Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Problem With the Big Tent

I recently ("Most Absurd Debate Since ... ", "Nice to Get Confirmation") wrote about the fragmentation within both major parties, and the likely outcomes. Today, I would like to discuss my thoughts on why this is happening.

We hear all the time that the US has always been a two party system, and in broad terms that is correct, but it ignores a lot of details. For example, the infamous election of 1860 where there were four nominees from two parties, or the numerous elections in the 19th and early 20th centuries when a third party candidate made a serious showing. Not to mention the times when party transitions (eg Whig to Republican) when there were at least three official parties with members in congress. And then there was the period from Jefferson through Monroe when, for all intents and purposes, the Democratic-Republicans were the only effective national party. So, while we are nominally a two party state, it really is only since the 1930s or so that that has been strictly accurate, prior to then, there have been either regional divisions within the parties or third parties which gave lie to that contention.

However, it is easy to see why we are now so firmly a two party state, and in part it has to do with the growth of popular media, though that is not the sole reason. Prior to radio, it was possible to get newspaper endorsements without spending a fortune on advertising. For that matter, third parties could establish their own tabloids or papers in various regions without too much expenditure, and state laws generally did not impose too massive a burden to appearing on the ballot.

Now, with modern media costs reaching such astronomical levels, unless one has a massive personal fortune (such as Ross Perot), or  hopes to run without serious advertisement (such as modern Communists and Libertarians), there is little hope for a campaign without matching funds, and the rules almost ensure only the two parties receive those. Not to mention later campaign finance laws, which, because of special treatment of donations to parties as opposed to candidates, make it very difficult for a run without an established party structure.

Of course, that is not the whole of the story. The rules about congressional committee seats, along with a host of other procedural rules mean a congressman who is not either a party member, or a de facto member by "caucusing with" an established party, will remain largely impotent. Thus, most third parties do not even bother with congressional elections and instead focus on the presidency, which is itself a fool's errand. After all, if a congressman without party support is impotent, imagine a president with opposition from both sides of the aisle. What chance would he have?

Because the system so strongly favors the two party system, and because in recent times the numbers of the parties, both within states, in congress, and in presidential electors, have remained very close to equally divided (at least since the southern defection of the 1980s, which we shall discuss in a moment),  the parties have made every effort to create a "big tent" policy, papering over disputes within the party, seeking policies which offend no major consistency, and, in general, disappointing the majority of members by avoiding strong positions.

In one sense, the Democrats have been more fortunate. With the defection of the last big regional group, the southern Democrats, in the 1980s, they have had a more unified party, and have been able to adopt a stronger policy position than Republicans. Granted, to appeal to unions, minority activists, social justice activists, middle of the road liberals, semi- and full-fledged-socialists, and a few other minor constituencies, they have had to adopt a strange amalgam of positions, but fortunately for them, the vast majority of positions do not conflict too badly, and so their big tent has weathered the years a bit better. Granted, the blue collar vote defected in the Reagan years to some degree (showing the difficulty in retaining both union members and union elites at the same time), and some are now defecting to Trump's nationalist movement (as did some to Perot's campaign and the short-lived Reform Party it created). But that just shows the strains both parties suffer. In the case of Democrats, the difficulty in maintaining the party's traditional labor support while simultaneously endorsing a racial-activist platform.

The Republicans have fared far worse. The party itself has always been a bit of a mess. Started initially as a nativist, soft money, protectionist/mercantilist, big government, prohibitionist party, that element tends to remain throughout, most recently in the paleocon movement and, more recently, in the Trump faction. Then, during the early 20th century, the party also embraced some elements of the "reform" movement, embracing certain amount of anti-big-business, pro-regulation feeling, which also informed a certain amount of the modern paleocon/Trump belief in protectionism and anti-banking rhetoric. Following the election of FDR and the New Deal, the failed constitutionalist movement, formed mostly of disaffected Democrats following the Populist/reformist takeover of the Democrats between 1890 and 1914, made a home in the Republican party, giving rise to the "economic conservative"/libertarian wing that would eventually find expression in the Goldwater movement in the 1960s. Around the same time, the Prohibitionist Party, having lost its purpose in the 1930s,  also made a home in the Republican Party (from whence many had come) , founding what would eventually become the modern social conservative wing.

Of course, none of these are absolute rules, as the "big tent" means both parties had odd holdovers. For example, many disillusioned states' rights, minimal government Democrats might have eventually ended up as Republicans, but in the south, many remained Democrats, only leaving the party after the leftward drift from 1968 to 1980 finally convinced them to change parties. Another faction, the segregationists, also originated in the southern Democrats, leaving the party briefly in the 1960s and early 1970s to eventually drift off into a number of third parties, though some eventually joined the nativist/paleocon Republicans, and a few others became Democrats once more, at least until the mass departure of the 1980s. Likewise, protectionists from the Republican party did, at various times, end up either temporarily or permanently allying with Democrats of a similar bent, often union boosters, leaving the Democrats with their own version of paleocons,  protectionist, nativist, union supporters, and leaving the paleocons with a strange pro-union bias which stands out like a sore thumb in the rest of the Republican platform.

