Do America's Political Parties Still Have Coherent Identities?

               I agree entirely  with the first paragraph of Keith's latest article (Pathetic Democratic Politicking - American Counterpoint 3/22/17), including his "vile and destructive interlude" characterization of the current Trump era. However, his argument jumps the track after that I think and never recovers its balance or momentum.
               Keith's problem, in my judgment, is that like many Democrats, he doesn't want to acknowledge anything more than exogenous factors as real causes for his party's woes. Prior to this last election,  money was always the reason of choice among Democrats trying to explain any electoral failures. The Koch brothers and other garishly wealthy bogeymen were, so the trope ran, using their money to corrupt the channels of political discourse and advance Republican stooges into positions of power. Rich Republican backers, in other words, were buying elections in which honest Democrats  never stood a chance. This argument had already lost most of its force by 2008 when Barak Obama and his allies sailed into Washington on a sea of money. The argument had become an embarrassment by 2016 when Hillary Clinton ran what was probably the most lavishly-funded political campaign in the history of the world and still came up short.

               So where do the Democrats turn now in trying to get a grip on their political dysfunction?  Keith takes a stab at this by telling us that the problems are "pathetic politicking" and "and an almost unbelievable level of incompetence". He then illustrates his case with the performance of one hapless Democratic spokesman sent before the cameras to oppose the Republican healthcare bill without coaching or a script,  as though poor speech training were the main problem. Keith's point aligns with a notion long popular among Democrats that voters would  convey to them untrammeled power if only the Party could do a better job of packaging and marketing its superior ideas.

               The Democrats' problem, however,  is more fundamental than any of this. What has undermined the contemporary Democratic Party is a loss of identity. In order to regain political vitality, the Party must first find answers  to two related questions: Who do they represent, and what do they stand for? The questions may appear straight-forward, but it is clear by now that they are not. The life-or-death issue facing the Democrats is whether the questions can be answered at all without abandoning dearly-held illusions and splintering themselves beyond recognition.
               For their part, the Republicans now face an identity crisis of probably even greater magnitude. They find themselves in the unprecedented  position of having to rally around an opportunistic standard-bearer whose past party affiliation has been entirely fluid and who just spent most of the past year mocking Republican leaders as liars, wimps, losers, cowards, fools, and corrupt sycophants. Trump feels he won the Presidency without the Party's support and that he is now free to excise power without adherence to its traditional ideology or the advice of establishment allies. Yet he has no real ideology of his own.  As result, Trump has already begun his decent into a trap whereby the ideology is defined for him by the rhetoric of an increasingly hateful and hysterical opposition. Should this slide continue, Trump will pull the Republican Party into the trap with him, and in the public eye, it will become the party of racists, misogynists, homophobes, Christian fundamentalists,  and fans of Vladimir Putin.

               America's two-party system has served it well through most of its history. Power had ebbed and flowed between various incarnations of the two parties as one or the other has seemed to get a firmer handle on the critical issues of the day, only to yield the ground once more when conditions change.  Yet what happens in a two-party system when neither of those parties seems capable  of constructive engagement or pragmatic problem-solving? What happens when there's nothing left but mockery and hatred?
               I'm afraid we may be about to explore the hard road to the answers for these particular questions.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to agree that the Republican Party has lost its way even more than the Democrats. The main substantive Democrat problem is that the party has abandoned, or at least downgraded, working people and their interests. But that is a fault they can correct it if they will. The national-level Republicans, on the other hand, seem to have only three substantive goals: getting re-elected, reducing the role of government except in the field of security, and tilting financial policies in favor of the rich and powerful. If we remain a democracy in fact as well as in name, that seems a gigantic problem.