Friday, February 15, 2013

A liberal illusion to worry about

No, I don't mean that The Liberals are secretly inviting the black-helmeted UN Agenda 21 storm troopers to force us all to tear up the pavement on our roads and eat our vegetables.

I mean the notion that the Republican Party's radicalization that has been well underway nationally for the last 35 years or so and even more dramatically since 1994 will wreck their ability to get elected. Exhibit A for today, Steve Erickson in The Grand Old Jurassic Party The American Prospect 02/14/2013:

The Republican Party is a presidential election away from extinction. If it can’t win the 2016 contest, and unless it has bolstered its congressional presence beyond the benefits of gerrymandered redistricting — which is to say not only retaking the Senate but polling more votes than the opposition nationally — the party will die. It will die not for reasons of "branding" or marketing or electoral cosmetics but because the party is at odds with the inevitable American trajectory in the direction of liberty, and with its own nature; paradoxically the party of Abraham Lincoln, which once saved the Union and which gives such passionate lip service to constitutionality, has come to embody the values of the Confederacy in its hostility to constitutional federalism and the civil bonds that the founding document codifies. The Republican Party will vanish not because of what its says but because of what it believes, not because of how it presents itself but because of who it is when it thinks no one is looking. [my emphasis]
As Charlie Pierce might say: honky, please.

And speaking of Charlie Pierce, who has been carefully following the Republican Party's long journey into Bircher and Birther crazy, here he is writing about The Hagel Mess Esquire Politics Blog 02/14/2013:

The Republicans have shown no sign that they believe their public dysfunction hurts them. They wallow in it. They bring it right up from the cellar, shine it up, and leave it in the middle of living room for the entertainment of their guests. They take it for a walk around Capitol Hill. They have created from it a political identity with which they are more than comfortable. They have shown no sign that they regard making the national-security policy of the country hostage to the ranting incoherence of Jim Inhofe, or the wounded self-regard of John McCain, or the electoral night-sweats of Lindsey Graham, as anything less than the fullest exercise of their responsibility. And, even if they do manage to lose enough people on the margins to allow Hagel's nomination to slide through, there's no indication that they intend to stop using him as a pinata, or that they intend to rein in the wilder members of their caucus, even if McConnell could do it, which he can't.
And there's this from historian Rick Perlstein, who has lately been focusing on the remarkable continuity of the far right fringe, which is now pretty much the whole Republican Party, in Why a Permanent Democratic Majority Is Not a Demographic Inevitability (Part One: Antecedents) The Nation 02/04/2013. He's responding to an argument by Jonathan Chait focused on the supposedly relentless demographics working against the Grumpy Old People (GOP) party:

It is the curse of the historian to be long-memoried. First thing. Pace Chait, "frantic, fearful response" is the default reaction of conservatives to every moment of liberal ascendency. (See, for instance, the rise of the Minutemen upon the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, which I wrote about in my last post, and the general reactionary mass mobilizations against Kennedy, which I wrote about in my 2001 book, Before the Storm). Second thing. "Last chance"? We've seen last chances before. Later in this series, I’ll address some of the fallacies in the specific arguments such folks have been making about today’s supposed demographic inevitability. For now lets' review the overflowing cornucopia of past moments of when Democrats were supposed to rule the universe forever.

There was 1964. Following Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming landslide victory over Barry Goldwater — at 61 to 38.5 in the popular vote and 486 to 52 in the electoral college, far more staggering than Obama’s not-at-all-overwhelming 51 percent to 47 percent and 332 to 206—the pundits said things like, If the Republicans continue “advocating reactionary changes at home and adventures abroad that might lead to war” (this was the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief), "they will remain a minority party indefinitely.” Those arguments were fundamentally demographic: The nation had been 38 percent rural in the 1950 census and 33 percent rural in the 1960 census, and falling. So how could an ideology of backward rural folk—conservatism—possibly survive?

The conclusion was on every supposedly intelligent person’s lips, but it betrayed an actual idiocy. The census classified an American as "rural" (if memory services) if they lived in a municipality with 5,000 residents or less. That excluded suburbanites, of course — and Goldwaterite proclivities was of course the reason many of them lived in suburbs in the first place. In any event, the Republicans bounced back handily by 1966, borne aloft in many cases by big-city voters (for instance, Chicagoans in the Illinois senate race) who ran screaming from the Democrats' continued embrace of civil rights during a season of riots. [my emphasis in bold]
Erickson is making an even more dubious argument, which is based on a sort of sentimental faith in progress, "the inevitable American trajectory in the direction of liberty."

