post before wrapping things up and waiting for the taxi tomorrow. For some days now, I have been brooding about the chaos in the Republican Party, trying to understand at some deeper level what is happening. I have posted several analyses of the arithmetic of the primary and caucus nominating process. Now I should like to step back and see whether I can make sense of the unlikely turns of events.
The American political system was designed by the Framers to accomplish two structural and procedural ends [I leave to one side the effort to protect the institution of slavery, an effort that succeeded for three quarters of a century.] The first, very much in line with one important strain of 18th century political theorizing, was to make the pursuit of private interest subserve the public good. This conception of democratic government was in stark contrast to Rousseau's assertion that true democracy requires that individuals set aside their private interests and choose instead to aim at the general good. The second goal of the Framers was to craft a form of government that required an accommodation of, and a compromise among, sectional and other interests.
The institution of a Presidency elected by the voters as a whole, rather than a Prime Ministership selected by the majority party in Parliament, made coalition politics on the European model almost impossible.
Thus, we have had for most of American history a two party system, each party being a more or less uneasy coalition of economic, sectional, racial and other groupings that do not naturally belong together.
When I was a boy, the Democratic Party was a coalition of Southern white segregationists and Northeastern big-city unions, to mention only the two most prominent and easily identifiable groupings within the party. The Republican Party was an equally uneasy coalition of Midwestern isolationist farmers and small businessmen and Northeastern internationalist big business [then only beginning to be transformed into true multinational corporations.]
The Civil Rights Movement destroyed the Democratic Party coalition. Strom Thurmond led the segregationists out of the Democratic Party, and when Richard Nixon welcomed them into the Republican Party with the so-called "Southern Strategy," a fundamental realignment of the parties began. The Solid South became solidly Republican, and the Republicans in effect gave up on the Northeast and then on the West Coast.
Ronald Reagan completed the realignment by undermining the unions and peeling off white working class voters, hitherto reliably Democratic, by appealing to their fear of Negroes and their hostility to the scorn they felt directed at them by college educated liberals.
Meanwhile, fundamental demographic changes were taking place in the electorate that elevated the importance of both Black and Hispanic voters, to the advantage of the Democrats, who welcomed them into their now firmly anti-segregationist party.
For almost two generations, this realignment worked to the advantage of the Republicans, leading centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton to abandon the liberal policies of the Roosevelt-Johnson Democratic Party in a desperate, and successful, effort to win back the Presidency.
But the uneasy alliance between big business and financial capitalism with culturally alienated and frightened working class whites was never a natural fit, and with the end of the post-war boom and exponential rise in the inequality of income and wealth, the inner contradictions of the Republican Party, as great as the inner contradictions of the old Democratic Party, became too stark to paper over.
I believe that we are now seeing the break-up of the Nixon/Reagan coalition, both in the contest for the Republican Presidential nomination and in the internal disarray of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.
The immediate questions are, Who will become House Speaker and Who will win the Presidential nomination? But a larger and more interesting question is, What new alignment of forces will emerge from this break-up?
In thinking about this, I begin with a simple fact borne in upon me [in a different context] by my son, Tobias. The white working class and lower middle class segment of the Republican coalition consist of a very large number of people, numbering perhaps in the scores of millions, that is not going to evaporate or cease to exist. They are there, they are square, and they are not going away [to parody a famous Gay chant.]
If the Republican Party splits wide open, as it well may if Trump wins the nomination, they are certainly not going to seize control of the Republican Party. There are not enough of them to do that, I believe [but of course I could be wrong.] Nor are they going to join all those Black and Brown people in the Democratic Party. They could attempt a third party, but American history suggests that that is a losing move.
I have puzzled about this for several days, and one answer comes to mind. Remember that even in Presidential election years, only two-thirds of eligible voters actually go the polls. There are scores of millions of people -- at least three score, by my quick estimate -- who do not vote. One segment of the Republican Party faction I have been discussing is White Evangelical Protestants. There have been times when Evangelical Protestants retreated from national politics, for religious and other reasons. It seems to me possible [but only possible, let me emphasize] that if the forces of big business win the struggle for a splintering Republican Party, a sizeable segment of the losing faction might simply retreat from the political arena.
The remaining Republican forces would then, almost certainly, rid themselves of their anti-Black, anti-Hispanic stance, and move somewhat, but not too much, to the center, becoming, in effect, a modern twenty-first century arm of established capitalist interests. The Democratic Party would respond by channeling its inner Bernie, and things would settle down somewhat, but not too much, to the left of where they are now.
That is the only resolution I can see that makes political sense within the traditions and structure of American party politics.