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Political Fragmentation on the Homefront

Photo Source Jackie | CC BY 2.0

The United States is politically fragmenting. It would seem that the various cultural and ideological stresses impacting the nation are destabilizing the country’s two traditional political parties.

At this point in the fragmentation process we can identify four political groupings. They are (1) those of Democratic Party persuasion—and it should be noted that the Democrats are being stressed by contesting interpretations of just what the party stands for; (2) those of continuing Republican Party persuasion, which by now really represents a small “rump” party of Trump supporters; (3) the independents now bolstered by what once was the “moderate” multitude of the Republican Party as well as a growing number of ex-Democrats on the disaffected left; and (4) the mass of apoliticalAmericans who have always been alienated from politics and usually do not vote. This last group also may well be growing. Let’s look at these four groups in more detail against the backdrop of contemporary events.

Democratic Party Under Stress

There are reported to be some 43 million registered Democrats in the U.S. We know, however, that the Democratic Party has been having trouble translating their numbers into continuous electoral success. Why so? Part of the answer has to do with the fact that the party leaders concentrate on recruiting and satisfying a constituency of centrists. This not only leaves the leftists consistently frustrated, but also often disappoints ordinary liberals. One problem with this strategy is that the Democrats have to compete for that center element with Republicans, who are out to recruit the same centrist voters. The resulting split vote often leaves the Democrats as electoral losers. Of course, the moderate Republicans are now politically adrift, but that does not mean they will become Democrats. As we will see, they have at least one other option.

Another major problem with today’s Democratic Party is its stagnant leadership. The leaders who represent the party machine—Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives and Charles Schumer in the Senate—are products of the traditional political scene described above. They are rhetorically stuck on the theme of broadening the middle class through the creation of an ever better economy. However, economies by their very nature not only expand but also contract. New concerns such as resurgent racism (embraced by many older middle-class white men) and the threat of ecological disaster seem beyond their political awareness. And, their ability to deal with backlashes due to issues such as abortion, drugs, immigration, LGBTQ rights and the like have been ineffectual. Thus the present Democratic leadership is out of touch and has been proven incapable of responding to the country’s shifting domestic social problems. As far as foreign policy goes, both Democratic leaders are ignorant and have lost sight of what are real U.S. interests abroad. In Schumer’s case, he has long ago sold out to the Zionists. Schumer has but one foreign policy issue that interests him—Israel.

It is against this background that Bernie Sanders mounted his rebellious opposition against Hillary Clinton (another machine politician) in 2016. It is also against this background that several long-term urban-based Democratic politicians have recently lost their primary bids to more daring and progressive challengers. For those of us who see themselves as serious leftists, this appears to be a forward-looking turn of events. However, due to an increasing number of alienated conservatives who now characterize themselves as “independents” progress in this direction might be hard to maintain.

The Rump Republicans

The Republican Party has already gone through the sort of identity crisis now challenging the Democrats. That crisis literally destroyed what was the traditional Republican Party. The process began with the rebellion of the party’s once marginal Tea Party faction and has now been completed by Donald Trump’s leadership coup. The result is a rump party. By the term “rump party” I mean the residual of a once larger group, many of the members of which have been pushed away by policy positions they can no longer support. In this case an extreme rightwing Republican faction captured what was a more centrist conservative organization and remade it in its own image.

This faction had long been present among the Republicans. One saw a glimpse of its potential in the 1964 presidential candidacy of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. The rise of the Tea Party Republicans around 2008-2009 captured many of the Republican primary elections in the south and west of the country. The main interest of this faction is the dismantling of “big government.” For instance, there should be no welfare—individual or corporate. There should be little or no government regulation of the private sector. Whole departments of the federal government (for instance Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, etc.) should be shut down or privatized because when run by the government they are supposedly both inefficient and intrusive in people’s lives.

One might think that this equals greater liberty, and that is certainly the Tea Party interpretation of their ends. However, the odd thing about this brand of rightwing “liberty” is that it is quite compatible with certain expressions of fascist authoritarianism. For instance, most Tea Party politicians take a hard, punitive position on immigration policy. There isn’t a lot of concern about police brutality against minorities, and the movement is generally supportive of “gun rights.” These positions have made an alliance, at least on domestic issues, with an authoritarian Donald Trump, easy to achieve.

