With respect to American politics, you have to keep your eyes wide open and your ears close to the ground to stay ahead of the constant evolution that the system undergoes from generation to generation, and, not infrequently, from election to election.
Kevin Phillips was exactly on target when he predicted a Republican takeover of the Deep South in the late 1960s. At the time, the Democrats (Dixiecrats, as they were dubbed) had a monopoly on the South. Republicans had been non-viable in local and state elections (and had hardly fared much better in national races) since the Civil War.
But Phillips saw the future far more clearly than anyone other than perhaps Richard Nixon, whose presidential campaign Phillips was working on when he penned “The Emerging Republican Majority.” In that book, he predicted a conservative realignment in national politics that took hold in the 1970s and became an undeniable fact in the 1980s.
Now, over forty years after the publication of his book, no presidential candidate who is running on the Democratic ticket can count on any Electoral College votes from the states of the old confederacy. Indeed, Barack Obama’s wins in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida may well prove to be flukes of political nature as soon as two years from now.
What did Phillips see that so few others saw? More importantly, what might one with his prescience see in the current political scene?
One thought that might soon become reality is the demise of the two-party system in national politics. That possibility has certainly been considered at any number of junctures in America’s history. In fact, it was a fairly popular one at the same time that Phillips was developing his thesis. In 1968, George Wallace, then Governor of Alabama, created a third-party that he dubbed the American Independent Party.
Wallace, a staunch segregationist who had attempted to block school integration in his state just five years earlier, ran for president on his newly formed party label that very year, and he won five states in his attempt to roll back the clock on the civil rights movement. The party is still officially listed as one of California’s registered political parties, attracting old John Birch Society members and their ilk.
Ross Perot initiated another third-party movement with his national campaign for the presidency in 1992. The Reform Party, intended as a slightly right-of-center alternative somewhere between the left-of-center Democrats and the farther right Republicans, flourished briefly but had essentially disappeared by the 2000 election.
The Tea Party movement is the latest “threat” to the two-party system, and it would certainly appear to have legs after the mid-term election of no fewer than five senatorial candidates who profess to have Tea Party affiliation.
Of course, the Tea Party is, as yet, not really a political party, not in the official sense of that word. Instead, it has aligned itself with the Republican Party, for the moment at least. And with any number of potential titular heads (Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, to mention a few with national recognition), a national campaign under the new party banner in 2012 would not be all that far-fetched, especially if Glenn Beck (the real father of the movement) anointed the candidate who carried the banner.
So much can happen so quickly in this new millennium. Could anyone have conceived just ten years ago that the country would be engaged in three separate (albeit inter-related wars) by the end of the decade? (Iraq, Afghanistan and terror, for those who may have lost track.) Or that a previously unheard of governor of a state with fewer residents than Brooklyn, New York would be the second most headline-grabbing politician in the country? (Or is she now just a TV personality?)
The Republicans could easily bifurcate into two separate parties in the next two years. The Tea Party movement could grow disenchanted with the politics-as-usual approach of Speaker-to-be Boehner and still-to-be Minority Leader McConnell. With little real action on the deficit and continued unemployment levels around 9 or 10 percent and with the rejection of a Palin presidential bid (all far from impossible), the movement could easily shake free of its Republican shackles and run Ms. Palin (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) in 2012, thereby decimating the GOP.
And the Democrats could face a similar fate. Barack Obama is already tarnished badly, having “led” his party to a devastating defeat earlier this month, and, in the aftermath of that debacle, continuing to sound more like a mediation lawyer than the shining knight many of his followers expected him to be.
If unemployment continues to linger at present levels for another year, if the administration has caved to Republican “pressure” to extend the Bush tax cuts to the highest income-earning millionaires in the country, if the war in Afghanistan continues unabated, and if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still in effect, it would not be inconceivable for a liberal alternative to Obama to appear on the scene, a la Gene McCarthy in 1968.
True, McCarthy didn’t form a third party, but this Democratic Party is not nearly as united as even that fractured group was in that revolutionary year of national trauma.
These Democrats are very much at odds with themselves, with some seeking the smallest of victories (watered-down health care reform, exceedingly modest financial reform, “only” a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts) while others cry out for a return of true liberalism and fear even greater electoral losses with a weak and weakened presidential candidate leading the way to ruin. The fight that might emerge if a strong liberal were to emerge to contest the re-nomination of Obama would make the Carter-Kennedy battle of 1980 look like kids’ stuff.
And if this scenario seems inconceivable now, consider how much more inconceivable it was just a month ago, before Obama suffered his “shellacking.”
Will either of our nation’s current parties survive the next two years? Will our very two-party system begin to self-destruct?
Was the Democratic Party doomed to minority status in the Deep South forty years ago?