America’s Two-Party System
The Republican party in America faces two grave problems today.
One is Barack Obama, probably the most skilled and era-appropriate politician in a generation or more. And that, after he's already through all of one whole month in office.
The other problem threatening the very life of the Republican Party today is the Republican Party.
It's been some time since America had much of a real two-party system. Ralph Nader was right about that in 2000. By 2001, he was beginning to be wrong. Today, it may be the case that he is growing wronger all the time.
It's a little hard to say, because the two great, tectonic, political questions of the moment remain unanswered, only slowly coming into focus, perhaps in part because they are moving targets, actually evolving over time toward some new equilibrium. Those questions are, Who will the Democrats (and especially Obama) be?; and, Who will the Republicans be?
My sense is that Obama is fundamentally every bit the centrist he apparently whispered that he was as a sweet nothing into Benjamin Netanyahu's ear, on his visit to Israel last year, but that events may pull him to the left. My sense is that the Republican Party has been wholly and completely captured by the lunatic fringe, but that events are jerking its sleeve toward the center.
I don't think we yet know the disposition of either of these ideological battles, and it is likely the case that those outcomes are just as unknown to the very leaders of each party. Indeed, they may be less leaders than presiders, as other forces prove more salient in dictating the directions that their parties take in the months and years ahead.
I think Democrats can reasonably comfortably become either the party of the center or the center-left, and can, looking ahead, forge a popular consensus-based governing regime that lasts at least a generation, and more likely two.
I doubt Republicans can survive what is happening to their party as anything other than some sort of rump, stump, latter-day Whig Party, with a solid electoral grip on the whole of the Old Confederacy, as they continue to insist on maintaining in the twenty-first century every ounce of the poverty, ignorance, prejudice and class apartheid that marked the eighteenth. The only change that would represent from the last several decades is that such sick regressiveness will no longer be quite so nationalized, courtesy of the likes of Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Trent Lott or Mitch McConnell, but rather will remain confined to their Bible Belt, just as Jesus intended.
Key ideological mysteries remain, but what is starkly clear, and all the more so after Tuesday night, is the stature gap between these two parties. It's not that the Democrats stand tall. They don't - though Obama sometimes does, so far - and the likes of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi seem at least astute enough to get out of the way of their party's champion as he rises precipitously in public esteem. No, it's not that Democrats stand tall, but that, more than anything, how pathetically small now stands - or crawls - the Republican Party, the same one Karl Rove promised just a few years ago to turn into a permanent majority in America.
You could see this in the jaw-dropping sight of the Republican members of Congress stuck in their seats as the rest of the room cheered for the concept of guaranteed healthcare for children. What a notion, eh? "Hey", you could just hear them thinking, "how can we use tax giveaways to turn mere multi-millionaires into full-on billionaires if we're spending that money instead on keeping a nation's youth healthy? Screw that!"
You could see it, during the same speech, as they sheepishly looked around the room, trying to decide whether to rise in applause or not, as the rest of the room cheered the concept of limiting pay to utterly failed CEOs now being rescued by taxpayers whose government they've spent a lifetime deriding. "Hey", you could hear them thinking, "those are our homies you're talking about!"
But where you could really see it is in the side-by-side comparison of Barack Obama and the champion of the opposition party, Bobby Jindal, who gave the Republican response afterwards. For every bit that Obama soared in his speech - and he did, rhetorically and even, sometimes, substantively for progressives - Jindal was a moral, philosophical and political homunculus of microscopic proportions. His speech of only a few short minutes managed to pack more unctuousness, more faux bonhomie, more "be sure to do a half-chuckle here" inauthenticity, more rank and bogus populism, and more policy solutions that were last fresh in the paleolithic era, than perhaps any single thing I've have seen in the entirety of my lifetime. Even David Brooks - or should I say, especially David Brooks, who sees the remaining shards of his credibility swirling down the toilet as the party to which this one-time socialist hitched his wagon these last decades - even he was apoplectic at the sight of the Jindal self-immolation. When David Brooks is describing the Republican response speech and literally using words like "insane" and "nihilistic", you know how horrid an affair it really was.
And, oh god, was it abysmal. Imagine you were standing on the deck of a ship floating in a sea of 300 million drowning shipmates and you refused to throw them a rope, insisting instead that they simply swim harder and faster. "It's for your own good! We must avoid moral hazard! (Except where ship owners are concerned, of course.)" Now imagine ten minutes later they all climb back on board and decide to conduct a ‘referendum' on your future. That was the Jindal approach to a nation in crisis.
Imagine a political party in 2009 staking its claim to popularity with the voters on a demand to return to the gold standard, re-instituting Prohibition, or rejecting the Jay Treaty, and you'd be just about as up-to-date and relevant as the Republicans. Jindal sounded like little more than a sickening GOP jukebox trotting out old Reagan chestnuts that were already horrid forty years ago when they were first uttered by the B-movie actor himself, repeatedly referring, for instance, to the looming danger of government "bureaucrats" running our lives.
