Nothing is so over-prognosticated as the death of political parties. Under the microscope of public, and perhaps more importantly, media scrutiny, insignificant quibbles are overly magnified into catastrophic divisions, which, catalyzed by the constant pressures of the biannual election cycle, threaten to rent the party asunder.
But reports of the demise of political parties are greatly exaggerated. Political tumult is the sign of a robust body politic. Engagement inevitably breeds discord, both inside and outside government. Intra-party debate circulates a healthy amount of pressure and ensures principles are the lifeblood of the party. A party that has lost its flexibility has entered the early stages of a creeping necrosis.
This would seem to suggest an inverse relationship between a party’s state of health and its perception. Unity is the modern byword for political soundness, while discord is inevitably terminal. This diagnosis, however, like much of what passes for political analysis, is a venal, incomprehensive examination. As the 2016 election shows, a party that would be dead if the smug prognoses of pundits had any impact, can be enervated in an instant. The tale of the GOP’s ascendency to total power on state and local levels would seem to be that of a miracle cure. Or so the pundits, suffering from a chronic case of cognitive dissonance, would say.
And therein lies the problem. The truth of the matter is the GOP was a party in crisis before the election. And remains so now. But the public and the media are less interested in the intricacies of government and more desirous of the voyeuristic thrills that can be gained from sensational swings from high to low; it is about the drama, not the serious implications for governance enfolded in the tableau of political machinations.
This attitude is a problem in its own right, as it grounds politics in personality, not policy, thus greatly increasing the power of individual discretion in government and jeopardizing freedom. But it also masks serious signs of ill political health.
The irony of 2016 is that, for once, the histrionics of electoral politics and party in crisis were merited, but the country has been bowled over by President’s Trump underdog election, a narrative which is all the more potent for the media’s electioneering, and their attention is in the wrong place.
What made Donald Trump an absurd candidate was his platform, which had all the bombast and shallow ideology of 19th century populism, a movement wholly of the left. With his election on the right, the traditional American political spectrum died.
There have been multiple party systems since the country’s inception, all of which are labelled “left” and “right” based on where they fall on an axis where the extreme ends represent totalitarianism and anarchy. Anarchy, representing the philosophical end of right-wing politics, is a state of no government and total freedom. Totalitarianism, representing the philosophical end of left-wing politics, is a state of total government and no freedom. The five party systems have been dichotomies of these ends, reflecting legitimate differences within the polity as to the best arrangement of political power and providing meaningful organization. In all of the previous party systems—Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans, the fractured Democratic-Republicans versus the Whigs (which rose from one of the fractured minorities), and the more familiar Republican versus Democrat split (which has passed through several realignments based on geographic shifts and the rising to dominance of more extreme strains of thought)—one party has espoused a more right-wing political ideal while the other has countered with a more left-wing political ideal. The right has championed localism and self-government while the left has championed bureaucratic managerialism through the federal government.
Donald Trump espouses a populist strain of bureaucratic managerialism. But he is hardly alone in doing so. After seven years of campaigning on a hardline repeal of Obamacare, the right has not only adopted the mantra of “repeal and replace”, but has also conceded on a full repeal. Suddenly former right-wing ideologues like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) who once touted Ayn Rand’s hard-line laissez-faire ideal of capitalism, are speaking in nebulous political bromides, arguing that “binary choices” and parliamentary rules restrict the options open to the party. The root of this pathetically transparent rhetoric? Bureaucratic managerialism. The GOP, which appears to have forgotten it is the party in power, has subjugated itself to bureaucratic rules, pretending these are iron-clad and not easily changed should the leadership truly desire to do so.
This conciliatory behavior is infuriating and feckless, but it has broader implications, for it signals the party’s concession that the federal government’s omnipotent reach is here to stay and the best that can be hoped is to manage it to better ends. This is a center-left position. The leadership in the executive and the legislative branches is no longer actively of the right. In fact, they have promised an alarmingly Old Testament style “bloodbath” for any who dare stand against their current legislative agenda.
To borrow a cliché, the Republican party is dead, long live the Republican party. No longer is the GOP the vehicle of ideas of figures such as Lincoln, Goldwater and Regan. Phoenix-like, a new party has risen from the ashes and born a new Republican party. It would not be the first election where a realignment occurred. If the victories in the traditionally blue Rust Belt are to believed, then this election realigned the polity geographically. At least, that’s the current line.
But the reality is a little more dramatic. The realignment occurred on ideological lines as the former right-wing party moved to the center-left. For the first time since George Washington’s presidency, when there was no party system, the partisan divide in America does not resonate with an ideological divide. There is now a center-left party and a hard-left party.
Also published on Medium.