I remember when there were conservative Democrats, especially in the South, and liberal Republicans, especially in the North and Midwest, and when there were also a lot of complaints that the parties were too watered down to stand for something and project meaningful principles.
Guaranteed, whatever political system a country has, there will be a substantial number of people who wish it was different, and they presume better. But the lesson is it might not be better at all. Or that they always see the downsides before they appreciate the upsides.
Kevin Baker, an essayist and historical novelist, writes in the NYT about the early history of bitter conflict in political parties. “Political Party Meltdown: The strategists who wanted greater ideological purity may have gotten more than they bargained for,” is revelatory.
It is impossible to imagine any of the leading Republican candidates working hand in hand with Democrats “in the best interests of America,” Baker writes. “It would be tempting to say that all this marks a new low in the annals of our democracy, save for the fact that this is how it has functioned, or failed to function, for much of its existence.“Political analysts attribute our current stalemate to a number of likely factors: the corrupting influence of big money; the fall of the old party bosses and the advent of primaries; and now the rise of a social media that is centered on forming virtual communities of like-minded people. All true, but the heart of the matter is this: The system is not supposed to work.”
For much of American history, politicians have slandered and libelled each other, and occasionally engaged in physical violence against their opponents, Baker observes. Around 1900, both political parties developed conservative and liberal wings, essentially four political parties, started to engage in “productive civility,” and government worked because both leaders of both parties had to reach out to “the other” to build coalitions and pass legislation.
From 1900 to 1990, Baker contends, with this coalition government of “practical democracy,” America’s political leaders built the country into a great domestic powerhouse and grew into an international superpower.
I might disagree with Baker over the date this coalition government ended, if indeed it has. Bill Clinton reached compromises with the Gingrich Republicans over welfare reform, “ending welfare as we know it” and instituting a kind of workfare, and, after the government shutdown of 1995, agreeing to modest spending increases and significant deficit reduction.
But I do agree that the Gingrich era increased demonization of political opponents, beginning with the (highly hypocritical) impeachment of President Clinton. From there Republicans led by Karl Rove attempted, in 2002, to paint opponents like Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam Veteran, as “unAmerican” and allied with Osama Bin Laden. Rove and company have also “maneuvered to suppress Democratic turnout or render it ineffectual,” Baker writes.
It was not a far step to characterize President Obama as “unAmerican,” not born in the U.S., a Muslim, who does not want America to succeed. Before long, we may be back to 18th and 19th century notions of our political opponents, and actually engaging in physical violence against them.