However, as the Trump-Tea Party alliance became more powerful within the Republican party, numerous traditional Republicans (for instance, those who believe that compromise between the major parties is the best way to govern) started to back away from the party. Thus, when you read that the“Trump bump has become a tsunami” because he has “a 90% approval rating with Republican primary voters and two thirds are in the ‘strong approve category,’” don’t take the claim at face value. You have to ask, 90 percent of what overall number? Is that overall number getting smaller and smaller? As a Brookings study tells it, “for Republicans, party identification took a sharp drop at the end of George W. Bush’s second term and never really recovered. The trend seems to have taken another drop after Trump’s election.” It may be the case that self-identifying Republicans now represent no more than “21.6 percent of the electorate as a whole.”

The Independents

The Republican Party isn’t the only one losing members. The Democrats are too, just at a slower rate—at least as of now. Overall what this means isa steady rise in those who now see themselves as “independents.” Forty-two percent of politically aware Americans described themselves this way in 2017. This was up from 39 percent a year earlier. The number has been generally climbing since 2009.

One reason why independents are independent is because neither political party has been able to solve the problem of social transition in America. The problem isn’t so much an economic one as one of social ideology—the old question of what sort of values the country should stand for. Since the 1960s the nation has been generally transitioning from a white-ascendent, segregated, sexually straight and gender-biased place to a more racially equal, integrated, sexually open, gender-tolerant society. You would think that any decent person would see this as a good way to go. But most human beings are only decent within their acculturated group—which may well be a prejudiced one—and to hell with most others. That attitude has led to the political blowback that has brought with it the Trump presidency.

The alienation felt by independents doesn’t mean that they are all liberals. While it may be true that many of them would favor greater compromise and cooperation in governing, these are not easy ends to achieve, particularly within a political culture dominated by special interests. Nonetheless, to the extent that neither the Republican Party nor the Democrat Party has the political will to advocate and practice such a strategy, they will continue to shrink in numbers. Then, new parties may be organized and/or the number of Americans who simply drop out of politics altogether—that is become apolitical—will grow.

The Apolitical

There is a sense in which being apolitical should be the default position of a majority of Americans. This follows from the fact that most folks operate in small, local environments and, if they were to develop any deep interest in politics, it too would be the local sort. This situation has to be qualified by the further fact that many U.S. citizens believe that all politics is corrupt in nature, as well as the awareness that the true movers and shakers are well-funded special interests. The end product is a citizen who is often left with a sense of powerlessness melded with disgust. Thus, in presidential elections the turnout nationwide is usually below 63 percent of eligible voters.

The apolitical sector may well grow very fast in the next decade as independents withdraw into apathy and indifference. If this happens, it is likely to hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans. That is because the Democratic machine politicians are counting on the alienated Republicans to cross the political line to their side. For better or worse, that is not the only option those people have. Most of them have been Republicans for their entire lives, and it took a narcissistic sociopath like Donald Trump to push them away. Their inclination is not to run and vote for a Democrat. It will more likely be to stay at home on election day.

And this may be only half the bad news for the Democrats. We have seen how their leadership is stuck in a status quo rut. Schumer and Pelosi are going to be more comfortable trying to cater to centrist Republicans than leftist Democrats. The more they pursue the former, the more they push the latter first into the ranks of the independents and then, barring the rise of a genuine Democratic Socialist Party, into the apolitical morass.

It is a time of fragmentation and uncertainty for both political parties. Mass electoral rejection of Trump and his “deplorable” allies might lead to the recapture of the Republican Party by “moderates,” or maybe to a new party arising to give all those alienated conservatives a fresh home. Maybe the Democrats get new and dynamic leadership or maybe the old guard continues to run that party right into the ground. It is all up in the air.

And what will be the fate of the Democratic Party’s left wing? Will Bernie Sanders dare sponsor a new party if, as is probable, it becomes clear that the Democrats cannot be moved to the left? And what if he does dare? Will it prove viable within the American political milieu? Well, just keep in mind who now owns the U.S. political copyright on the traditionally communist-denoting color “red.” Those “red states” are Republican—a sure sign that the political scene has turned topsy-turvy here on the homefront.

 

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

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