George Washington, the United States’ first and last unaffiliated president, warned that political parties, should they take root in the new republic, would make government “the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans.” Parties sprang up immediately, of course, but for many years they were short-lived, forming and collapsing according to a natural life cycle. No longer. Our current two-party system has become a shadow constitution, based largely on a system of legal bribery, that makes a mockery of the founders’ republican intentions. Increasingly it seems that the political parties themselves are among the greatest obstacles to civic renewal.
Eight years of Republican rule have led to economic chaos, ruinous war, and unprecedented despair. Every electoral indicator points to a massive defeat. Yet few believe that the Democratic Party possesses the strength of purpose to drive the Republicans into the well-deserved oblivion of the Anti-Masons and the Know-Nothings. Mindful of the Democrats’ shortcomings, Harper’s Magazine gathered together a panel of political thinkers to consider how the deed might be accomplished, and what might be the consequences of failure.
The following forum is based on a conversation that took place this spring at Fraunces Tavern, in New York City. Luke Mitchell served as moderator.
KEVIN BAKER is a novelist, historian, and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article for the magazine, “A Fate Worse than Bush: Rudolph Giuliani and the Politics of Personality,” appeared in the August 2007 issue.
SCOTT McCONNELL is editor of The American Conservative.
KEVIN PHILLIPS is the author of many books, including The Emerging Republican Majority and, most recently, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.
THOMAS SCHALLER is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.
LUKE MITCHELL is a senior editor of Harper’s Magazine.
luke mitchell: We seem today to be involved in a kind of trench war, in which the two sides battle in election after election over just a few inches of ground—say, Ohio and Florida—with no real long-term results other than the further degradation of democracy. How did we reach this impasse?
kevin baker: Well, obviously the two-party system has always had problems. The founders thought the entire notion of having political parties was a bad idea, at least at first. They worried that parties would come to care more about themselves than the state, maybe even invite other countries in, other kings in.
scott mcconnell: Unfortunately, it’s not easy to run a republic without some kind of party system. It’s inevitable that a nation is going to have different class and sectional interests, and parties allow those factions to channel their disagreements relatively peacefully. This is especially true in a democracy that is, at least in theory, answerable to large groups of people.
kevin phillips: The problem today, though, is entrenchment and atrophy. The Democrats and the Republicans are now among the oldest parties in the world. Their origins bear no relation to much of anything today, and as a result they are mostly interested in the people who give them money.
mitchell: Is that a new development?
phillips: Being interested in people who give you money? No! That goes way back. But the entrenchment you couldn’t do until you had a mass electorate, a large and venal Washington, wall-to-wall lobbies, and all of the other things that make the current party system tick.
thomas schaller: The founders’ expectation was that regions would nominate many candidates, each representing very parochial interests. They expected such a glut of sectional parties that they created the electoral college—not in order to make any kind of final selection but simply to winnow the choices down to a couple of finalists. They assumed the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, with the result that an elite institution would pick the ultimate winner. But in fact the system has been funded and redistricted and gerrymandered into a sort of muscle-bound duopoly. It’s nonresponsive. It’s like the difference between punching me in the stomach and punching George Foreman in the stomach. You can knock me over pretty easily, whereas George Foreman is going to laugh it off.
phillips: Well, the public showed that it can produce a significant swing in 2006, in electoral terms. But the issues on which they supposedly voted are not being addressed. How do you vote to get everybody out of Iraq, for example? Vote for the Democrats? That hasn’t worked so far.
mcconnell: And it cuts both ways. The people who have been voting Republican for the past thirty years on cultural rather than class issues—i.e., culturally conservative Reagan Democrats—have gotten nothing for their votes either. But there is no evidence whatsoever that they are going to stop voting Republican.
baker: It’s like you have this weird inversion of Tammany. They don’t get you out of jail, they don’t give you a turkey at Christmas, they don’t do anything for you, and yet somehow they keep winning.
