Saturday, February 23, 2008

How political parties die, and rise again

Ned describes the process by which men birth ideas and then, after several convulsions and wheezes, die:
But there’s a larger if extremely obvious point to be made, that the definitions of what is assumed as conservatism, as much as liberalism, changes with time — carrying [William F.] Buckley’s point back in time, for example, he’s essentially saying that in the 1910s he would have been standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’ at said securing of the right to vote, an attitude which I rather doubt any right-leaning female voter or politico would stand for these days (though I gather Ann Coulter made one of her usual heavy-handed ‘jokes’ about that once, but who cares?).
Parties coalesce around ideas, and the continual division, dissolution, and reorganization of Democratic and Republican nomenclature is precisely why I no longer have a party affiliation. As an irrepressible contrarian, I've great sympathy for Buckley's definition of conservatism (which owes much to Burke and 19th century Toryism); in the days of the 24-hour news cycle, we need to take a deep breath and not let our enthusiasms occlude our judgments. That his party didn't observe his adage is only natural, as power creates its own rules, and Republicans have been in power for a long time, often with a lot of help from their friends "across the aisle."

For most of the years between 1865 and 1965 little separated a Republican from a Democrat; the surrender of the GOP to the Democratic South's stranglehold on the Supreme Court and Senate regarding civil rights remains one of the shameful episodes in our history. This same Democrat-controlled Congress backed away from the promise of the New Deal (the period in which "liberal" began its storied association with the party). Until FDR only once would the Democrats produce a candidate willing to discard old paradigms, and with all we know today, would you prefer the status quo of watchchains and laissez-faire as incarnated by Henry Cabot Lodge and Warren Harding or that vile messianic prig known as Woodrow Wilson? We also know how the events of the late sixties cleaved the parties into the shapes we know today. Ronald Reagan was the figure around whom disaffected Southerners and conservatives would rally, a solid bloc that would last until 2004, when these kinds of Republicans discovered that, while you can ignore evolution, you can't do the same to entropy.

A McCain profile in this week's New Yorker is indicative: we learn how shrewdly the GOP's likely nominee courts the good press he's accustomed to getting (not anymore, heh heh), and his kinship with the long-extinct Robert Taft wing of the Republican Party, which dissolved in the wake of Eisenhower's electoral landslide in 1952 and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson's muscling his legislative body into supporting the president's foreign policy, resulting in the bipartisan conduct of Cold War geopolitics which would hold, despite several bumps, until 1989.

The history of McCain suggests that his reign as Emperor of the West would resemble Richard Nixon's in some way: enough disinterest in domestic affairs to let inevitable developments like national acceptance of gay marriage, abortion rights, and brown-skinned people cutting Mitt Romney's lawn run their course after a few disconsolate bleats for The Cornerklatch's sake; and a "muscular" foreign policy dominated by the realpolitik technocrats who, despite the loathing of the party's intelligentsia, still sneak into the Heritage Foundation's buffet line. In The New Yorker, the same David Frum whom Ned quotes understands what's happened to his party:
“The people who turned twenty between 1985 and 1990 were eight points more Republican than Democratic,” [Frum] told me. “People who turned twenty between 1970 and 1975 were eight points more Democratic than Republican. People who turned twenty between 2000 and 2005 are twelve points more Democratic.” He sees a country moving slightly to the left as Republicans are “left stranded on the right.” He told me, “If what you are is a pragmatic, business-oriented, moderate-minded person who wants things to work in a fairly competent and ethical way, and you’re under thirty—the kind of person who would have been an Eisenhower Republican and a Republican in the Nixon years and in the George H. W. Bush years—you are a Democrat today.” Frum added, “As the country becomes more single, more childless, more secular, more non-white, more immigrant, it becomes more Democratic. And all of those groups are growing.”[emphasis mine]
What we're seeing then is another realignment. If Obama wins the nomination and presidency we will have elected the first unabashed liberal Chief Executive in history; he may be "post-Vietnam" and all that, but Obama's honeyed words bespeak a role for the federal government with which George McGovern might have agreed in 1972. As for McCain, whether he wins is immaterial. The GOP of Terry Schiavo, executive secrecy, and, right, the war in Iraq is dissolving. At my university I meet lots of young conservatives, but most don't give a damn about homosexuality or illegal immigration -- what they want are jobs, and the GOP exists as a vehicle through which they funnel their anxieties. Buckley's vision of the Republican Party acknowledged no anxieties; liberals fretted about the State of Things. When parties resemble talk show audiences they don't shuffle towards Bethlehem to be born anew. In the GOP's case let's hope they no longer look at Bethlehem as someplace important.

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