The Republican Party Falls Apart, the Democrats Get Stuck

Photo by DonkeyHotey | Public Domain

The Republican Party has been falling apart for at least 54 years. The official start of this process can be dated to 1964, when the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater captured the GOP nomination for president. When asked his plans if elected, he replied, “I do not plan to pass laws. I plan to repeal them.”  That was a signal that he was intent on changing the role of government. His goal was to narrow the government down to the basic tasks of defending the realm (the military), enforcing a diminishing number of federal laws (the courts), and providing only those few necessary services that the “free market” could not take care of. This goal would, theoretically, reduce taxes to a minimum and increase individual “freedom” to a maximum. Goldwater did not win the election, but he did get nearly 40% of the vote. For those who at the time believed in an active role for government (as Democrats say they do) this should have been a red flag.

Goldwater conservatism has survived in the Tea Party phenomenon that has, subsequently, torn the Republican Party apart. The uncompromising nature of Tea Party politics has purged the Republican Party of its moderates—those willing to meet Democrats halfway so as to keep the federal government viable. However, because the unraveling of the party was an essentially uncontrolled process, it opened the way for more than just those interested in minimalist government. It opened the way into Republican politics for social reactionaries, nascent fascists and unscrupulous opportunists. Along the way, some of the conservative Republican goals and values have been discarded.

As Edward-Isaac Dovere notes in his 13 June 2018 Politico piece “This is the New Republican Party”:

“The party of free trade has gone protectionist. The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong Un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion-dollar hole in the budget. Family values and moralizing have been replaced by porn stars and Twitter tantrums.”

Actually, this is the least of it. As suggested above, Barry Goldwater and some of the Tea Party advocates as well wanted smaller government so as to promote an ideal of  greater “freedom.” But political vacuums, such as developed in the Republican Party, rarely promote freedom. Thus, a relatively traditional conservative Republican, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who lost a recent party primary election to an ally of President Donald Trump now complains, that his defeat was a reflection of people’s “disenchantment with the way democracies work.” And such discontent has paved the way for “a strongman” to come along and tell you “you’ve got to give up some freedoms, but if you do, I’ll take care of these problems for you.” Sanford sees Donald Trump as that strongman—someone who has little regard for the Constitution and has betrayed the “the democratic principles that our Founding Fathers laid out.”

This complaint is dismissed by those riding President Trump’s coattails. Corey Stewart, who won his primary in Virginia as an ally of Donald Trump, is now that state’s Republican candidate for the Senate. He is also a social and political reactionary. He is the kind of guy you see flying a Confederate flag from the back of a pickup truck. His advice to people like Sanford is to “deal with it. This is the new Republican Party.” Those who don’t like it are “dinosaurs who need to wake up and understand that President Trump has fundamentally remade” the GOP. Actually, Trump has not remade anything—at least in any organized way. The Republicans were in full disarray by the time he came along and he just stepped in and took over. People like Corey Stewart slipped in at the same time. Essentially, Trump is “winging it” based on intuitive feelings.

The secret to the success of people like Trump and Corey Stewart is that most of what they tell us is humbug, or what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt frankly calls bullshit. 

“Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything [they say is] at all true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.”

Trump’s simple one-liners and stereotyping cliches, delivered in stump speeches or on Tweeter, are perfect examples of Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit.

There is a subset of every population that is susceptible to this sort of shabby salesmanship, particularly when coming from someone who is a bit charismatic. Combine this susceptibility with the sense that the U.S. political system has become generally unresponsive to its citizens, and what you get is a Trump presidency and radicals like Corey Stewart moving, carpetbagger style, into the Republican Party ranks.

The Democratic Party Stuck in Rut

The attitude of the Democratic Party to all this has been—well, let’s just call it outdated. The Democratic Party has not gone through either a breakdown process like the Republicans, or the reform process advocated by Bernie Sanders. Its party leaders, Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives and Charles Schumer in the Senate, are political bureaucrats acting as if nothing has changed. For instance, while millions of Democratic voters are scared of Donald Trump and want to see him confronted and discredited, Pelosi and Schumer have decided that the best strategy is to ignore the president. Thus, the Democrats don’t want to focus on or even talk about Donald Trump.

The Democrats want to talk about “better jobs.” However, with the economy, at least superficially and temporarily, doing well and Trump claiming that he is “making America great again,” the rather shopworn notion that people are only interested in their pocketbooks isn’t going to cut it now, any more than it did in 2016. Even if Trump could not easily deflect the economic argument, it would not be sufficient for a Democratic comeback.

Middle-class economic aspirations are no longer the only deciding factors in U.S. politics. More divisive and ideologically interpreted issues now hold much of the public’s attention. The nation is confronted by a serious racist revival, it is awash in guns, foreign policy crises are multiplying, and we have a “thug in a suit in the White House.” Pelosi and Schumer are pretending these issues are not very important compared to stereotypical pocketbook ones. Perhaps the real dinosaurs are these Democratic leaders.

If you want a historical comparison that might put the present situation in perspective, take the British government of Neville Chamberlain in 1937-1940. At that point Britain had a narrowly competent, wholly unimaginative and uncharismatic leadership who were suddenly faced with an aggressive and lawless adversary.

Chamberlain, like Pelosi and Schumer, could not grasp that something fundamental had changed. We know what happened to Chamberlain. One suspects that the present Democratic Party leadership is likewise doomed to failure.

This does not mean that the Democrats will not make gains in local races. However, they will have to rely on more savvy and independently minded candidates who will move beyond the script of their party leaders. Local victories, where they come, will not  be the product of any central leadership strategy.

What brought down the traditional “moderate” Republicans was their willingness to buy into big government. The Democrats, on the other hand, now have in their fold those who are in favor of a large and active government model. That is, if they can get them to actually come out and vote.

To do so they have to confront other issues. They have to play up the fact that those now in control of the Republican Party are so enamored of socially discredited traditions, and so ignorant of history, that their leadership almost certainly will lead the nation to repeat the worst episodes of its recent past. For instance: weakening the civil rights and equal rights statutes and ignoring issues of poverty and social justice may well bring back the race riots of the 1960s. Deregulating the economy may allow for another depression. And, playing the game of “chicken” in the form of trade wars will loosen the ties of alliances that have underpinned workable trade relations for decades. These should be key issues for the Democrats.

Whatever happens in the mid-term elections, the U.S. is in for a rough ride. The Reformation thinker Desiderius Erasmus once observed: (1) “there are those who live in a dream world.” In our situation that might be the Democratic leaders stuck in their rut. It can also be all those reactionaries, racists, and free market ideologues who hope to “make America great again” by turning back the socioeconomic clock. Then (2) “there are some who face reality.” That might be the Bernie Sanders reformers who want to shake up the Democratic Party so as to make it relevant. It can also be those now organized to defend gains in equality and social justice made since the 1960s. And then (3) “there are those who turn one into the other.”

It is among this third group that the battle for America is being fought. We have reactionary dreamers who want to turn old nightmares into new realities, and progressive realists who want to confirm a challenged reality of equality and social justice into a established roadmap for the future.

Quite frankly, it could go either way. But you can be sure that the world views of both traditional Republican and Democrat politicians are not in contention. The future is not theirs.


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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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