schaller: The irony is that today the government has far more power than in the past. It is a much larger part of the economy, and so when it moves a lever, it can expect a dramatic effect.
phillips: And yet people increasingly seem to believe that their votes don’t matter, that these parties aren’t any different from each other. It’s all just a big game. Democrats are the not-Republicans and Republicans are the not-Democrats. And if None of the Above could be on the ballot, it would scare the bejesus out of everybody. What a choice that would be!
baker: The situation is not unique to the United States either. In Italy, the 2006 election was a near stalemate, at least in terms of votes, and within a couple of years Silvio Berlusconi was back in power. The French socialists actually fell out of the top two in the 2002 election, and Nicolas Sarkozy, another conservative, shows up in 2007, also for a win. I think this has to do with a strange global capital consensus whereby the elites of all of the controlling parties have accepted what they feel are the limits of globalization, which will inevitably drive down wages and realign all kinds of economic forces. This consensus creates a huge disassociation between what is being promised and what is being delivered, and that really frustrates people. Why vote for the left when even they don’t believe in liberalism?
schaller: What’s interesting to me about the way Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama present themselves to Democrats is that Obama talks about building a governing majority, and Hillary Clinton talks about how you need a knife fighter—somebody who knows how things work, who can win bureaucratic politics. She starts from the premise that we are stuck forever in this kind of 49–49 America. He starts from the premise that Dem ocrats can get to 54 percent or 55 percent, in which case they don’t need to be knife fighters.
mitchell: Hillary would seem to have the better part of the argument, if not the vote itself. The polls, at the moment, suggest a fragile victory at best for the Democrats.
baker: That could just be a matter of self- fulfilling prophecy. The very essence of this
duopoly is that neither side has much of an interest in breaking it. Karl Rove sought a “permanent Republican majority,” but only just that. He was perfectly happy to govern with a 50.1 percent majority.
mitchell: That suggests that there will be no change in the general drift of things, which is good news for people who like the ways things are drifting but bad news for people who want change. Is there a way to break the deadlock?
baker: Well, as the economists say, positive change requires creative destruction. Just beating the Republicans will be a huge help in the short term. It is necessary. But real change in the long term is going to require some kind of knock-out blow.
2. killing the g.o.p. (part 1)
mitchell: It seems that it shouldn’t be that difficult to knock out the Republicans. The numbers are against them, history is against them, and more and more Americans are against them. Given their perniciousness, from the perspective of the left, and their uselessness, from the perspective of the right, is it unreasonable to imagine that Dem ocrats might finally force Republicans into a long decline or even a complete realignment?
schaller: The Democrats are well positioned to do so, at least in terms of money. This is the first time in a long while that they have had a fund-raising advantage, even counting times when they were in the legislative majority.
phillips: That may in a way be crippling for them.
schaller: Why so?
phillips: Because a lot of that money is going to create obligations that are going to get in the way of change.
schaller: Yes, but Democrats are increasingly raising money from individuals, not from organizations. That makes a big difference. The beholdenness doesn’t disappear, but it diminishes. Money is just the beginning, though. To do better than 50.1 percent, the Democrats are going to have to mobilize some previously under- or un-mobilized group. And there are a lot of different possibilities in that regard.
mitchell: Which groups would you suggest?
schaller: Latinos obviously are part of it. They increasingly tend to vote for Democrats, and they also are increasing as a proportion of the electorate—a double whammy. Unmarried adults likely will soon outnumber married adults, and they don’t seem to like Republicans that much. And a lot of growing subpopulations also tend to vote Democratic. One out of thirteen new marriages is an interracial marriage, for instance, and that proportion will continue to grow.
baker: And yet, strangely, all we ever hear about is how soccer moms and angry white men will decide the election.
schaller: That’s an increasingly inaccurate portrayal. If you’re a Democrat, demographics are on your side, particularly when you consider that the
Republicans—a male-dominated and largely white party—live in a country where white men are casting a smaller and smaller proportion of the vote. If you keep the policies of the two parties static and just let population changes move forward, eventually the Republican Party is going to be a minority party.
