SEIU bids goodbye to the two-party system

Did the GOP have it coming?

Since the recent election, a lot of ink has been spilled over whether the Republicans got what they deserved. After all, they had majorities in Congress since winning national elections in 1994, a year into the Clinton administration, and they had the presidency since 2000 when Bush v. Gore was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 2006, the Republican Congressional majority finally collapsed and now, in 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain went down in flames before Democratic political shooting star Barack Obama. With the consequent enlargement of the Democratic legislative majority, the tide seems finally to have turned against the GOP. The post mortems in the media from pundits and politicians on both sides have been fast and furious.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, resident liberal columnist and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? (analyzing why Americans seem receptive to a conservative message), author Thomas Frank couldn’t help crowing over what he deems the conservative collapse in the aftermath of the Obama win. More recently he has argued that liberals have to be ever vigilant against insidious conservatives trying for a comeback in spite of past humiliations at the polls. In his November 19 Journal column, “It’s Time to Give Voters What They Want,” he argues that the last election should be seen by the incoming Obama administration as evidence that American voters are finally ready for the return of real liberalism in all its historic, big-government glory.

Quoting the claim by Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, that “we’ve redefined the center,” Frank argues, among other things, for an early Obama push on the labor movement’s demand for “card check” legislation which would do away with secret ballots over whether to unionize workplaces in favor of public signatures by workers under the watchful eyes of union organizers—this despite the impending collapse of the big three American automakers due, in no small part, to decades of union dominance.

On the Republican front, the self-examination and breast-beating have been equally evident. Aware that they have lost something that took years to achieve and that the political philosophy they oppose now commands the field, they’re in a dither over what to do next. In 2004, when then Democratic presidential contender John Kerry was caught by a live mike whispering about Republican “crooks,” many of us took umbrage, considering the statement intemperate and, certainly, unfair. But a series of subsequent public scandals rocked the Republican Cong­res­sional leadership, from the conviction of high profile Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff to convictions of Republican Congressmen in California and Ohio, followed by the resignation for lewd e-mails by another Republican Congressman from Florida. Kerry’s words no longer looked so outrageous.

Combined with the ongoing campaign by Congres­sional Democrats to demonize everything the Bush administration did, from defending its Iraq war decision, to listening in on overseas foreign terrorists, to tracking money flows to groups like al Qaeda, to sequestering captured terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, to preemptively grabbing suspect terrorists off the streets in foreign lands, to remanding many back to their home countries (which lacked the protections of American jurisprudence), to aggressive interrogations of hard cases like Khaled Sheikh Moham­mad (the mastermind of 9/11), to dismissing presidential appointees in the Justice Department…all these issues left Republicans reeling in the forum of public opinion.

After eight politically bloody years of this kind of relentless attack, Repub­licans saw their grand coalition of conservative Ameri­can factions crack wide open. They didn’t help themselves in the leadership they chose, either. It’s at least arguable that the coalition built by Ronald Reagan on the scattered bones of the defeated, though principled, libertarian conservatism of Barry Gold­water, can’t be put back together. There are those who argue for a revived focus on so-called family values while others point out that it was the departure from old Republican principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility that tarnished the GOP brand. Still others, like Thomas Frank, see in Republican failure the loss of credibility of their ideas. Whatever the cause, a little history may be instructive here.

America has had a two-party system pretty much since its inception. The earliest parties developed around the question of Constitutional government. When the old post-Revolution government under the initial Articles of Confederation failed in the late 18th century, American leaders of the newly independent colonies came together in a convention to institute a new, more centralized government. The resulting U.S. Constitution was eventually ratified by the new states and became the law of the land. The first American political party, the Federalists, coalesced around the drive to adopt the new Constitution. But with that adoption their raison d’ĂȘtre disappeared. Their old opponents, known as the anti-Federalists, rallied around Thomas Jefferson’s agenda for smaller government and made him the nation’s third president.

Calling themselves Republicans, these Jeffersonian anti-Federalists were derisively termed “democrats” by the old Federalist faction in an unflattering allusion to the democratic excesses of the French Revolution. By Andrew Jackson’s time (he initially won the presidency in 1828) the old Jeffersonian Republicans proudly became the Jacksonian or Democratic Republicans, eventually dropping “Republican” from their name entirely. Those who opposed Jackson, including many old Federalists, coalesced into a new party: the National Republicans. This group favored using the power of the federal government assertively to expand and protect American commerce. (Intriguingly, it was the southern Democrat, Jackson, who ended the first effort at southern secession when he threatened military action to halt South Carolina’s attempt to leave the Union over a dispute involving federally imposed tariffs.)

The National Republicans were never very successful and eventually gave way to a new party, called the Whigs, who similarly opposed Jackson and took their name from the American opponents of the British Crown during the Revolutionary era. The Whigs managed to win a couple of presidential elections and were a force in American politics for roughly 22 years (1834–1856) but finally gave way to the new Republican Party, formed in 1854 in opposition to the expansion of slavery into Kansas. Anti-slavery politicians and voters left the Whig and Democratic parties in droves to find a new home among the newly formed Republicans because the older parties were unwilling to take a clear stand against slavery (though the Democrats throughout the south were largely pro-slavery). Democrats and Republicans have been the dominant parties in our two-party system ever since.

But why two parties? The American Constitution enshrines a winner-take-all electoral system. Unlike parliamentary systems where the majority in the legislature gets to form the government, the right to govern in our country goes to whoever wins the presidency. Thus, while parliamentary systems have room for post-election coalitions to create governing majorities, the American system requires coalitions to be formed before presidential elections, encouraging the combination of multiple factions in advance of elections. Our two-party system is thus a reflection of the competition between ins and outs, those who run the government and those who want to.

And there’s the rub for today’s Republicans. Despite the fact that both major parties’ positions have changed over the years (Democrats have gone from being small government/states rights advocates supporting slavery to supporters of big government and spending, while Republicans have shifted from favoring big government to belief in small government, reduced regulation and taxation), neither party can succeed without its coalition. The Democrats, in their years in the wilderness, have rebuilt and refined their positions around a strong belief in the role of government while Republicans, in power, fell in love with the big government their rank-and-file tend to recoil from. The scandals—real and faux—that have rocked the GOP over the past decade have further eroded their credibility.

In this time of reassessment, as Democrats take hold of the levers of national power once more, Republicans have got to figure out if the old coalition they built still makes sense. It’s true that ours is a system with two strong national parties but, as John McCain liked to say in his recent campaign, nothing is written—not even that Republicans must be one of them.

- Stuart Mirsky of Belle Harbor, a former New York City official, is the author of a historical novel about Vikings in North America (The King Of Vinland’s Saga) and a co-author of A Raft on the River, the story of Holocaust survivor Miriam Sorger’s efforts to dodge the Nazis in eastern Poland during World War II.


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