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Democratic and Republican Parties, Realigned

Public anxiety over the economy could lead to a permanent restructuring of America's political parties.
 
 
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Intransigence and myopia. The flowering of these habits within the GOP is driving the Democratic Party to clarity. And the potential for serious consequences is real. It is not enough to suggest that a big Democratic win is possible in 2008. Something far more strategic is at work: large-scale party realignment with historic implications.

None of this seems apparent, of course. Indeed, for a number of hopeful partisans, such a possibility seems beyond reason itself. Politics is assumed to be modulated through the inherited customs of the two major parties. Complacency and sloganeering are settled habits among Republicans. Clarity, on the other hand, can scarcely be called an ingrained cultural habit among Democrats. In the face of corporate saber-rattling, a fair degree of communal Democratic wilting is highly probable. This traditional analysis, while time-tested and even accurate as far as it goes, is leading to inside-the-Beltway conclusions that are superficial and obsolete.

Actually, very strong countervailing pressures are at work. But Americans are no longer well instructed about how to see them. Real life contains two elements of democratic politics that are rarely discussed in tandem -- engaged popular aspiration (unidentified people out there in America) and cooperating elites (identifiable in Washington). Such a range of citizens is not routinely analyzed together because, politically, they are not assumed to be together. Instead, people find the nominal institutions of democracy, such as the US Congress, limping along in a decayed condition, insufficiently independent of lobbyists. The outlying population is also found limping, assumed to be insufficiently informed to act with relevance. Since everyone is affected by the surrounding culture in which they have been raised and to which they remain attached, the same decayed condition besets the reporters who cover it, the scholars who brood over it, the consultants who try to make a living handling it and the politicians who seek passable footing through it. To find some footing for ourselves, we need to catch the connections on those rare occasions when popular and elite modes of politics function at the same time and have serious ideas in concert. It does not happen often in history. But it happens. When it does, expectation can begin to replace resignation.

It is, in fact, beginning to happen now. Activity among people "out there" surfaced soon after the 2006 elections, first as a new way to think about political possibility -- verified by the arrival in Congress of new majority leaders and new committee chairs; verified yet again by the weak GOP sidestep, early on, of any Senate debate on Iraq and, not least, through the investigative horizons richly confirmed by the perjury trial of Scooter Libby. Apart from this, in climes far from comfortable lobbyists, activists have organized petitions for local environmental laws even as people in midsize towns stepped up pressure for living-wage ordinances as benchmarks for all city workers. Indeed, agitation for a revived push for an Equal Rights Amendment, visible at local levels soon after the November election and at state levels in December, has now gathered momentum in both the House and Senate. This kind of politics is not about the next election; it is about people coming up for air and getting something done that has a chance to get done. Nor is this effort a magic bullet to dispatch globalization. It is not instant and it does not begin large-scale but emerges from the interaction of popular aspirations and cooperating elites. It is out there in America now -- much more vividly than before the November elections. It will be expanding.

There are stages here, reciprocal sequences. Unfamiliar rhythms are apparent in the attentive but very reserved popular responses to the bevy of presidential aspirants. Popular input is also visible on the ground in Iraq, on the floor of the House of Representatives and in the interplay of the two. It is no accident that the first officeholder to speak publicly about the resentment American troops in Iraq feel toward the crowds of contractors harvesting profit from the war is Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha. A savvy old hand from a working-class region hurt by globalization, Murtha does not fit the liberal-conservative mold that frames Beltway insiderism. An ex-Marine, Murtha saw for himself the conjunction of soldier competence and discontent on his most recent trip to Baghdad. His Democratic colleagues in the House will follow his lead in finding an expeditious way out of Iraq -- as they began to do soon after he first publicly announced his opposition to Bush's policy. Like Murtha, the boots on the ground in Iraq are responding to the reality they see around them. What soldiers are telling the latest visitors reveals how desperate things are. Talking to a reporter for the McClatchy newspapers, a 19-year-old private explains, "We can go get into a firefight and empty our ammo, but it doesn't accomplish much. This isn't our war -- we're just in the middle." An officer's take: "To be honest, it's going to be like this for a long time to come, no matter what we do."

The Iraq disaster undermines the Republicans but will not in itself bring party realignment. Rather, the energizing momentum is economic -- and it is driven by abiding public anxiety here in America. Ahead in Washington are the sharpest kinds of party divisions over domestic policy. The signals are everywhere. The new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, began by mobilizing all 233 Democrats to co-sponsor the minimum-wage bill. On their first opportunity to decamp, eighty-two Republicans did so. The final tally -- an early harbinger of the realigned future -- was 315 to 116. After redistricting in response to the 2010 census, it does not seem out of line to envision something approaching a Democratic margin of 275 to 160. The path to these numbers travels through Social Security, the issue that, as Bush has already experienced, remains the third rail of American politics. Debate before the 2008 election should produce the first of many win-win options for the Democrats: Either enough GOP senators defect to protect themselves as well as Social Security, or they don't defect and boost their own vulnerability at the polls. Of forty-nine GOP-held Senate seats, twenty-one are up for grabs.