mitchell: So just wait it out?
schaller: Well, the problem is that waiting around for Hispanics and women to become a larger share of the population is no way to become a party that actually achieves anything. To do that, Democrats will have to actually capitalize on demographic trends. They’ll have to tie those trends to real policies.
baker: There are opportunities there as well. What we are seeing in the Republican Party now is three factions having an argument: the social-issues faction, the security faction, and the big-money libertarian faction. They have a lot of contradictory objectives, and yet somehow the party has been able to come together. The key to destroying the Republicans, then, would probably be to find some way to heighten those contradictions, so to speak. A lot of social-issues voters, for instance, are having a tough time in an economy that was created to benefit the big-money libertarians.
mcconnell: Democrats should definitely go for more of a class-based politics. It’s traditional for them, and I think—counter to conventional wisdom—that it would play well with a lot of Republican voters, including all of those angry white men, who are still a rather important voting bloc.
baker: I don’t see how Democrats can become the permanent majority party again unless they address the constant whittling away of people’s paychecks.
schaller: True. White male voters tend to vote Republican, for instance, but white male union voters still tend to vote Democratic, even though they are voting against type in terms of cultural and emotional issues.
mitchell: What about going the other way? Should Democrats try to appeal to those big-money libertarians?
mcconnell: This may actually be tested in November. Ron Paul is as pure a libertarian as you can find in the G.O.P. He scored about 7 percent on average in the primaries, and I suspect that most of his voters would otherwise have gone to Obama. But real libertarians are pretty rare. There are a lot of voters who have softer libertarian leanings, and I’d guess that most of them would vote for whoever promised the lowest taxes.
schaller: A certain strain of libertarian pitch could help a lot in western states like Colorado and Montana, where support for the Second Amendment is often paired with support for gay rights or environmentalism—the sort of cultural mix you don’t often get in the southern states or even the Midwest.
baker: No doubt you could pick off a few voters on some issues, but I think an overall libertarian pitch would fail in the long term, mostly because there are no libertarians. It would attract relatively few individuals, for a relatively short time, while alienating not only liberal Democrats but also religious conservatives who might otherwise be drawn over by economic issues.
mcconnell: The problem is that Democrats have become a party in which liberal social attitudes are required in leadership positions while support for liberal economic policies is entirely optional.
baker: In fact, Democrats seem to have come to the point where they run on economic issues and win on economic issues, and then after coming into office they tell the electorate, “Well, you were being awfully childish about this—of course you aren’t going to get those things.”
mcconnell: Yes, and reversing that order of priority might drive a wedge into the G.O.P. The Republicans have come so close to failure that Dem ocrats could achieve a sort of counter-alignment simply by becoming more diverse on cultural issues. They still march in lockstep over abortion, for instance, and if the party were more welcoming to working-class voters who are pro-life or culturally conservative, such voters might be more inclined to vote their economic interests, which are almost certainly Democratic.
schaller: But in general the country is pro-choice and becoming more so with each passing generation. Even in the South, people who identify themselves as “pro-life” are in the minority. If the Republicans really thought they had hay to make on abortion politics, they would have proposed a constitutional amendment banning abortion instead of the one that banned same-sex marriage. Bush has had almost eight years to do so, and so far there’s no sign of movement on that score.
baker: For better or worse, abortion is a waning issue. The anti-abortion policy of intimidation, including actual assassinations, has made it virtually impossible to obtain an abortion in some parts of the country, while elsewhere there is little objection to the procedure. The Republicans would risk a lot by upsetting this standoff. If abortion were outlawed and federal marshals started arresting doctors and pregnant teenagers in those strong pro-choice regions, the whole issue would swing against them.
