Analysis: Postcards from the scrapheap of US parties’ history

By J Brooks Spector 17 October 2013

The congressional fighting over the American governmental shutdown and the debt ceiling came down to the final minutes of 16 October. In the wake of this struggle, perhaps it is time to contemplate the cost to the Republican Party as a result of this fight – and even if there might be some big decisions about the party’s future – in its future. J. BROOKS SPECTOR offers some speculations fuelled by the history of the birth of the GOP itself.

American political gridlock shut down much of the government for over two weeks’ time – and even with an interim agreement finally coming into view, the threat of another bitter battle in a few months’ time remains. In the meantime, this congressional struggle had threatened the imminent exhaustion of the government’s ability to settle its obligations. Preeminent among them, as far as the world’s financial system was concerned, were trillions of dollars of Treasury bonds held by foreign governments (and especially China and Japan), financial institutions and individuals around the world, either coming to maturity or with interest payments due. Then, just behind those payments, there were all those Social Security cheques to the nation’s elderly, as well as military salaries, allowances and pensions.

Even as commentators, financial analysts and the public around the world have been fixated on these two intertwined crises, the conduct of the country’s political parties has come under examination as well. As a result of this conflict, polls, surveys and focus group analysis have all reported that the Republican Party has now reached its lowest point in popular esteem ever. (The Democrats haven’t fared all that well either, but they have yet to become even less popular than used car salesmen.) As a result of this battle in Congress with the Democrats, the Republicans seem at war with themselves. They are deeply and publicly split between the increasingly tattered, surprisingly ineffectual remnants of its centrists and moderate right establishment wing (including the party’s formal leadership) on the one hand, and an insurgent Tea Party on the other.

While the party’s formal leadership has generally been trying to operate broadly within the historical ethos of the congressional system where getting along usually means learning to go along, the Tea Party faction has drawn upon the chiliast, near-eschatological fervour of its supporters. They seemingly have been taking a kind of delight in their “end of days” feeling that efforts to crush Obamacare and thereby bring down the Obama presidency would get the country closer to a better world – and even losing while remaining pure to the cause was a kind of successful failure.

Within recent days, too, some of the less salubrious ideas behind the Tea Party have come into sharper public focus as well. Rallies and demonstrations have brought the harder, meaner side of this political brand right out into the open. Besides all the usual ranting about that notorious Kenyan-communist-Muslim fundamentalist-usurper-in-the-White House, Barack Obama, and his health care reforms’ threats to the Western civilisation; a new element – previously just below the surface, but now dramatically exposed – has been added to the picture.

At one Tea Party rally in front of the White House a few days back, protesters carried the Confederacy’s “Stars and Bars” flags that was a clear effort to identify the Tea Party as being at war with the sociological and demographic changes now overwhelming an older America. This was now a movement simultaneously aligned with the dreams and delusions of white Southerners from the earlier ante-bellum era of American history. While candidate Barack Obama’s less than mellifluous comments in 2008 about those older, white, small-town folks in Pennsylvania who were clinging to their guns and Bibles, afraid to embrace change, had provoked a flood of criticism; the results of recent polling and focus groups examining the values (and fears) of conservative Republicans clearly pointed to an older, whiter, slightly richer, small-town and rural population, acutely uncomfortable with a nation in flux. Or, in some of the very words emanating from those focus groups, it is a population scared, worried, concerned, discouraged, nervous, anxious, bleak and disappointed; that they felt powerless to affect the direction things are going; and that they “are very conscious of being white in a country that is increasingly minority”.

Now it is absolutely true that one Confederate flag does not a mass movement make. However, people like ex-Alaska Governor (and ex vice-presidential candidate) Sarah Palin and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have showed up at various Tea Party rallies and failed to tell their flock to tamp down on the dog-whistle symbols like that Confederate flag or the inflammatory rhetoric about Barack Obama. But more astonishing still, leaders of the Republican establishment appeared to be frozen in place, afraid to criticise such displays, let alone emphasise the values of compromise in governing in the national interest, rather than in support of the ultra-partisan politics of Capitol Hill’s gaggle of congressmen identifying with Tea Party values.

What this speaks to, of course, is a deep split right through the fabric the Republican Party. On the one hand there is the rump of the old liberal international establishment – a group that once could have pointed to Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, Richard Lugar and Edward Brooke as its natural leaders but by now seems limited to a small group of individuals like Senators Susan Collins and John McCain. These, in turn, are allied warily with the moderate-right leadership of Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell.

