Party Animals?

Michael Lind is a centrist Democrat. This piece (which was published in the New York Times on April 16) represents what he hopes is happening. On the other hand, he may be right and it doesn’t really matter what he is hoping. He sounds right to me.

Partisan Realignment

Lind surveys two processes in this piece on the way to coming to his conclusion. The first is partisan realignment. He describes that as “the breakup of the mid-20th-century Democrats and Republicans and the reshuffling of voter blocs among the two parties.”

menu 2It is easy to remember the Democratic party as “the party of American liberalism,” and that is true as far as it goes. It is not so easy to remember that “the party of American liberalism” was held in power by the solid South. That Democratic party was the party of “I have a dream,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it and also of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” as Gov. George Wallace of Alabama put it. Both in 1963, by the way.

You could call that kind of variation hypocrisy. You could call it diversity. You could call it practical politics. Whatever you call it, the civil rights movement put too much strain on it for King’s party and Wallace’s party to continue to be Democrats and the “Solid South,” once solidly Democratic, became solidly Republican.

Policy Realignment

Once the parties were sorted into ideologically coherent groupings, these groupings—Republican and Democratic voters—began demanding ideological consistency from their elected representatives. Or, as Lind puts it, “the adjustment of what each party stands for to its existing voter base.”

Now there’s a good way to look at this and a bad way. The good way is: This is democracy; this is what is supposed to happen. The voters, in their capacity as “the sovereign authority,” express their policy preferences and the candidates who most closely match them are elected and become “the government” and put them into practice. The legislators make the laws [1] and the executive [2] sees to it that those laws are implemented [3].

Two Restaurants

It really doesn’t work that way and it hasn’t ever worked that way. What happens is more like this. A couple walks down a main street, pausing at each restaurant to read the menu in the window. They do not start with “chicken and dumplings made the way mother usedmenu 1 to make them” in mind and search until they find a restaurant that offers that dish. They choose a “kind of restaurant:” vegetarian or Thai or, in Portland, Ethiopian and they go in and sit down and whatever happens is what happens.

So that’s the good way. Over time, the “bad restaurants” go out of business because the customers (voters) don’t choose them. Power to the people! But if you look carefully at what Lind is saying, you see that there are no longer two major restaurants with extensive menus. You don’t go in anymore and choose from the menu. “The kind of food you will get here” is painted all over the front of the building and you get your choice between Honkin’ Huge Burritos with all the hot sauce you can stand and cream of broccoli soup with a nicely seasoned crêpe.

When the customers no longer drive the menu options, the owners are free to do it themselves. And the owners are not relying on revenue from customers to keep the restaurants open anyway, so they can serve whatever they want. There is nowhere you can go to get a hamburger and fries, but then again—if you believe the political ads on TV—you really shouldn’t want a burger–even a tofu burger–and fries. Here’s what you ought to want…and then you get the picture of the restaurant as if it were a stump speech.

That’s where we are. Anyone can tell that just by following the news. What Lind has to say is that this is not an aberration. This is the way it is going to be for the foreseeable future. That’s what he means when he, or whoever wrote his headline for him, says that “TRUMPISM AND CLINTONISM [4] ARE THE FUTURE.

menu 3The voters have organized themselves into two cohesive voting blocks. Now they are requiring that the parties become ideologically cohesive parties. And, partly in response to that, the parties are repelling each other [5] and becoming more and more different. The politicians who succeed within these highly polarized parties are the ones who best represent the polarized electorate. What Lind means by his headline is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton best represent their respective parties.  (I especially like this picture because of the alternation of foreground and background.)

Once upon a time, Lind tells us, there were “Rockefeller Republicans.” Those were centrist pro-business Republicans who were in most ways undistinguishable from the Democrats of those days. More cautious about social change, maybe; more inclined to leave the states to their own devices. But not fundamentally different. And not angry. If you ever saw pictures of Nelson Rockefeller running for the Republican nomination and trying to look angry, you know what I mean.

And there were southern conservative Democrats in those days. Some years the split was too big to finesse. In 1948, Strom Thurman and other southern Democrats stormed out of the Democratic convention and formed the Dixiecrat party, hoping to deny incumbent Harry Truman an electoral success. That failed and southern leaders returned to the Democratic party, where they held nearly all the leadership positions in the Congress.

When the two parties contained minority wings, they were compelled to be more menu 4moderate. The Democrats were “in favor of” civil rights in the south, for instance, and they “urged the southern states” to be more fair and moderate. They did not pass binding civil rights legislation and put money into implementing it. Not in those days. It would have…you know…split the party.

So now both the parties are split. The former Dixicrats are now Republicans and the former Rockefeller Republicans are now Democrats. [6] So both parties are “one entreé restaurants” and that’s the way it is going to stay. Here’s what Lind says.

Whatever becomes of his bid for the presidency, Mr. Trump exposed the gap between what orthodox conservative Republicans offer and what today’s dominant Republican voters actually want — middle-class entitlements plus crackdowns on illegal immigrants, Muslims, foreign trade rivals and free-riding allies.

And on the other side, it looks like this.

At the same time, the success of the Democrats in winning the popular vote for the presidency in every election since 1992 except 2004 has convinced most Democratic strategists that they don’t need socially conservative, economically liberal Reagan or Wallace Democrats any more. Many Democrats hope that the long-term growth of the Obama coalition, caused chiefly by the growth of the Latino share of the electorate, will create an all but inevitable Democratic majority in the executive branch and perhaps eventually in the government as a whole. The Clintonian synthesis of pro-business, finance-friendly economics with social and racial liberalism no longer needs to be diluted, as it was in the 1990s, by opportunistic appeals to working-class white voters.

I think Lind is right about where we are going. The restaurant/menu metaphor I use isn’t perfect, but it does point to what I think is the most important truth. Each kind of restaurant is “controlling” the political process by two principal means. First, they are advertising for diners (political propaganda). The candidates are marketed like new model cars. Second, the parties squelch meaningful alternatives. Anyone who proposed a hamburger and fries restaurant to compete with the two major kinds would be asking for a visit from an Inspector from the Department of Health and something—trust me on this—would be found not up to code. [7]

[1] The word means “they who bear the law.” Notice the “carrying” image.
[2] The word means the “following out” of a previous decision. The root word, well hidden in the modern English is sequi, from which we get sequence and sequel. “Following out” would be a great deal easier if the executive and the legislative were not formally co-equal branches, but they are.
[3] Implementation requires a new picture entirely. If you can see plenum = full (as in plenary) in there, then you can appreciate the picture that the “law” at the point that it has been passed, is an intention only and therefore “empty.” It is the job of the executive—and all others bound by the Constitution—to “fill it up” with actual policy. We say “to put meat on the bones” sometimes.  The law is just the bones.
[4] Lind’s distinction looks like this: “Hillary Clintonism, that is, a slightly more progressive version of neoliberalism freed of the strategic concessions to white working-class voters associated with Bill Clintonism.”
[5] There’s a joke there, but I’m not going for it. I have “repel as magnetic polarities repel each other” in mind.
[6] This didn’t all happen at once, of course. Senator Mark Hatfield used to tell me that he and the other eight “moderate” (his term) Republicans in the Senate were ignored by both parties’ leaders. Hatfield said the senators referred to themselves as “the nine lepers.” And Hatfield didn’t leave the Senate until 1997.
[7] If you are the kind of person who likes real life examples better, just check the variety of requirements the 50 states have invented to make third parties who want to play the presidential game hard to start.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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