You could also see the difference between the parties in the very facts of Obama and Jindal. For all its faults of cowardice in the last decades and out-group Balkanization in the time before that, the Democratic Party has still done some of the hard work of inclusiveness-building in America. And, what is more, they did so at a massive cost to their popularity, as the Republican vultures swept in to pick up the racist vote, after Lyndon Johnson had shown the moral courage to do the right thing. Then they watched as the GOP grabbed the sexist vote, while Democrats tried to enact the Equal Rights Amendment. They were scorned for coddling communists and criminals, while the Kaiser's Party won votes by opportunistically trashing the ACLU. Most recently, the Democrats have lost the homophobic vote to the GOP, while the closeted queers dressed up as the bible-thumping moral arbiters of our culture rail against the very sins they commit when the sheep in their congregations aren't looking.
The Democratic Party - especially of the last decade - is a shameful thing, in so many respects, but nevertheless looks a lot better comparatively and longitudinally. Racism, sexism and homophobia have been entrenched in the warp and woof of American culture. Yet, even though they are all still present in healthy doses, a comparison between 2009 and 1964 is highly instructive, and Democrats has been admirable in many cases in making a difference. Morever, whatever else their (many) faults, Democrats (nowadays) mostly get inclusiveness genuinely and intuitively. Really, the biggest story of 2008 was the essential non-story of Hillary and Barack. It was striking the degree to which their obvious differences, compared to every one of the 43 previous occupants of the White House, were mostly incidental to the campaign. Yes, Barack Obama was running for president while being black, but he wasn't the black candidate. Yes, Clinton was a woman running for president, but nobody was asking anymore whether a woman could do the job. Not so long ago, that would not have been the case.
I have a helluva hard time saying nice things about the Democratic Party, but let's give credit where it is due: This party has achieved inclusiveness, and it's real and it's actualized to the point of having nearly transcended into a state of casual indifference. Nobody thinks anymore about the implications of giving non-land-owners the vote. It happened almost two centuries ago, and it's just a part of the fabric of society now. Nobody wrings their hands about women having the franchise. It happened a century ago, and even the most freakish right-wingers (and please pardon the redundancy there) don't discuss the matter anymore. Similarly, in Democratic circles, a cosmopolitanism of race and sex and sexual orientation are fast becoming just simple facts of American life, no longer death-fights for inclusiveness, and now no longer even all that much discussed.
The Republicans couldn't possibly be more different. They know they're supposed to be inclusive, they know there some votes to be gotten there, and they're good enough at marketing to go out and find some nice, clean-cut black kids with good teeth, dress them up in slacks and sweater vests, and stick ‘em up on the stage at their conventions, along with other camera-friendly props. But the truth is they haven't remotely got a clue. You could see it with Sarah Palin. It was like, "Hey, she's Republican, she's a governor, she's got a vagina! Let's run her for vice president!" And then, of course, there were the good ol' boys, in their cigar lounges, also drooling over the "va-va-va-voom!" factor. Yeah, baby. Like George W. Bush, when he was once asked what he and his father talk about when they get together, and replied: "Pussy". This guy was president of the United States and leader of the GOP one month ago. No that's not a typo. Not one century ago. Not one millennium ago. One month ago.
And how about that Bobby Jindal, eh? "He's freakin' brown!! Get him up on the stage!!" If we had a shred of honesty injected into Republican politics, there'd be no question as to why they shoved him into the spotlight, and why people talk about him as a presidential candidate. What a sick joke. They couldn't even find a real black guy for their token. I guess Clarence Thomas is too busy checking out porno mags underneath his black robes, and you never know what Alan Keyes is going to say next. Bring on Jindal. I mean, he's skinny and brown! Maybe that's Barack's secret, eh?!?!
But the party is even more pathetic when it wanly tries to mimic inclusiveness than when it just admits to its multifarious toxic ‘isms'. The plain fact is that Barack Obama - the leader of the Democratic Party - is a president who happens to be black, while Bobby Jindal - the spokesperson this week for the Republican Party - got the gig because of his color. One party not only gets it, but has already largely transcended these juvenile tribal divides in our society. The other party is only inches away from its history of the Southern Strategy, Willie Horton, Reagan talking states' rights at Philadelphia, Mississippi, gay marriage ballot initiatives, and the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of black voters by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris. And even those one or two inches are measured in tokenism, not real changes in attitude or policy.
What's most striking of all, however, is the difference in maturity between the two parties. Or at least between Obama and the GOP. Or at least between Obama's rhetoric and the GOP. This is true in two respects. First, Obama is the most mature American politician we've seen in decades, at least since Jimmy Carter. That not only puts him light years beyond other politicians, it puts him galaxies ahead of any Republican anywhere in sight. He's truly not perfect in this regard, and he's worrisome in his vagueness and willingness to let all comers project onto him whatever they each want to see. But, even still, in his race speech in Philadelphia and in his address to the nation this week, you could see on display something so long absent from American political discourse: adulthood. This is the first major politician in my lifetime who talks to us in living color, in three dimensions, and without a subtle but sickening constant pandering of built-in contempt. I doubt we can underestimate the effect this alone will have in raising permanently the quality of our discourse. There will be no going back after this, and for a party like the GOP - which depends for its very existence on appealing to stupid, selfish and frightened voters with bumper-sticker slogans, phony wars abroad and, at home, chump change middle class tax cuts based on payments due later - nothing could be more existentially threatening.
