People in California know all too well that when the tectonic plates get stuck, that’s when the forces build up for a really big quake. We may be looking at just such a scenario in politics, but it’s just as hard to predict a political crisis as it is to predict an earthquake.
As best we can tell from the polls, the forthcoming election will be extremely tight at the presidential level. It is even conceivable that Obama could win the electoral vote and lose the popular vote, because of his advantage in most of the swing states. And while either house of Congress could change its majority, it is perhaps most likely that the Republicans will hold the House (with a narrowed majority) and the Democrats will do the same in the Senate. So regardless of who wins the presidency, we are looking at another four years of gridlock, with each party controlling part of the government and seemingly unable to agree on any substantive programs or budget priorities. The tectonic plates are really stuck.
This is not only the case at the level of our political leadership: at the mass level as well, people are sharply divided in their visions for the country. Yet, even as people are increasingly polarized, they also expect their leaders somehow to work with the other side to serve the public good. The problem is that conceptions of the public good are so polarized that any compromise will be seen as illegitimate by large numbers of voters. Leaders, in short, are condemned if they do compromise, and condemned if they don’t. The vast majority of people consistently think that the country is headed in the wrong direction, but there is no agreement on what the right direction would be. There is scarcely space for real leadership.
So in the short term what we’re looking at is something like 1948, when an unpopular president (Truman) beat an even more unpopular challenger, and then couldn’t get much done because he faced a hostile Congress. And if Obama really does win in 2012 in spite of his unpopularity, the odds are extremely high that the GOP will elect the next president in 2016. But they, too, are likely to face a divided and immobile Congress.
In the longer term, a better analogy might be the 1850s, the run-up to the Civil War. Tensions were extremely high, as the country was profoundly divided over fundamental issues, especially slavery. Both the Whigs and the Democrats were increasingly split, and protest parties like the Know-Nothings got significant support in 1856. The Republican Party also emerged in 1856, and managed by 1860 to supplant the Whigs entirely and defeat the divided Democrats (who ran three candidates for President). Our modern two-party system dates from this era. The Republicans were the last third party to succeed at anything other than throwing an election to the opposition (Teddy Roosevelt Progressive Party in 1912, Strom Thurmond States Rights Democratic Party in 1948, George Wallace American Independent Party in 1968, John Anderson ran as an Independent in 1980, Ross Perot Reform Party in 1992, Ralph Nader Reform Party in 2000 The Reform Party).
This time, is a new political earthquake really possible? Yes, it’s possible, but not inevitable. And just as with real earthquakes, it’s very hard to predict not only the timing, but the shape of the post-quake landscape.
We need to think about how the political impasse could be broken. The right wing is currently stronger than the left wing in American politics, so a breakthrough leader is more likely to come from the right (think of Ronald Reagan). But the hard right doesn’t have enough support to sweep all before it. The center and left could block or dilute a right-wing agenda, much as was done during the George W. Bush administration.
But neither could the left alone produce such a transformational figure. Obama was the closest we’ve come to that since FDR, but the Republicans found it easy to stymie and demonize him, even before their massive electoral victory in 2010.
A third possibility is a militant centrist independent along the lines of Teddy Roosevelt, John Anderson, or Ross Perot. But while the old parties continue to elect virtually all legislators and governors, a militant centrist would have a hard time winning the presidency, and an even harder time governing if s/he did win.
What if popular support for both major parties really did dry up? Then there really would be a chance for a sweeping reshuffle of American politics. Then we would be faced with “birthing a new American politics.” All of us could then participate in midwifing the new order.
But it is not inevitable that the new order will be better. Remember Yeats:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
It will be for us to create a better American politics. We shall need to get serious about revitalizing and deepening our democracy. Democracy is based on the equality of every citizen, and yet we live in a society of profound and deepening economic inequalities and social cleavages. If we fail to narrow these gaps, the new American democracy will be stillborn.
Posted: Saturday, 11 August 2012