Something’s happening. I have a feeling we’re at some new beginning, that a big breakup’s coming, and that though it isn’t and will not be immediately apparent, we’ll someday look back on this era as the time when a shift began.
All my adult life, people have been saying that the two-party system is ending, that the Democrats’ and Republicans’ control of political power in America is winding down. According to the traditional critique, the two parties no longer offer the people the choice they want and deserve. Sometimes it’s said they are too much alike—Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Sometimes it’s said they’re too polarizing—too red and too blue for a nation in which many see things through purple glasses.
In 1992 Ross Perot looked like the breakthrough, the man who would make third parties a reality. He destabilized the Republicans and then destabilized himself. By the end of his campaign he seemed to be the crazy old aunt in the attic.
The Perot experience seemed to put an end to third-party fever. But I think it’s coming back, I think it’s going to grow, and I think the force behind it is unique in our history.
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This week there was a small boomlet of talk about a new internet entity called Unity ’08—a small collection of party veterans including moderate Democrats (former Carter aide Hamilton Jordan) and liberal-leaning Republicans (former Ford hand Doug Bailey) trying to join together with college students and broaden the options in the 2008 election. In terms of composition, Unity seems like the Concord Coalition, the bipartisan group (Warren Rudman, Bob Kerrey) that warns against high spending and deficits.
Unity seems to me to have America’s growing desire for more political options right. But I think they’ve got the description of the problem wrong.
Their idea is that the two parties are too polarized to govern well. It is certainly true that the level of partisanship in Washington seems high. (Such things, admittedly, ebb, flow and are hard to judge. We look back at the post-World War II years and see a political climate of relative amity and moderation. But Alger Hiss and Dick Nixon didn’t see it that way.) Nancy Pelosi seems to be pretty much in favor of anything that hurts Republicans, and Ken Mehlman is in favor of anything that works against Democrats. They both want their teams to win. Part of winning is making sure the other guy loses, and part of the fun of politics, of any contest, of life, can be the dance in the end zone.
But the dance has gotten dark.
Partisanship is fine when it’s an expression of the high animal spirits produced by real political contention based on true political belief. But the current partisanship seems sour, not joyous. The partisanship has gotten deeper as less separates the governing parties in Washington. It is like what has been said of academic infighting: that it’s so vicious because the stakes are so low.
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The problem is not that the two parties are polarized. In many ways they’re closer than ever. The problem is that the parties in Washington, and the people on the ground in America, are polarized. There is an increasing and profound distance between the rulers of both parties and the people—between the elites and the grunts, between those in power and those who put them there.
On the ground in America, people worry terribly—really, there are people who actually worry about it every day—about endless, weird, gushing government spending. But in Washington, those in power—Republicans and Democrats—stand arm in arm as they spend and spend. (Part of the reason is that they think they can buy off your unhappiness one way or another. After all, it’s worked in the past. A hunch: It’s not going to work forever or much longer. They’ve really run that trick into the ground.)
On the ground in America, regular people worry about the changes wrought by the biggest wave of immigration in our history, much of it illegal and therefore wholly connected to the needs of the immigrant and wholly unconnected to the agreed-upon needs of our nation. Americans worry about the myriad implications of the collapse of the American border. But Washington doesn’t. Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican George W. Bush see things pretty much eye to eye. They are going to educate the American people out of their low concerns.
There is a widespread sense in America—a conviction, actually—that we are not safe in the age of terror. That the port, the local power plant, even the local school, are not protected. Is Washington worried about this? Not so you’d notice. They’re only worried about seeming unconcerned.
More to the point, people see the Republicans as incapable of managing the monster they’ve helped create—this big Homeland Security/Intelligence apparatus that is like some huge buffed guy at the gym who looks strong but can’t even put on his T-shirt without help because he’s so muscle-bound. As for the Democrats, who co-created Homeland Security, no one—no one—thinks they would be more managerially competent. Nor does anyone expect the Democrats to be more visionary as to what needs to be done. The best they can hope is the Democrats competently serve their interest groups and let the benefits trickle down.
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Right now the Republicans and Democrats in Washington seem, from the outside, to be an elite colluding against the voter. They’re in agreement: immigration should not be controlled but increased, spending will increase, etc.
Are there some dramatic differences? Yes. But both parties act as if they see them not as important questions (gay marriage, for instance) but as wedge issues. Which is, actually, abusive of people on both sides of the question. If it’s a serious issue, face it. Don’t play with it.
I don’t see any potential party, or potential candidate, on the scene right now who can harness the disaffection of growing portions of the electorate. But a new group or entity that could define the problem correctly—that sees the big divide not as something between the parties but between America’s ruling elite and its people—would be making long strides in putting third party ideas in play in America again.