Two-Party Politics – Dangers Ahead

I fear that a foundational function of our American political system is being harmed by our current political morass. It will surely upset my friends with Green Party and Libertarian leanings, but I firmly believe the Two-Party system in American politics has been the underpinning of stability and functionality for most of our history. I fear that Mr. Trump is wounding one of the legs of that two-party system. I hope the wound is not mortal. I also hope that a threatened schism between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party does not further split political focus and lead to an opportunist and chaotic interplay between those two Democratic wings and the moderate, conservative, and populist sects in the Republican Party.

It is interesting to look at the evolution of political parties in the USA. The movement from Federalist, Whig, Democrat, liberal Republican, centrist and conservative Democratic, activist Republican, big-business Democrat, populist Democrat, big-business Republican, New Deal Democrat, conservative Republican, liberal Democrat, moderate Republican, Conservative Republican, moderate/activist Democrat, and so on, has been a constant interplay between two sides. As the winds of change came along, one party or the other took the lead in changing the status quo. It was the crazy upstart Republicans that were the motive force behind anti-slavery with the Democrats assuaging the concerns of the Southern brethren to obstruct change. The Republicans moved to a more conservative, business-oriented focus and Teddy Roosevelt had to struggle and control a two-headed culture in his Republican Party where the remaining liberal remnants found themselves pushed out by the big-business economic cult. Woodrow Wilson was the last gasp for the conservative wing of the Democrats at the top of the national spotlight, but the old conservative Southern Democrats held out until the 1960s in a party where they had become an anachronism.

When the Republicans found themselves faced with the juggernaut of a liberal Democrat, FDR, getting elected to the White House four times straight, they rebelled and convinced America that this kind of dominance was undemocratic and when they retook power they passed a constitutional amendment that no President could be re-elected more than once. When the Republican Party started moving far right, the people gave their warning that they were more comfortable in the middle in 1964. But, immediately thereafter, in 1972, those same American voters said they were not very happy with a move too far left from the center.

All along it was the presence of two parties with varying but often equal hold on the political thoughts of our populace that kept America on a stable path forward. Sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, often moderate, but always with a place for honest disagreement and contribution from both sides for the common good. Along the way, there have been a few aberrant moments like McCarthyism, Lyndon Larouche, George Wallace, etc., but the moderating force of the two-party approach served to let people voice how they wanted change to occur, or not occur.

From 1994 onward, there was a growing movement within the Republican Party in the guise of the Tea Party, and then the Birthers, and finally the Trump supporters to try and move the Republican Party from the Reagan-era conservatism to a populist focus that had been foretold by the upstart presidential try of Ross Perot in 1992-1996. (As an aside, did any of you know the Perot died last year. It was not widely reported.) This populist movement within the Republican Party in the age of social media and Internet communications was ripe for someone to claim it. With the Birther concept, Donald Trump found a perfect niche to exploit the constant milieu of change that has propelled American political parties for two centuries.

Trump latched onto the Birther scheme and made a name for himself in politics. As a supposed business genius, he had already made a splash in reality TV. A study of Trump’s rise will fuel many political science books and papers for the next century and is too complex to dissect here. That Trump was a somewhat artificial construct as a Republican, fueled a false mem that he had once said if he ran for President he would run as a Republican since they are the “dumbest.” That meme was false and the closest he ever came to that was telling Oprah, in 1988, he probably would never run, and in another interview that he was too busy to run. As a New Yorker with most of his connections to liberal personalities, Trump, however, as far back as 1987. had identified himself as Republican. His business dealings and things such as his advocacy of an ultra-conservative (call it racist) position in the Central Park Five matter all pointed to a political positioning not antithetical to being a Republican. In 2016, Trump took advantage of the crowded, highly divided Republican candidate field and adeptly took hold of the populist undercurrent left in the American political mindset by Perot, the Tea Party, and the Birther movement to take control of the Republican Party from its conservative power base. He adopted just enough tenets of conservative Republicanism, such as lower taxes, to assuage the conservative base. But, he adeptly, parleyed his grip on the populist undercurrent to reinvent another aberration in the two-party system, the Know-Nothing Party. In 1854, the Know-Nothings actually had about 20% of the seats in the US Congress, but they disappeared and were absorbed by the Democrats in order to offset the upstart liberal Republicans. In the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party had built a strong third party on a platform that called for limitations on immigration, the exclusion of foreign-born Americans from voting or holding public office, and a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. The Know-Nothing party was also hostile to elites, and to expertise and foreign connections, and was deeply suspicious of outsiders and academics. Does that sound like anything you have heard of lately?

Fast forward to 2020, when Trump has so undercut the conservative power base of the traditional Republican Party that they appear frightened to stand up for what they have always stood for. We face the current (mid-November 2020) political void left by the silence of a thousand Republican leaders in the face of the near-autocratic scheme Trump is pulling with the election outcome and the damage it is doing to our nation. This situation is what frightens me — not that Trump will succeed, but that his effort will so damage the traditional Republican Party that it will undercut the two-party system in coming years. Both parties have undergone a radical metamorphosis in the past, sometimes switching places entirely. Third-party upstarts, like the Know-Nothings, Bull Moose, Perot’s Reform, etc., have appeared and disappeared over time. This may happen again. However, we live in very extraordinary times. The pandemic has pointed out how fragile our way of life is. Climate change threatens to destroy our livelihood. Economic pressures are ever-increasing. The established economic and political system in America is not working well for a huge segment of the American people. Trump seeks to energize a part of that segment, but his quasi-racist, anti-science, often hateful positions, and ethics alienate another huge part of that segment. A large group of the Democratic Party is pushing for political change to address the economic disparity and climate woes. Biden is caught between the mainstream moderate Democrats, the people of color, the old labor-oriented power base, and the more radical wing of Sanders that is not afraid to say “democratic socialist.” At the same time, the moderate to conservative Republicans of the ilk of Romney and Kasich must deal with the personality cult of the populist movement Trump has invented, whether you want to call them “Deplorables” or “Know-Nothings.” At the same time, the Republicans have still not dealt with the schism between the moderate and conservative wings therein, so there are three forces in the Republican Party at work, the moderates, the conservatives, and the Trump populists. It seems that both sides of the traditional two-party system are being pulled in two or more directions, with moderates and traditionalists in both parties being beset by a radical wing and politically dynamic forces from within.

Thus, you can see my reason for concern. In this world of enormous pressures and problems, the normal bilateral tête-à-tête that has allowed the two-party system to work so well for 230 years has powerful political forces within each party that are headed in multiple different directions. The moderates of Obama’s ilk are in many ways closer to the moderates in the Republican Party like Kasich, than they are to those on the far left who think Sanders failed by not pushing harder to the left. The Trump populists are happy to use the political platform the traditional Republican Party gave Trump, but large parts of Trumpists raison d’être has nothing much to do with traditional Republican Party platforms from even as recently as the Reagan-Bush years. Reagan wanted to tear down walls, not build them. Biden wants to bring everyone together, but the Trumpists want nothing to do with compromise, any more than the Occupy Wall Street/Defund Police wing of Biden’s party does. The American People did not give Biden any mandate for radical change, all he received was a mandate to lead us away from Trump’s chaos and back to some sense of normalcy. On top of that, the Trumpists are building a false-front mindset that denies that there was any kind of mandate to Biden, because “Trump won!” The attack on our electoral system by Trump and his odd set of radicals is particularly dangerous in a time when the traditional strength of a two-party system cannot be counted on.

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