mcconnell: We have to keep in mind, though, that the abortion issue is a signifier for a host of other cultural issues related to family and sex. A number of politicians have managed to somewhat fudge the abortion issue—Daniel Moynihan, for instance, was able to vote against partial-birth abortion, speak out eloquently against it, note that there is something called “infanticide” and that it is related to abortion, and yet still be, on balance, pro-choice. They can do this by being generally on the conservative side of the culture war. That could be a reasonable model for Democrats.
baker: I think Democrats could reconnect with a lot of voters if they just acknowledged how ugly our popular culture has become. They could disagree on abortion rights or gay marriage, as long as they were saying, “Hey, we understand. We’re worried about our culture, too.” A good liberal candidate would make it all of a piece: “We care about our culture, our kids, our natural environment, our working people. It’s time we stopped shipping your jobs overseas, stopped filling your food with crap and your air with carbon, stopped filling your kids’ minds with garbage.”
3. killing the g.o.p. (part 2)
mitchell: So Democrats have an advantage on money, on demographics, and on the issues. But what about the ongoing occupation of Iraq? It is widely acknowledged as a major catastrophe, and yet Democrats seem to have an unerring instinct for turning that invasion to Republican advantage.
phillips: A major Republican weakness that doesn’t get noticed is their inability, despite all their macho muscle-flexing, to bring foreign wars to a successful finish. Our whole involvement in the Middle East, from the 1970s through the 2020s or however long it goes on, is going to do for the United States what two world wars did for Britain. It is a disaster. But it never gets examined this way.
schaller: I think you may hear more about the war in the general election. Obama will continue to make his case in fiscal terms: Every dollar spent in Iraq is a dollar not spent here. If we leave Iraq, we won’t have lost a war, we will have regained a bridge repair in the United States, regained a wholesale restructuring of our community- college system. The list of wants in this country obviously is very long.
mitchell: Is budget talk enough?
schaller: Well, the budget talk contains a lot of other ideas. There is an increasing desire for America to remove itself somewhat from this global war. Obama can’t really address that desire outright—directly addressing the isolationist tendency among some voters would be a bridge too far for the national press—but he addresses it implicitly every time he points out that money going to Baghdad could be going to Baltimore.
mcconnell: I wish he would address it outright.
schaller: Opposing a war while troops are in the field is hard, because realigning issues usually have to be affirmative. You have to be for something. It’s hard to imagine building a majority party based on something that requires a withdrawal and an implicit admission of defeat.
mitchell: Is there any precedent for that?
phillips: Well, as Tom suggested, the Democrats could open up components of the war in Iraq by way of other issues. The war is a total disaster for U.S. energy policy, for instance. You can even argue that it was a substitute for having an energy policy. But I think simply saying “we need to get out” doesn’t have enough stature. Democrats are not likely to be decisive enough to do that anyway.
schaller: Iraq could be for the Democrats what race was for the Republicans in the Sixties. It could be the issue that succeeds in breaking up the prevailing coalition but fails to build a new coalition in its place. Building a new coalition will require some other issue. And I think the obvious candidate is health-care reform.
baker: You could also talk about transforming the industrial base, emphasizing the technology that will be necessary for dealing with the problems arising from global warming. This always sounds like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but it is going to become more and more urgent as oil prices go up and global warming continues. It is something that potentially you could use to kill several birds with the same stone.
mitchell: Sort of a “Green Deal.”
baker: Right. We are going to find jobs in this new environmental-industrial base, and we are going to get out of some of these foreign entanglements, or at least reengage ourselves in ways that are more oriented toward dealing with global warming. It’s a difficult sell, but it would have large returns, in terms of governing.
phillips: Many of the business and financial interests pumping money into the Democratic Party will oppose it.
baker: A lot of people will oppose it, but that’s one way to get out of some of these boxes the Dem ocrats now find themselves in.
phillips: You don’t necessarily have to be so issue-specific. If the Democrats manage to have four successful, moral, and reasonably productive years, that in and of itself will be something that hasn’t happened since I don’t remember when. Not since Reagan’s first term, and possibly not since Eisenhower.
