Monday 13 April 2009

Could the GOP collapse entirely?

What are the odds on the survival of the GOP?

The rivalry between the Democrats and Republicans goes back to the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean it will last forever. A number of times our leading political parties went to the brink of extinction, or went completely over the cliff.

The Federalists: once Washington, Adams and Hamilton left the scene, the Federalists failed to find a credible leader; also the American people felt they had no message and represented only the rich fatcats. The Whigs hung around for two decades, and won the presidency twice, but only because they ran popular generals; they split over the slavery issue and disappeared.

1860: Democrats split into three factions and came close to extinction, which contributed to the onset of the Civil War. For a number of election cycles the Democrats were seen as the party of the rebellion and were back on their heels; in 1868 they ended up nominating Horace Greeley, a crazy old coot newspaper reporter who went insane, was put in an asylum and died right after the election (what if he had won?). But Republican corruption put the Democrats back in the White House.

1912: Teddy Roosevelt wanted to lead the GOP to the center and establish accountability for the party’s fatcat friends. This led to a party split: the Republicans fielded two different presidential candidates, thus splitting the GOP vote and putting Wilson in the White House. Wilson got a bit messianic and stubborn on the League of Nations issue, and then had a stroke. The GOP bounced back.

The Depression almost wiped out the Republicans; the passage of Social Security and other New Deal measures created a whole generation of new Democrats. Then the Democrats split three ways on both foreign and domestic issues, and fielded three presidential candidates in 1948, but they STILL won.. The Republicans brought Eisenhower to save them, but he openly proclaimed himself as a liberal Republican who despised the far right.

The GOP took a whupping over Watergate, but survived by finding the greatest snake-oil salesman in the history of American politics, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was helped by the fact that the Civil Rights act impelled millions of southern racists to desert the Democratic party for the GOP. Then the post-Reagan era: too many Massachusetts liberals who didn’t know how to defend themselves.

So, at least in American politics, the five symptoms of a political party that is in danger of collapse and death are:

1. Failure to find credible leaders

2. Failure to craft an effective message

3. Acquiring a reputation for representing only rich fatcats and crooks

4. Internal divisions

5. Taking the wrong side on a war or major political cause

The current Republican party is the first party in U..S. history to exhibit ALL FIVE symptoms, and everything we’ve heard from their “leaders” is that they refuse to recognize or fix the problems; their opposition to Obama’s health care effort, in particular, is going to hurt them grievously. Never has America seen a major political party which was more likely to die out.

Furthermore, the extremist views of the current Republicans look, to a lot of Americans, like the far-right Goldwater and the far-left McGovern. So really they have six dangerous symptoms.

The Democrats have none of these problems, and provided that Obama throws a few bones to the left in the next few years, they will be around for a long, long time.

That said, only four parties have succeeded in winning a presidential election in 220 years, and only two of them have done so and then collapsed. And both of them were only 20 years old – the Republicans have been around for a century and a half, and their crooked fatcat pals have more money than God.

Second question: postulating the collapse and death of the Republican party, what happens next? Three options:

1. I don’t expect the Democrats to reign as the only major party. America is used to having a real choice of two parties.

2. The rise of a third party is not unprecedented, but most third parties are built around one leader or one issue, neither of which is really a long-term plan for survival. The only party to make this leap successfully was the Republicans. The libertarians want the same tax cuts, deregulation and attacks on Social Security that the Republicans want, so they are a long way from becoming a major party, but at least they are not one-trick ponies. Contrariwise, if Obama keeps leading the Democrats to the center, they could be attacked from the left buy the Greens, if the Greens can move beyond green issues.

3. Perhaps, decades from now, the Republicans can rise from the dead, in greatly altered form, if they can find an effective leader and pray for the Democrats to wear out their welcome. Eisenhower brought the Republicans back by running as a liberal; Reagan did it with a great line of bullcrap. Cleveland and Wilson brought the Democrats back due to corruption and stupidity on the part of the ascendant Republicans.

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