What might happen after the current Republican civil war plays out?
Some context: By the standards of the rest of the developed world, we do not have a party of the Left. The Republicans, largely because they were unwilling, and now unable, to marginalize the Tea Party and other right-wing extremists, are a party of the Right, resembling European right-wing parties. The Democrats are a centrist party that has denied effective power to extremists of the Left. Democratic Party positions on political and economic policy since the New Deal and the Great Society are now mainstream – Social Security and Medicare; investment in infrastructure, public education at all levels, and federally funded research; civil rights and civil liberties; minimum wage and union rights; progressive income taxation; environmental protection; some degree of government regulation of capitalism; subsidies for agriculture; maintaining a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged; etc.
On lifestyle issues – women’s reproductive freedom; contraception; gay rights; separation of church and state; rights of privacy and other First Amendment Rights; respect for science and other intellectual inquiry, and openness to evidence and expertise, etc. – Democratic positions that once were left-of-center are now embraced by a majority of Americans. Even in the interpretation of the Second Amendment, most Americans, even most NRA members, agree with the Democratic position of sensible controls on the arms industry. Those who are literal believers in the NRA, and who as a result stockpile guns and ammunition in service to some paranoid delusion that either the federal government or the United Nations will come for our guns, are justly seen as a lunatic fringe of the right.
What does all this portend in regard to possible realignments?
It’s pretty much up to the Republican moderates. If the moderates continue to co-exist with the Tea Party wing, there will be either continual internecine strife or a Tea Party takeover that will guarantee minority status nationally for the Republicans. They will continue to rely on gerrymandered, backwater precincts to produce a sufficient number of true believers in the U.S. House and in many state legislatures to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of democracy. The reward for this will be to face a growing contempt for the Republican Party, and to share in the gradual decline of the United States vis-à-vis the world’s other major democracies.
If the moderates and extremists split, giving us, at least for a short period, a three-party system, the moderates would at least have an opportunity to position themselves as a constructive party of the center, pointing to the Tea Party on the extreme right, and trying to make a case that the Democrats are a party of the Left. This depiction of the Democrats would be inaccurate, but even though they are not a Left party, with this array of three parties the Democrats would be the one to the left of the other two. Moreover, a majority of Americans, who are hungering for an end to partisan gridlock and government dysfunction, might opt for the new center, which would have been effectively moved to the right. Republicans already benefit from the fact that a significant portion of American citizens have a remarkable track record of believing things that are factually inaccurate in politics, history, economics, science and religion.
Will the moderates, who lacked the courage to take on the extremists in their own party, have the courage to break away and form a new party of the “center”? Or, in the face of unrelenting demographic changes that favor the Democrats, will Republican moderates hold their noses, continue the uneasy alliance with their far-right wing, and go along with the Tea Party strategy to suppress voting among Democratic constituencies? Will they endorse this stance on the wrong side of history and watch their national role diminish? Or will they conclude that to save the Party they must take the other risk and break away and try to co-opt the political center.
As a Democrat, I will watch this Hobson’s choice with great interest. And all of us in Montana will watch to see which kind of Republican Steve Daines turns out to be.
Lawrence K. Pettit