Beyond Social Security lies a decisive second issue: healthcare. A tangible start has already begun with the bill to end one of the greatest boondoggles in legislative history -- the GOP ban on the government's right to negotiate prices with drug companies. It passed the House 255 to 170. With the drug lobby weighing in, Democratic partisans were pleased to see that all the no votes were cast by Republicans. More suggestive is the fact that a score of others broke ranks to support the Democrats -- a move that reflects less an alteration of ideology than anxiety about surviving 2008. This will be a dicey time because by then Americans will know how much of their own family budgets and the nation's Treasury the Republican Party has brazenly transferred to pharmaceutical firms. Already put away in the House bank is the most important labor bill in a generation: the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to end the corporate reign of threats and job firings routinely visited upon all those trying to get a union at their workplace. The bill passed 241 to 185.

Meanwhile, the government has essentially been outsourced to corporate America. In a convenient bit of tidiness, most auditing tasks have been outsourced as well. Hired contractors guard the US Treasury by casting glances over ledgers provided by other contractors. This way of running the country carries arrogance to public levels never before seen. Meanwhile, the Libby verdict ground into the national psyche the entire structure of "lying America into war" -- a venture that changed the way the world feels about Americans as a people. What more will surface by, say, June 2008? By November? Much fuel for realignment lurks here.

A comparative framework for the impending Democratic sweep can be found in the time in American history that most vividly corresponds to the present -- a moment that materialized right after another Democratic breakthrough, 77 years ago.

The time is 1930. Democrats have just found themselves in control of the House under conditions they did not create and could not have imagined even two years earlier. They have essentially been bystanders at the instant of their ascendancy. The decisive political fact is that something fundamental has gone terribly awry. The disaster has come upon the nation with great speed, the consequences have gotten more severe with every passing day and the President is doing nothing in response. Instead he makes pious speeches that depress people because they do not address reality. A testy minority has long seen him as a complacent man nursing a penchant for pomposity. To them, his posture comes across as disdain for the suffering of millions, not to mention the mounting anxiety of almost everybody else. He has begun to be hated by many people and is no longer trusted by most. The disaster that generates all this is called the Great Depression. The President who does not act but speaks in slogans is named Herbert Hoover. Though the Civil War had conferred great prestige on the Republican Party, suddenly, after many decades, grave peril looms.

The relationship between then and now is compelling. Every time Hoover extolled the curative powers of the free market, every time he wrapped himself in the red, white and blue of American prosperity, he verified the emptiness of his leadership. The American people had to endure a one-two punch: a self-undermining President, leaking support while trying to defend his immobility, and a docile party confined by its dazed need to be loyal to him. It took a while to play out publicly, but eventually the rhythm of an immobilized President and a party of straight men brought home to the population the depth of the trap they were in. But right after their breakthrough, Democrats could not by themselves drive home to a needy electorate the initiatives many hoped to enact. They did not yet have the aid of a cooperating President. Just as Iraq undermines George Bush in 2007, Hoover's inability to deal with reality in 1931 and '32 was seen by voters for what it was: clear failure. The result in 1932 made the breakthrough in 1930 seem petty. The House became Democratic, 310 to 117; and the Senate, 60 to 35.

Nevertheless, these numbers did not mean what they seemed -- a landslide victory that ushered in the New Deal that followed. Herbert Hoover was out and Franklin Roosevelt was in, yet what "followed" for three more years was neither Social Security nor the Wagner Act but rather intense struggles at workplaces across the country. Striking for union recognition, workers mounted almost 4,000 job actions in 1933 and '34, most visibly a failed general strike of 200,000 that spread through Southern textile country and a second, more successful general strike on the San Francisco waterfront. Support for collective bargaining was strong in both Houses of Congress, but FDR, focused as he was on agriculture, blocked it. Finally, in the summer of 1935, after one of the anchors of New Deal legislation, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was declared unconstitutional, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Wagner Act, 63 to 12. FDR finally got on board just before the bill soared through the House and became law -- along with Social Security.

The GOP response to all this remained grounded in the belief that the New Deal was destructive and socialist. The party's most vivid voice was a redbaiting, occasionally anti-Semitic lobby calling itself the Liberty League. But in the same way that the evening news from Iraq mocks the rigidity of Bush talk today, such hysteria about socialism could not substitute for reality in 1933 and '34 any more than Hoover talk could in 1931 and '32. Never at any point in the 1930s did the GOP develop a rhetorical match for Roosevelt. His fireside chats on nationwide radio became the most dramatic and effective connection between the American people and their President ever forged, before or since. "Taxes shall be levied according to the ability to pay," he said. "That is the only American principle." He effectively ridiculed the Republican Party as the home to "economic royalists" who, despite having "two perfectly good legs...never learned to walk forward."

