A Choice, Not a No-Brainer

The voters, as they say, have spoken. And, as often happens when one party emerges momentarily dominant, there is much discussion, not to say hand-wringing, over the plight and the fate of its opposite number.

It is interesting that in our country there is always only one opposite number. Why only one? According to political scientist Maurice Duverger, whom everyone cites on this subject, the development of two large parties was an unplanned effect of the two principles which apply almost everywhere in our system of elections that: a) the plurality wins, and b) the winner takes all. In consequence, unlike the tossing of hand grenades and horseshoes, an American election is an activity in which “almost” doesn’t count. Only one candidate, not two or three, is elected in most elections, even if three or more get large numbers of votes. Candidates and voters alike therefore face powerful incentives to pool their bets; voters cannot waste votes on candidates who are the “purest” representatives of narrow outlooks or interests, but must instead vote for candidates who manage to appeal to diverse coalitions of voters, the larger the better. The power of this logic is maximized with two candidates. And with such binary electoral choices come binary parties, large organized coalitions to support coalition candidates.

Despite these almost accidental beginnings, then, despite not even being mentioned or contemplated in the Constitution, our two major political parties have made themselves essential to the U.S. constitutional scheme. Without them, there probably would not be forces big enough, rich enough, and powerful enough to assure that the constitutional machinery establishing periodic turnovers in control of our elected branches would actually function. The oligarchy of two parties, complete with their respective primary systems, recruits, vets and legitimizes new candidates, and concentrates large forces of funding and electioneering to make them effective. Two parties are, in short, a handy thing to have.

And that is why even the most loyal Democrats would be right to care about the fate of the Republicans today.

Of course this is a perennial sport. I am just old enough to remember anxious editorials in 1964 and 1965 when it looked as if Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats had nearly wiped the GOP off the face of the earth. Yet Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan breathed considerable vitality back into the “invalid,” giving it over three unexpected decades of near-dominance. Handwringing was then replaced by insane optimism. Karl Rove and Tom DeLay concluded from their momentary ascendancy that they had the makings of a Thousand-Year Republican Reich. Uh, not so much … Instead, the ruinous elections of 2006 and 2008 have nearly marginalized the Party once more. Yet it is inconceivable that the Republicans will not come back.

But first they will need (as they did in 1964) to reinvent themselves. It is therefore with bemusement that one reads the opening rounds of their internal debate in every newspaper and every blog, about what reinvention should entail. The predictable mistake one sees most continually repeated in these exchanges could be called “Back to the Future.” In this view, the Republicans, like the ancient Israelites driven into exile, brought this pickle upon themselves by being untrue to their divine teachings. They were faithless to their shibboleths of small government and low taxes. Had they not strayed, the feeling goes, had they kept government small and taxes low, they would all still be in office.

Well, not exactly. Small and ineffective governance was at the very root of our problems with Katrina, a fact the voters noted. Even the Bush Administration had to resort to big government remedies when dealing with the financial meltdown – another fact voters have noted. “Small government” Republicans have never had much of a pure faith anyway where it comes to the military. And the Republican deployment of our military and the various atrocities that had accompanied it had a great deal to do with putting the party in the national doghouse. Nor do any of the advocates for Republican reformation known to me seem to be suggesting that the party do a comprehensive about-face on its nastily anti-immigrant stance, even though that stance obviously lost the support of the fastest-growing demographic in the country today, Hispanic voters. No one seems to be suggesting that the party rethink who it wants in its “base,” even though by now the present version of that base (older, white religious conservatives and blue-collar workers) can no longer deliver national elections. The hope seems to be that somehow, by becoming more of what it was in the past, the party can recover its spark. The technical name for this kind of hope is “denial.”

The Republican Party will recover only when it embraces a much more fundamental change – when it recognizes that the electorate has changed and when it is willing to give the electorate what it demands.

We’ll know that moment has come when photos of Republican crowds look the way photos of Democratic crowds do today: diverse in age, diverse in ethnicity and race. A party whose attitudes make it almost lily-white will increasingly become a party in exile in the majority-minority America we are fast becoming.

We’ll know the Republicans are back when they show, through their platform and their public pronouncements, that they have broken the grip of the religious right, and stand with the larger number of more moderate Americans on matters such as abortion, contraception, the roles of women, and homosexuality.

We’ll know the Republicans are rebuilding when they change their cultural tune and stop associating obsessively with country music, NASCAR, and gun fetishism. The rural South is not the American heartland any more, and not where future elections will be won.

We’ll see the voters embracing Republican candidates again when the latter show they understand that global warming is real, is caused by human economic activities, and is the single most important issue of all, and that corporate profits and objectives cannot be allowed to trump the efforts to rescue the planet.

We can expect Republican majorities once more when Republican leaders publicly express some credible appreciation of the regulatory state and the taxes necessary to support it. This new Century will require alliances and worldwide cooperation. It will require our participation in and submission to international treaties and institutions. Republicans willing to commit us to that kind of cooperation will find favor with the electorate.

Phyllis Schlafly, doyenne of the Republican radical right, had it nearly right in 1964 when she called for “a choice, not an echo.” We certainly need a choice. And the parties should be meaningfully different. The problem right now is that today’s Republicans officially stand for something close to Schlafly’s substantive views, which are about as outmoded as flat-earth theory. There are certain premises that the majority of the electorate now shares, and will share for the foreseeable future, and in order to enter into the national dialogue the Republicans will have to adopt them, even if that moves them closer to Democratic orthodoxy. Within those premises, there is still room for choices that are not echoes. But the Republicans need to enter the consensus. Until they do, it will be a no-brainer for majorities to vote against them. There are Republicans who already recognize this. But such realism amounts to tearing out the very foundation of the party and starting all over – abandoning most of the characteristics that have distinguished the party from the Democrats for forty years. There are few signs the party is ready for this literally heart-rending task even now.

The electorate is likely to force it, however. It has to happen, and it will. And the sooner the better, not just for the GOP, but for us all