On the other hand, there are intransigent Tea Party supporters like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Utah Senator Mike Lee, as well as Congressmen like Eric Cantor, ostensibly a member of the leadership cadre but clearly more comfortable with the Tea Partiers. By now, the split between these factions has become sufficiently acrimonious that people Cruz and Lee couldn’t even bring themselves to participate in a luncheon meeting of the Republican Senate caucus that had taken place during the intense parliamentary manoeuvring over the debt ceiling a few days ago.

Late on 16 October, US Congress was on the cusp of agreeing to a short-term solution to the government shutdown and the debt ceiling limit – even if it was just a measure that would “kick the can” into early in 2014 when the two issues get to be debated all over again in Congress. But the resulting measure, this time around, will almost certainly be one that fails to achieve any of the original Tea Party legislative goals to delay, defund or repeal Obamacare – the very issues that had led to the bitter, divisive standoff in the first place.

But by the time the government budget and debt ceiling have to be revisited in several months’ time, America will be heading into the mid-term election cycle with its intra-party primaries picking the candidates for 435 congressmen and women and a third of the Senate. Given the bad blood within the Republican Party over their litmus test issue, some inside baseball politics such as who called the shots in that party’s caucus, as well as one that taps into some deep feelings on the part of an increasingly fearful portion of the electorate, this same fissure is going to come right back up in January and become a major feature of the party’s primaries on into 2014. The knives are going to come out as Tea Party supporters seek vengeance against the RINOs (Republicans in name only) who they will argue had sold out the party’s soul to the Democrats. Meanwhile, too, in some districts the party’s old line establishment may well try to rid their party of those most troublesome Tea Party types that they can say had set up the GOP for its embarrassing, self-inflicted defeat.

At some point, discussion may well turn to a more fundamental question: is the Republican Party truly still salvageable at the national level? It is easy to take the American two-party system for granted – with those Republicans and Democrats routinely slugging it out for the presidency, all those congressional seats and thousands of lesser offices through the fifty states, some three thousand-plus counties and even more cities and towns across the country.

But this seemingly stable system actually appears nowhere in the Constitution. Many of the nation’s “founding fathers” were deeply wary of partisan divisions and the country’s first president, George Washington, had, in his famous “Farewell Address”, warned his nation about the dangers of factions. The very idea of a political party as a feature of public life had not yet firmly and fully coalesced in the public mind. Two groups initially stepped forward, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans – the first in favour of a strong central government and support for protectionist tariff barriers to protect infant industries. The latter supported a weaker central government over many issues, but persistent western expansionism into new territories.

The Federalists fell from grace after the 1812 war with the UK when its policies had become identified with a perverse, quasi-loyalty to recent enemy, Great Britain. However, by the 1830s, a new party, the Whigs, had come into being, in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s increasingly populist Southern-Western alliance.

The Whigs favoured “national improvements” (the 19th century’s version of investment in infrastructure and high technology) and aggressive western expansion. For the Whigs, this was a way to displace growing unease in the North with the continuation of slavery and counterpart fears in the South that the federal government would seek to end the country’s “peculiar institution”, as slavery had come to be called.

But the Whigs came to grief as the country increasingly divided along North – South lines, finally disappearing completely in the acrimonious 1860 election that led to the new Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln winning the presidency against two Democratic challengers (one in the North and one in the South) and a last feeble Whig candidacy. The majority of former Whig politicians and supporters split along the fault line of the issue of slavery in America as well. Some joined the new Republican Party (like Lincoln) and others tried unsuccessfully to keep the nation’s struggle with slavery out of politics.

For Republican Party students of history, the example of the Whig Party – divided and destroyed by its inability to forge a coherent vision on a key national issue – slavery’s continuation or demise – may well be something to look at bit more closely in the coming months. The contemporary GOP seems deeply divided over the utility of political compromise with Democrats, as well as whether or not it is a party that is comfortable with big business, large governmental institutions and an aggressive international presence – or opposed to all of this, in favour of some mythic Norman Rockwell-style past.

The war inside the party will become particularly nasty in the upcoming 2014 primaries. The argument then will be over who was responsible for the GOP’s debacle in Congress in October 2013. As a result, there may yet be some within this party who decide a trial separation might even be better than an increasingly and extremely unpleasant, continuous marital battle over who is in charge of things at home. This is going make for one very interesting 2014 mid-term election. DM


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