The reality is that the United States has a famously binomial electoral system, which has produced a two-party system basically from the start of the Constitutional government. Today's Democratic Party is the same organization that began its group life as the Republican-Democratic Party led by Thomas Jefferson. Given my fondness for Jacksonian democracy, I would like to argue that Old Hickory was the actual founder of today's Democratic Party, as one of my college professors argued years ago. But it was only the name that changed during that period.

The Republican Party began as an antislavery and pro-Northern-industry party in 1854, and traces its organizational history all the way back to that time. The two-party system that was in place in 1854 is still in place today, though it looks very different ideologically and most every other way. That fact alone should give pause to anyone tempted to predict the imminent passing of one of those two parties into the dustbin of history. The Democratic Party was the leader of the Confederate revolt, but it survived even the Civil War.

Historical speculation is fun. But about all I'm willing to indulge in here is this one. The Democratic Party has a conservative and a progressive wing, though no star pundit would use the term "conservative" to describe austerity economics that owes more to Herbert Hoover than to Franklin Roosevelt. There is no clear organizational basis for distinguishing a conservative and liberal faction with the Democratic Party, though most of the labor movement and various activist groups would qualify as part of the progressive side. The more conservative side, distinguished most clearly right now by its willingness to entertain the notion of benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, actually includes a large number of elected officials including President Obama. But its most distinguishing organizational manifestations, like the Blue Dog grouping in Congress or the Democratic Leadership Council, have dwindled even as corporate money boosted its influence over the national party significantly.

I could imagine a set of events that could result in conservative Democrats splitting off and joining the Republican Party, even dominating it. This would be a variation of the postpartisan vision that Obama articulated just before the 2012 election. Republicans and most Democrats in Congress would agree to a Grand Bargain that cuts benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and raises taxes a little more on the plutocrats, and most everyone would then decide that there are no more ideological issues to argue about. There will be only practical issues to decide, like the precise terms of trade agreements that further decimate environmental laws, labor rights and business regulations, or choosing which countries to go to war with that quarter. Obama would announce he's joining the Republican Party, and Joe Biden would agree to step down as Vice President to make way for Marco Rubio. Most Democrats in Congress would then switch parties, and we would have a soundly respectable Republican Party headed for the moment by Barack Obama. There would be a rump Democratic Party to represent the few malcontents who were too lazy or irresponsible to accept minimum wage jobs flipping burgers or providing personal services for billionaires. David Brooks would reign as the Emerson of the 21st century.

Just stating it shows the obvious problems with this whole thing. The economy is still weak, and Obama is arguing with the Republicans over how much austerity to impose. The Republicans merrily continue to be obstructionists. And unfortunately for this scenario, those annoying liberals who support obsolete programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are defending very popular positions. But if the economy continues to limp along, or to go into another recession due to austerity, and the Democratic President succeeds in getting the Republicans to agree to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the voters' discontent is likely to flow into the binomial option available to them: the Republican Party, loony policies and all.

And despite "the inevitable American trajectory in the direction of liberty," the segregated South was able to impose racist voting restrictions and neurotically nasty Jim Crow laws for 90 years during that inevitable trajectory.

If we had a Democratic President who was oriented toward using the weakness and fanaticism of the Republican Party to get Democratic programs enacted and to aggressively handle issues like women's rights and gun regulation to discredit the Radical Republicans' ugly ideologies, then a collapse of the Republican Party would be more credible.

But that's not Barack Obama, the man who can't give up the quest for no-red-America-no-blue-America, who likes to give the occasional progressive speech but when it comes to negotiating prefers to compromise first, then negotiate. It's more likely that he will continue to pursue his compromising course, unless labor and the progressives for which he has such evident contempt push him to do otherwise. Otherwise, he will continue to enable the Republicans by constantly repeating their framing on issues like The Deficit and by showing up to the National Prayer Breakfast to be scolded in person by stone dogmatic conservative fundamentalists, happily sitting there as their punching bag.

The White House Correspondents' Dinner, aka, the Nerd Prom, will be coming up April 27. That will give him a chance to joke about old people who are such losers they expect to get Social Security and Medicare and about silly liberals who worry about the unemployment rate.

No, I don't think the Republican Party is on its deathbed with the Democratic Party in the state its in.

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