The full force of this contrast was on display in the Obama-Jindal matchup this week. True, who wants to follow the Beatles on stage? But, that said, it was a pathetic display, and everyone knows it. The Republicans, in disarray, and increasingly seen by the public as wrecking the economy and then obstructing solutions to the damage they themselves have caused, sent out their Great Brown Hope, in an act of transparent desperation. If Jindal could have looked smaller or more panderingly counterfeit to his viewers, I really don't know how. If his party's rescue plan - "Let's do nothing!" - could have smacked more of Herbert Hoover's massively popular 1932 platform, I really can't imagine it. Republicans, who were merely mortally wounded last week, are now in a full-on death spiral. Watch the knives come out big-time, as they accelerate the process with the sort of vicious acts of self-interest for which they are deservedly famous. It's over now, and it's over for all the right reasons. Americans have figured out that insanely destructive policy ideas are somewhat less than optimal, especially when you have other options. It took a while, and it took a war and an environment and an economy and a foreign policy and a natural disaster and a federal budget all going spectacularly south (pun fully intended), but, finally, dim-witted Americans have figured it out. "Oh, suicidal stupidity? No, but thank you very much. I don't want that."
And this is the other way in which Obama's mature politics is so astonishing. Are we really so infantile a people that it took ‘til 2009? Are we really so embarrassingly frightened and immature that everything in sight had to go completely up in flames before we were willing to finally drop the endless indulgent fantasies of our politics and at last engage in just a modicum of real-world political discourse? Did we really allow mice-among-men the likes of George W. Bush or John Kerry to be our standard-bearers, in a nation of 300 million people? Sadly, the answer is yes, yes and yes again. Sigh.
Clearly, Barack Obama is no progressive panacea. Last week I ripped many of his policies and staffing choices as Cheneyesque. I wasn't exaggerating, nor am I kidding about the disappointment and disillusionment many progressives are feeling when we look at the likes of Tim Geithner, or Obama's stance on civil liberties questions. I've already given up playing the game of just-wait-cause-he's-got-a-bigger-plan-in-mind-behind-all-these-apparent-cave-ins. But, having said that, he clearly stomped the Republicans this last month. I thought he should have stopped accommodating them after they burned him on the stimulus bill, but he didn't, and poll data are showing that he is riding high and they are seeking subterranean basement levels of public support with all the burrowing alacrity of a bunker buster bomb. It may also be that he knows his political maturity approach will set the stage incrementally, allowing him to produce bigger progressive changes later on.
But, of course, it is also possible that he will not be a progressive at all, or that he will only lean that way on a few random (and relatively safe) issues. That would be tremendously disappointing and arguably strategically stupid, for regressives will continue to pitch their nihilism at every opportunity, and we know from the ugliest first-hand experience that the public is capable of drinking that Kool-Aid when it suits their selfish and lazy fantasies to do so.
Part of me thinks that Obama gets this, and he's more clever than all of us, just carefully laying the necessary foundation for incrementally bringing change to hopelessly brainwashed Americans.
But then another part of me thinks that he'll be buried by the failures of his own half-measures and naive accommodations to the predatory party.
Part of me thinks he smart enough to prioritize, and realizes that restoring actual human rights to our human rights policies would leave his entire agenda open to savaging by the right, especially if some bomb goes off somewhere at any time during the next four years.
But then another part of me thinks that Benjamin Netanyahu was given more honest insight into the politics of Barack Obama than this entire country of 300 million people who watched him campaign for two years and entrusted him with their leadership.
Part of me thinks that we should be grateful enough just to not have Bobby Jindal in the White House.
But then another part of me thinks that simply accepting that as enough opens the very door to Bobby Jindal being in the White House sometime soon.
None of my vacillation and oscillation should be hugely surprising. We're one whole month into the presidency of a former candidate who succeeded in part by being highly opaque in his presentation of himself, and is only now having to reveal who he is by virtue of decisions he can no longer just discuss in the abstract, but has to actually make, one way or the other.
We're also talking about a manifestly bright and clever guy, who is clearly capable of playing four-dimensional chess, thus making each of his moves subject to multiple and multi-dimensional interpretation and speculation. In other words, he's still a puzzle, and possibly because it suits him to be. For decades, people thought Eisenhower had been asleep at the wheel during his quiet presidency. Turns out that all along Ike saw strategic benefit in allowing people to perceive him that way. They thought were playing two-dimensional checkers with the old man. He had another game entirely going on, and his adversaries never even knew they were playing it.
Is that Obama's ploy? We'll just have to wait to see what is revealed over time.
But we may also be able to be more than passive observers.
It might very well be the case that this presidency will be almost precisely as progressive as progressives demand that it be.