Sunday, October 13, 2013

How American Political Parties Dissolve

As I write this, the US government has been shut down for two weeks, and we are 4 days away from the "X date" where the Treasury Department runs out of workarounds on the debt ceiling and has to stop paying somebody.  (Odds are that this will not lead to a default on bonds, per the link above, but things are going to be dicey.)  I can't decide whether to call the set of House and Senate Republicans driving the standoff the "Obamacare defunders" over their (now fading) insistence on defunding ACA, or just the "Tea Party"; the two groups may be congruent.  I think I'll settle on the Tea Party, with the proviso that there may be a few Tea Party folks who haven't completely bought into this level of brinksmanship.

There are a lot of theories for why we've gotten into a situation where there appears to be no ZOPA over such a fundamental set of government functions.  Some of the most popular:

  • Republican leadership authority has eroded.
  • This kind of brinksmanship is virtually cost-free for Tea Party representatives in safe districts.
  • This is merely a principled stand against something that's worth risking a financial and/or constitutional crisis.
  • This is an excellent way to demonstrate the irrelevance of the federal government to the average voter, sort of a natural follow-on to the Obama Administration crying wolf over the sequester.
  • This is necessary to re-energize the Republican Party.
All of these reasons have some truth in them, but all of these are iffy propositions.  They're all based on extremely dubious judgment calls.  Politicians are notoriously risk-averse and it's hard to believe very many of them are willing to bet their careers on any of them.  What's going on?

The Tea Party has been heedless of the damage they're doing to the Republican brand.  I think that's because they're no longer concerned with that brand in its current form.  The Tea Party has been essentially conducting an ideological purge, drawing a clear demarcation between "us" and "them".  Any person espousing slightest deviation from Tea Party orthodoxy is labelled "them" and is dismissed.  What remains is a clear minority, but it's a minority with a frightening level of unity.

This seems crazy, but there's one situation where it might be astute:  If the Tea Party believes that the moment has come when it can seize control of the Republican Party, then the gamble might be worth it.  The goal of the shutdown and debt ceiling standoff is then to eject Boehner from the speakership and to eliminate the power of the business conservatives and social moderates in the party.  The Tea Party is effectively seceding from the GOP, but it's hoping to carry off enough support to be able to keep the name and the party infrastructure while changing the ideology.

The US has scant experience with the wholesale dissolution of political parties, but what history tells us is instructive:
  • In the early 1800's, the Federalist and Democratic Republican (aka the Jeffersonian Republican) parties had grown so close together in their positions that several internal schisms arose.  The "corrupt bargain" election of John Quincy Adams in 1824 and the follow-on election of Andrew Jackson in in 1828 shattered the one-party system, leading to the formation of the Democratic party, which supported Jackson's muscular view of executive power, while the Whigs formed around the idea that, well, they didn't like Jackson.  In this case, the Democrats were reacting to the increasing sophistication of the northern financial and industrial system and wanted it stopped.  In short, they had a strong animating principle.  The Whigs formed in an attempt to preserve the emerging institutions, but their only true animating principle was opposition to the reactionary forces mobilized by the Democrats.  The Democrats won, temporarily; they got to keep half of the party name in the divorce.

  • The Whigs finally got an animating principle:  abolition.  By 1840, it was clear that the US was headed for a massive territorial expansion and, absent significant opposition, the new territories were likely to allow slavery.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 shattered the Whigs, with the militant abolitionists forming the Republican Party.  We all know how that ended.
The Tea Party thinks they've found their animating principle:  60% of Americans now believe that the federal government has too much power. They hope to forge a new coalition around the intent to reduce the size and power of the feds.

This is a goal that I support.  Note that it is, despite the negative connotations of the word, a "reactionary" goal:  "Government has gotten too big, and we want the trend reversed."  To that extent, the Tea Party's formation looks much like the formation of the Jacksonian Democrats in the late 1820's.  But there was more than one reactionary thread at work in the 1820's.  When the Democrats formed, the top-line issue was about rolling back financial and industrial power.  But the coalition worked because a strong anti-abolition sentiment flowed through the rural and southern factions.  And that issue ultimately overwhelmed the Democratic Party, leading to 1861.

The Tea Party also has other reactionary threads running through it.  Its members are socially conservative, isolationist, and anti-immigration.  They don't like the current US culture.  The subtext here is more diffuse than was the anti-abolition subtext of the Jacksonian Democrats.  The closest you can come to a one-line description would be, "We don't want to live in a sick, militantly secular culture."  But note that, unlike the 1820's and abolition, nobody's threatening to ban religion in the US.  The cultural forces are more complex than that, and the level of support for and against them has a whole bunch of people staking out positions somewhere in the middle.  (I'm one of them.)

If the Tea Party were truly just a small government party, they might easily attract enough factions from the rump of the Republican Party, independents, and conservative Democrats to form a viable party, and the current Republican Party would wither away, in fact if not name.  But the subtext is problematic for them, and their methods make it even more problematic.  It's unlikely that there are enough people willing to save the village by destroying it for their play to work.

So let's summarize the possible outcomes:
  • Tea Party takes over the Republican Party, then attracts enough small-government fellow travelers to make a working near-majority.  (Unlikely, per above.)
  • Tea Party fails to wrest control of the GOP, but winds up destroying it.  A new center-right party forms from the rubble.
  • The GOP establishment acts to crush the Tea Party in short order, leveraging the shutdown debacle to do so.  The Tea Party members capitulate and accept their role as simply a part of the GOP coalition and work to nominate an electable 2016 candidate.  (Note that if this succeeds, Paul Ryan is going to get the lion's share of the credit, and goes to the head of the class for 2016.)
  • Tea Party succeeds in gaining control of the GOP, but dramatically shrinks its influence.  They lose two or three more elections and wither away, then the more moderate elements of the GOP re-establish the status quo ante.
I'm terribly afraid that this last scenario is the most likely, and it's terrible news for the country.  By the time the old conservative coalition recovers from this disruption, we will have had 16 years of a Democratic executive.  Any hope of reining in the government will have gone out the window (if it hasn't already), and we'll be well on our way to the debt crisis that could easily tear the country apart.

A final, cautionary, historical note:  The emergence of the Jacksonian Democrats isn't a definitive event.  Things limp along for 30 years, waiting for the animating oppositional principle (abolition) to become clear.  When it does, the result is the biggest calamity the US has ever faced.  Small government is a fine animating principle, but I have no idea what the principle is that eventually emerges to oppose it.  If history is a guide, we're not going to like the result.

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