For generations still to come, American historians will doubtless be comparing the period 1930-36 to that of 2006-12 as years of high political-economic crisis for capitalism. One crisis stemmed from a worldwide depression, triggered by the American depression of 1929, the other by an ambitious scheme of globalization benefiting the financial sectors of every country in the world advanced enough to have a financial sector. It also severely harmed workers in all the advanced democracies, placing their labor movements under unbearable pressure -- and none more so than in America. The most important achievement of the Democratic Party in the earlier period rested on the vital educational function it served on an absolutely essential subject: the role of demand in facilitating a healthy economy. Though later scholars would label the Wagner Act "labor's Magna Carta," it was, in fact, the nation's economy that was set temporarily on the path to liberation -- even if it took another decade or so for some of the nation's classical economists to begin to consider that the long-term welfare of the economy and the growth of organized labor were essentially linked.

In the wake of the realignment of 1932, Congressional Democrats found themselves on this issue, the analysis of demand, hemmed in at square one -- not only with journalists and other opinion-makers but with their own President. Both FDR and Congress could share in the achievement of Social Security. But the Wagner Act belonged to Congress alone -- and to the American people who backed their representatives. Today, with the Wagner Act long since gutted, globalization is well along the path of rotting the fabric of the economy from below.

It will take a sensible and dedicated President and a sensible and strong Congress to set a more democratic course for the realigned politics that is coming. But the table has been set for both. Relentless Congressional inquiries have begun -- and are unstoppable -- because the initial target is a regime whose capacity for sustained deceit and wholesale incompetence has reached a broad plateau of ethical corruption that is without precedent in American history. Bush lied the country into a foreign quagmire that destroyed the goodwill toward the country of populations residing on every continent. He politicized and humiliated his own Justice Department, falsely accusing honorable men and women of incompetence. To protect his closest adviser, he betrayed lesser advisers, weakening the country's rule of law. In power-grabbing acts of centralization, through the grossly mistitled Patriot Act, he has repeatedly shown contempt for the Bill of Rights. Through acts that were legal but grotesquely undemocratic in philosophy, he destroyed the structure of the balanced budget he inherited, undermining long-term demand and hastening the economic downturn that has begun. He has proved his indifference to the fate of one of America's great cities because of his indifference to most of the people who lived in it. He has degraded the nation. Though our plate of dismay and despair is full, we have more to learn, and Congress, with Karl Rove's blood everywhere, will see that we learn it.

The citizenry as a whole has been pushed far back by the authoritarianism of the Bush/Cheney team and the greed it has inspired, particularly in finance and corporate medicine. The country, including the media at large, has a distance to travel to get up to speed for the revelations to come.

Finally, though American life in 2007 does not resemble the numbing degradation of the Depression years, something else is eating its way through the fabric of the commonwealth -- a reality we don't yet possess the political language to describe with poise. Woven deeply into the shared experience of Americans is a sense of people actually "getting somewhere," of being able through hard work to "move up in the world" and, when disaster occurs, to get a second job to hold family catastrophe at bay. Over time, generations of parents have passed on a belief in the nation's democratic experiment, a concept at once American and biblical--originally set down with romantic seventeenth-century flair as "a city upon a hill." It accounts for the peculiarly American sense of the possibility of dignity for everyone. It is this very sense of what we should be as a people that stokes modern anxiety, activated as it now is by downsizings across the country.

Initially surfacing privately, inside families, it is now a part of life, a social blemish that has turned into a hardened scar as highly skilled mechanics in dozens of occupations become unemployed and women have no option but to become family breadwinners. These anomalies are driven by the very industrial facts people once believed they had under control. At a time when the value of the minimum wage has sunk by 20 percent in a single decade, the enormous leap in wealth by the top 1 percent fails to console the rest of us. We all have proof there is (currently) no promise of a city on a hill. In 2007, the quality most visible at the top of the hill is greed.

This sober reality explains why Americans are giving themselves permission, once again, to think broadly about democratic possibility. Though most people work for businesses, they have learned to be skeptical when the boss tells them what is good for the nation. The suffocating consistency of the Bush Administration's lies has expanded this skepticism exponentially. But in a corporate culture where conservative arrogance has been rubbed in people's faces at work and in politics, it takes a while for citizens to allow themselves to stand up.

To assist them, a measure of Democratic Party clarity would be very helpful. Since GOP incumbents cannot campaign effectively in 2008 by dealing seriously with issues that now bear down on the American people, much of Republican electioneering will consist of TV attacks on the character of their opponents. Democratic defenses will depend on the power of the agenda they have advanced. In 2004 the many-sided John Kerry was Swift-Boated into history's dustbin, while two years later in Tennessee, there appeared a Democratic candidate who managed to take the lead in a tight Senate race. He was a nice fellow, though prone to straddling issues of substance. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the bigger the issue, the wider his straddle. Detecting opportunity, GOP consultants served up a casually dressed Caucasian lass who, in a racist TV ad, coyly used the Democratic candidate's first name -- as if to court him and degrade him all at once. The GOP aspirant, a man of modest talent, managed to pull out a narrow win in a Democratic year. When Democrats learn how to be clear on central issues, this kind of ignoble foolishness will no longer succeed. Party realignment will then happen and the country can start to work on its very real problems.

And not until then.

Lawrence Goodwyn is a historian of democratic and social movements, and is retired from the history department of Duke University. He is the author of many books, including " The Populist Moment ."

 
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