What is truly amazing, is how well these two hybrids held together. The Democrats did have the advantage of having twice expelled the small government, states' rights members, in the early 20th century and later in the 1980s, as well as the walk out of the segregationists in the 1970s, but they still were a bizarre hybrid of a somewhat nativist, protectionist, union party, a racial nationalist wing, a more hardline socialist wing, and an academic social justice/liberal wing. Taken as a whole it is hard to imagine any single policy which would appeal to all of the above, and yet they held it together, at least for the most part. Granted, the 1960s saw many fractures in the party, as did the 1980s with Reagan Democrats defecting as well as the departure of the previously reliably Democrat south. But none of it compares to the even stranger hybrid that is the Republican party.

The Republicans simply don't make sense. Combining a nativist, mercantilist/protectionist, often pro-union, anti-banking group that once was the mainstream Republican position, with the economic conservative, constitutionalist, federalist movement that became prominent following the 1960s was bad enough, but to then graft on a social conservative movement, which often favored fairly extensive government involvement in moral questions just makes no sense. Again, as with the Democrats, it is difficult to see how any platform could please the entire party.

And I think we are finally seeing the results of trying too hard to maintain that big tent. Just as the Democrats fractures in the 1850s and 1860s due to the differences in regional policies, or in the 1890s and 1900s, splitting between western populists and southern and eastern small government constitutionalists. The Republican party split is more dramatic, with Trump leading a nationalist/palecon walk out, opposed by economic conservatives/libertarians and much of the social conservative wing (though some social conservatives have adopted his positions). Oddly, Trump may also be playing a part in the Democrat split as well, attracting some fragment of the nativist union vote. But, for the most part, the Democrats are seeing a split between the more moderate "pragmatic" liberals and academics and the more radical socialist and activist elements, with the racila nationalists splitting between the two depending upon their tolerance for more extreme activism. While less obvious than the Republican disintegration, the Democrats will likely feel theirs for longer, as it is a more deep rooted issue, and not as tied to a single personality as the Trump movement is. In a way, the Democrats are simply replaying the same argument they had in the party in 1968 and then sublimated following Watergate in order to present a untied front.

Much as I understand our attachment to the two party system, and can see its benefits when compared to multiparty parliaments, I think in the long run this is a good thing. Anyone who spent any time on nominally conservative websites in the past decade can appreciate it is a long overdue change at least on the right. How many times have we argued what is an is not a "real conservative"*? And how many times have those of us supporting small constitutional government been embarrassed by having to apologize for those who rant about "sandn*ggers" or who spout absurd racial theories? How many fights have there been over whether social conservatives really are conservative when they push intrusive government? Or whether free trade is "really conservative"? A party simply cannot survive with such a disparate, fragmented base. Pelocons, constitutionalists, libertarians, big government social conservatives and others just do not agree enough to make up a single party.

Better the parties split and found some sort of smaller, better defined groups, then we might be able to work together when we agree on issues, and not be saddled with platform planks with which we not only disagree, but which we find contrary to our most fundamental beliefs.

Granted, should the Democrats manage to force their internal argument underground once more, put off the debate once again for a time, they might enjoy a temporary advantage, but, I think in the long run, a few smaller, better defined movements will enjoy both stronger support, and be better able to win over independents, and even unhappy Democrats, with more coherent, effective arguments. And, since we will each be able to espouse one position, we will no longer hear complaints about RINOs, since most RINOs were simply politicians trying to appease a number of interest groups within the party, each of which wanted a different, and often mutually exclusive, thing.

So, in the long run, I say, bring it on! Break the Republicans apart. Strange as it is to say, Trump and his supporters may have done us a favor.

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* See, for example, "Many Types of Conservatives", "A True Conservative Platform",  "Minimal Reforms", "The State and Morality", "A Bit More Explanation", "My Answer to Bozell and the ALA", "Congress and the Republican Future", "A Brief Comment", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Hard Cases Make Bad Laws", "Harming Society", "In Loco Parentis", "What My Arguments Mean, and What They Do Not", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "Government by Emotion", "Beware Populist Deception", "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, and More Jobs", "Fear of Trade", "Free Trade, Employment, Outsourcing, and Protectionism", "Cheap Lighters, Overseas Dumping and Monopolies", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "The Consequences of Bad Laws",  "A Brief Comment" and "Term in Search of  a Definition".

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POSTSCRIPT

For those interested in my take on the various party changes, I suggest "A Timeline Part One" and "A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", as well as "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "A Passing Thought", "The Best Historical Example", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution" and "Rethinking the Scopes Trial".

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