Coming Apart at the Seams

The Two National Political Parties are Unraveling.

The two national political parties are unpopular, increasingly out of touch with Main Street Americans, and shrinking. These facts alone suggest that their days are numbered.  But each Party’s lack of internal coherence will cement its demise.  As recent events have shown, the factions that comprise each party are increasingly at war with one another, and the parties can no longer effectively paper over their internal differences.  All of the Republican Party’s loose threads are now fully visible, and those in the Democratic Party are starting to show.  Voters, donors, party officials, interest groups, and commentators are all now starting to pull, and the parties are unraveling as a result.

Today, the incoherence in the Republican Party is increasingly open and obvious.

  • Why do those whose politics are driven by faith keep company with secularists who believe in the invisible hand? Conservatives who vote based on their faith typically favor greater intervention in daily life whereas those who defend free markets favor less.
  • Why do those who actually believe in smaller federal government and the “laboratory of the states” associate with those who are “federalists of convenience” and seek to use federal power to overturn state actions with which they disagree?
  • Why do those who favor a more effective and efficient federal government align with those who routinely consider shutting the government down, thereby contributing to its perpetual dysfunction and inefficiency?
  • How can those who believe in free markets and free trade be part of a political party that is increasingly dominated by isolationists, protectionists, and xenophobes?
  • For those Republicans who know what the “party of Lincoln” means, do they believe they are still part of it?

The modern Democratic Party is slightly more coherent, with its emphasis on government intervention to promote a broad theory of social justice, but there are many strange bedfellows among Democrats as well.

  • Why do people who favor choice in one’s private life align with those who seek to limit choice in other aspects of daily life, including the schools a person can attend, the car service she can hire, the car she can buy, and the room she can rent?
  • Why do those who favor tolerance for all people and religions tolerate those who are increasingly intolerant of speech with which they disagree?
  • Why do people who care deeply about eradicating poverty align with those who oppose free trade, which has literally lifted billions of people out of poverty?
  • How do those who believe that government should protect the financial interests of all citizens and future generations go along with those who take money from the public sector employee unions and then “bargain” to increase public employee pay and pension benefits to unsustainable levels?
  • How do pro-growth progressives find themselves pitching a political tent with socialists and anti-growth environmentalists?

As a result of these obvious and substantial internal differences, the parties are now, in effect, in various stages of civil war.

For the Republicans, the war was simmering when Christie Todd Whitman resigned as the Administrator of the EPA, and it then started to boil when social and anti-tax conservatives began running primary challengers to the right of Republican incumbents.  The Freedom Caucus then tormented the “establishment” in the House of Representatives for years, drove much of the dysfunction in Washington, and secured the resignation of Speaker Boehner.  Today, there is a loose cease fire in place that Speaker Ryan is having difficulty enforcing.  There is, of course, no such cease fire in the presidential election.  The rise of Donald Trump has become an explicit war waged by a coalition of angry isolationist, protectionist, authoritarian, and xenophobic voters against establishment Republicans.

Whether it happens before November or after a damaging general election campaign by Mr. Trump, the Republican Party is headed for a split. Leading conservative commentators have called for it, and major donors are seriously considering it.  Given the irreconcilable differences between the Republican factions, it is inevitable.  This is true whether the establishment kicks out the insurgents or abandons the party to them and seeks shelter in a third-party.  The only real question is whether the “new” party that emerges from the establishment wing will be a viable modern party or merely lipstick on a pig (i.e., simply an effort to repair the “true conservative” coalition).  If the latter, it will be a pyric victory for the establishment.  With ever increasing numbers of Millennial and socially-liberal voters, a party that doubles down on an alliance between social and fiscal conservatives will not be able to win national elections and will soon be unable to compete in a large number of states (beyond California, New York, and much of New England).

Gleeful Democrats, however, have their own house of cards to prop up. Although the party may not be in full-fledged internecine warfare, there are minor and major skirmishes being fought on multiple fronts.  Most visibly, the party is starting to vacillate between left-of-center economic policies and socialism, with Bernie Sanders leading the lurch to the far left.  There are splits emerging between groups that favor the traditional alliance with public sector unions and those that do not.  Groups like Govern for California, for example, support Democratic candidates willing to tackle public education, pension, and benefit reforms.  In the world of higher education, there is open fighting between Democrats who favor free speech and those who wish to protect feelings.  In the near future, the biggest fault line in the Democratic Party may lie between those who wish to protect the old economy and those seeking innovative disruption, as the Airbnb vote in San Francisco foreshadowed.

But right now, the major problem for the Democrats is that Hillary Clinton simply cannot shake Mr. Sanders – the far left in the Democratic Party threatens their establishment almost as much as Mr. Trump does on the other side. If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, will those who supported Mr. Sanders vote for her or stay home?  Can Mrs. Clinton win a general election when many of the states she is winning in the primaries will almost certainly vote Republican in a general election?  Can Democrats continue to win nationwide elections when economic conservatives outnumber economic liberals by a 2:1 margin?  The answer in the near-term is “possibly,” so long as Republicans nominate divisive candidates and more socially liberal voters continue to prioritize social issues over economic issues at the ballot box.   But the Democrats are one cut away from hemorrhaging voters.  A socially-liberal party that favored the new economy, smart growth, and government reform would siphon off large numbers of Democratic-leaning voters.  Michael Bloomberg figured this out and chose not to run for President as a result.  He didn’t want to weaken Mrs. Clinton and hand the election to Mr. Trump.

There is no question that the parties are unraveling, albeit at different speeds. Their loose threads are exposed and voters are increasingly pulling on them.  The question that remains is whether anyone will weave these threads into one or more new parties that cater to more centrist voters.

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