The Democratic Party has managed to whittle its vast field of three serious presidential candidates down to two: a 74-year-old, curmudgeonly, Jewish, self-described socialist, and a 69-year-old with net negative ratings of historic proportions and all the baggage of two past administrations.
The Republicans? Well, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
So what do you say we inspect the outlook for the sorry mess we call American political parties?
The late David Broder wrote a book in 1972 titled The Party’s Over. The many people who have since borrowed his clever title have been just as wrong as Broder. Political parties in America have been suspect from the beginning—George Washington despised the very idea of parties—but they seem to be necessary as a means of bringing some semblance of order to the election process.
At that, the system has always been somewhat disordered. What Broder recognized was the death, at least for his time, of the smoke-filled room, in which, theoretically, party elders eliminated people like Donald Trump and narrowed the field to candidates who were serious, responsible and relatively free of scandalous history. What he failed sufficiently to acknowledge was that the system whose passing he lamented had given us the likes of James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon.
Reform after party reform have changed the process of primaries and caucuses a great deal since 1972. Every time a reform is adopted, though, somebody figures out how to manipulate the system and defeat the purpose of the reformers. The manipulators have been abetted considerably by the Supreme Court, which holds, in effect, that money is the same as speech, and that corporations are the same as people. The result is a process so distorted as to render both major political parties incapable of producing their best candidates, especially for president.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Both parties have been duplicitous.[/pullquote]
Yes, both parties. The collapse of the Republican Party has been well and endlessly documented. It fell because the seams of the Reagan coalition could not hold. The economic royalists who had always run the party could lie successfully only for so long, falsely promising ridiculous reforms that their unnatural partners, the so-called “social conservatives,” demanded.
But the ruling elite of the Democrats, as it turns out, have been as duplicitous as their GOP counterparts. Their success in a liberal social agenda was not matched by any commitment to economic justice, and, in fact, has been largely undone by its absence.
Here’s what that means: Going back to the 1960s and ‘70s, it was Democrats who reversed their field, at least in the South, and carried the political water for the civil-rights movement. African Americans were welcomed, for the first time, into the labor force. But a declining labor movement, stymied in part by its own corruption and in greater part by Republican-led legal reverses, meant that the old path to the middle class was suddenly shut off just as blacks were trying to crowd into it.
The women’s movement saw much of the same kind of phenomenon. Opportunities for women opened up in the 1980s and ‘90s, but opportunities themselves have diminished as the American economy has been in a pattern of slow growth, with the recovery from every recession a longer and shallower process than the last. At least arguably, trade agreements that have contributed to a perverse form of globalization—agreements supported by Democrats like the Clintons and Barack Obama—have had a great deal to do with this.
Bottom line: The Republican Party is divided between its ostensible leadership, which consists of greedy rich people, and its voting base, which is composed of right-wing, unchristian “Christians” and frustrated, angry people who are disenchanted with almost everything the system represents. They’ve gone for Donald Trump, for goodness’ sake. The Democratic Party is divided between its ostensible leadership, which is conservative, and its voting base, which is increasingly liberal. If Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden had run for the nomination this year, either would have won it in a walk. They didn’t run, though, and neither did most of the other good candidates, because the money was all tied up on the front end by the Clinton machine.
The pundits mostly have it that the Democrats are in better shape because they think the GOP cannot compete in a national election. Wrong. The GOP now controls 31 state legislatures (including Nebraska’s single chamber), and one house in each of eight more. That’s a healthy party of sick people. That’s power. It means they can pass, not only abortion restrictions, firearm proliferation bills, and goofy bathroom regulation, but also vote-suppression laws, gerrymandered congressional districts and campaign-finance legislation geared to the interests of their wealthy sponsors. It also means they have a deep bench of candidates and have deprived a lot of Democrats of their start up the political ladder. And by the way, Hillary Clinton is an incredibly weak candidate and may well lose to the Republican this fall, regardless of who that person is.
So now what? It may well be time for third-party movements, but unfortunately, the constitutional peculiarity of the Electoral College probably precludes their success. If Clinton wins the presidency, she will be the de facto head of the Democratic Party, and nothing substantial will change for the four years she will serve. While it’s not changing, though, the most important groups that have supported Bernie Sanders will be fomenting his revolution from within.
Sanders won’t be the winner here, but in a short time, his army of supporters will be.