mitchell: You are saying, Kevin, that the formula for a Democratic majority is to not screw it up?
phillips: Well, the odds are long, but if the Dem ocrats can handle it, they are going to get their ticket punched.
mitchell: All right. Say the Democrats blow it for the third time in a row. I imagine many voters see them as at least being a check on Republicans. And if Democrats fail even in that limited role, it seems like they won’t really have much justification left for existing. Would Republicans be able to force them into some kind of realignment?
baker: Republicans won’t have much to work with. They have been engaged in the headlong pursuit of disaster in so many areas—foreign policy, trade, the environment, the economy, etc.—that the entire bloated framework of modern American life is at risk. Really their only shot is to lose the White House and then blame Democrats for every single one of their own errors.
phillips: Certainly if Democrats take office without having prepared the way for making hard legislative choices, it is likely they are not going to be terribly successful. And if they’re not terribly successful, Republicans will have a chance to get out from under Bush, who is just deadweight at this point. If Republicans have two years of Demo cratic ineptness to run against in the 2010 midterms, they’ll have a shot.
mcconnell: The war will be a big part of that argument.
phillips: The Democrats could easily get trapped in Iraq, the way the Republicans under Nixon were trapped in Southeast Asia. Back then, the Dem ocrats were capable of shifting shamelessly on the Vietnam issue, and Nixon was stupid enough to give them a chance to do it. He should have just pointed out that the Democrats were the party that built up the war and also bungled it. If the Democrats keep the current war going, the Republicans could try to reinvent themselves on Iraq, and in so doing lock the Democrats into a 2009–2012 version of Nixonizing the war.
baker: It seems almost inevitable that that is going to happen, doesn’t it?
phillips: It shouldn’t be, because we are hearing a far less equivocal call for getting out of Iraq from the Democrats than we ever heard from Nixon. Not that I believe them.
schaller: At least for now, though, it looks like the Republicans are holding a bad hand on
phillips: Perhaps. But ironies abound. One danger for the Democrats, quite obviously, is that if the Republicans, by some fluke, actually do implode, then you create another problem. The Democrats would get too big and then divide themselves.
mitchell: The cliché about this contest is that it is the “change election,” but it seems that most of us at this table think no real change is in the offing.
phillips: Well, when I was a kid, I collected postage stamps, including the old presidential series—the old Jefferson purple three, the Madison magenta four, and so forth. I took it awfully seriously. I collected returnable bottles in order to buy the stamps, but my grandfather bought me the otherwise unaffordable $2 and $5 stamps, which pictured Harding and Coolidge. That was already depressing, because once you got up to the 1920s, you were starting to look at third-rate presidents you knew more about. And itbeen discouraging for the past fifty years, too. As you go down the line, you really feel a deep sense that this is a waste of time.
phillips: No, no! The American political system in Washington.
baker: Getting people to take part in it, as
phillips: Yeah. Some people in Congress get tired after three terms and go home. They just don’t want to bother with it. But most understand that it is the ticket to making real money. You can hang around Washington and be a lobbyist. Even if you’re a jerk, you’ll still make $300,000 a year, which is twice what a congressman makes. None of this is likely to change, at least not based on anything that is in motion now.
schaller: It may take a crisis for a realignment to occur—environmental collapse, economic collapse, imperial overextension, whatever.
mitchell: And yet this war, one of the most epically colossal failures in our history, doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.
mcconnell: I’m a little surprised that there are so few visible signs of social unrest or protest anywhere, peaceful or non-peaceful.
phillips: Generally speaking, there has been an unwillingness among the former world economic powers to understand what was happening, so they basically pretended that all was well. The political history of those economic powers as they peaked and declined was that they couldn’t mobilize a new coalition to implement serious reforms.
mitchell: Tom mentioned the amazing number of small contributions going to Democrats. That may be throwing good money after bad, but it certainly is an expression of desire for change.
phillips: I think you can find the desire. There are a whole lot of middle- and upper-class people for whom a $300 or $400 contribution is no particular problem, so they will give it, and it is a huge resource to be able to tap. That doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out neatly.
mitchell: It seems that all decadent societies decline in the end. That is the story we know. But there have to be at least one or two that had a second act, when the people got it together.
phillips: There is indeed a second act for leading world economic powers, after they shed the burden of hubris and grandiosity, of being the world policeman and world banker. After thirty or forty years of adjustment, they come back in a less grandiose form. The Spanish and the Dutch and the British are doing pretty well right now. But they did have huge problems with post-imperial withdrawal symptoms.
mcconnell: Let me back up and try to define the impasse. When I think back historically, I think of the American party system as a success story—not tremendously successful, but successful compared with the way men were governed in most of the world for most of history. The system has been strong enough to withstand a significant degree of muddling through. The country has been pretty much a democracy most of the time, grown economically, fought its wars, and won most of them. Yet I have the feeling now that we are poised at a precipice of governmental failure. We need good government leaders in a way that we haven’t for a while, but the parties are not producing leaders who are likely to solve problems.
schaller: It’s a catch-22. In order to get away from personality politics, you have to have strong parties. But it’s going to take a pretty strong person to deliver that.
phillips: I think that’s right.
baker: Look at how party politics broke down in New York City to elect Bloomberg, who would have had no chance at power in the past. Voters were in revolt against decade upon decade of rule by crappy clubhouse politicians. Now it’s crappy billionaire politicians, but hey.
mitchell: The most likely scenario appears to be that the two parties will prop each other up just long enough to ensure the failure of the American experiment.
phillips: It’s quite plausible that the Democrats will increase their margins in the House and Senate but fail to win the presidency. With McCain, you would have this old cranky man who doesn’t concentrate all that well. He’s very opinionated. The Democrats will provoke the hell out of him. However, they wouldn’t have the burden of governing, which they don’t do terribly well. They’ll leave him to screw that up. It could be a very ineffective division of power.
baker: Maybe one of the reasons we can’t come up with a scenario in which one party forces the other into a major realignment is that both parties are skirting the central issues facing us, much like the Democrats and the Whigs did in the years leading up to the Civil War. The only way to break that deadlock was to risk blowing up both national parties. And in the end, the issue of slavery did indeed blow them both up. The Republicans were able to triumph only because the blowup was so all-encompassing. Thata pretty big risk for a practical politician to take. More likely, the two parties will continue to do what politicians usually do, which is wait on events to force a decision.
mcconnell: The United States is currently on an unsustainable track, and if this election doesn’t knock us off of it, then something else is bound to, likely within the next decade.
mitchell: What happens if it doesn’t knock us
mcconnell: If the next president orders the military to invade or bomb Iran or some other country, I would probably welcome it if some key generals said, “No Mr. (or Madam) President, not this time,” and went over the head of the president for congressional and popular support. At this point I’d put as much trust in the judgment and patriotism of a high-ranking military officer as in that of a politician who has spent decades catering to the fabulously rich men who finance both major parties. That’s one way the current stasis could be broken—our version of a Gaullist coup.
baker: I have to admit that I wrote in Harper’s five years ago, “In the end, we’ll beg for the coup.”
mitchell: Do you still believe that?
baker: I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to wonder if America today isn’t more like Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “wonderful one-hoss shay”—a contraption so finely constructed that it will never break down but will just wear out. The things we are doing are so unsustainable—
occupying an enormous chunk of the most fractious piece of Asia until it learns democracy, driving the working wage relentlessly downward, draining our natural resources as fast as we can—that we simply won’t be able to do them any longer. If that is the case, then there will be immense opportunities for whichever party can get us to revert to what Americans used to do best, which was making brilliant improvisations to deal with seemingly insurmountable problems.