- They are mature bureaucracies.
- Incumbency: the desire of those in power to remain in power.
- Monied interests support and reinforce the existing structure.
- The absence of good alternatives (no viable insurgent parties that look like winners).
- At the state level, hostile conditions, along with sheer lassitude, prevent new parties from forming.
- The specialized intellectuals (editors, ideologues, strategists) needed to create new parties have grown up with the existing parties and are loathe to abandon them. Professional loyalty to party interests perpetuates their power.
- Candidates know it’s easier to get votes through one of the two major parties: this is what Trump and Sanders both discovered. So grass-roots/breakaway movements that might formerly have chosen to build something new from the ground up are instead aspiring to rehab the old parties from within. Both major parties are living off of the parasitic energy of actors who are cannibalizing them (e.g., the Tea Party, the current-day progressives).
- Parties used to coalesce around outstanding individuals and their ideas (e.g. Jacksonian democracy; “radical Republicans”) but this customary way of organizing politics, which was risky and instinctive, has been superseded by methods that are bureaucratic and “scientific.” Dependence on a bureaucratic establishment tends to become a substitute for reliance on the public will. The monolithic character of the Republican and Democratic establishments and their tendency to thwart political innovation has become an open target of frustration and rage on both the right and left (embodied in Trump and Ocasio-Cortez).
- The old parties, burdensome though they are, stabilize national politics. Americans are accustomed to the order and the limited choices they provide. So we resist acknowledging that we should abandon these parties. The parties no longer harmonize sentiment: they no longer stand for a single set of non-negotiable goals. Ideologically, both parties are fractured. Their tents are so big, what they stand for is no longer clear to the people. They struggle to exert discipline over their supposed standard-bearers. Iconoclasts overwhelm them. Nonetheless, they live on because politics without these parties would open up new realms of possibility, giving American both more to hope for—and more to fear.
Perhaps you, my reader, feel as I do, that it’s a challenge to act meaningfully in response to the present political situation—despite recognizing that, as the federal government shows signs of veering off course, all citizens have a responsibility to promote stability and work together to avert an all-out crisis.
So many Americans are unhappy—worried—distressed—alarmed—embarrassed—about the state of the union. We doubt our president’s sanity, and we fear the real destruction that could follow from having entrusted the entire executive branch to someone who is vicious, immoderate, unenlightened. We are unhappy and disappointed in the condition and posture of the political parties–both the Republicans and the Democrats lack unity, ideological clarity, and discipline.
Trump gained power partly by destroying many Republican reputations; and, since, as president, he has pushed the GOP to support his style of politics and ideological viewpoint, the influence of many moderate Republicans has been checked. This has further weakened what was formerly the most effective and palatable element of that party, an element that far-right zeal has gradually eclipsed. Many formerly respected Republicans have disgraced themselves by collaborating with Trump or, by their silence and inaction in the face of his outrageous condescension toward them, have shown themselves to be terrible cowards. The hearings that placed a maudlin Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court displayed the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s Senate collaborators.
The condition of the GOP is highly worrisome because it is the nationally dominant party. For nearly three years, Trump has been cannibalizing it, eating its heart out, and injecting it with a virulent moral rot.
Meanwhile, the Democrats remain riven; not only do they remain too weak to determine the direction of national politics, but they have yet to unite around a figure or an approach capable of undermining Trump’s popular appeal.
The condition of the parties and their inability to advance a legislative agenda that could rally the nation behind a set of positive political goals, demonstrates to the nation that Trump is in fact unchecked and unchallenged. Congress can’t counter the president’s power. Watching this bizarre situation unfold every day leads many of us to perceive the federal government, and hence the entire republic of the United States, to be dangerously near a breakdown of an unpredictable kind.
That there is no leadership—that there is no coalition mobilizing and unifying an opposition—is perhaps because, though we all perceive the political actions of the president to be highly abnormal, and we all perceive the relations between the president and Congress to be in near-paralysis—what danger we are on the brink of is very unclear. Personally, I doubt the president can be impeached (that is, I don’t think the Senate has the will to convict him and throw him out–please see the post I have written on this subject), so even if we agree our affairs are in a critical state, the most constructive course is to concentrate on positive politics, on mobilizing opposition to Trump across party lines, and defeating Trump at the ballot box.
I hope we will see a resurgence of party control and even deal-making among rival candidates—this is the only way to achieve the necessary degree of unity in either party. If the Democrats have a long slug fest like they did last time, there won’t be enough time before the general to get everyone behind the chosen nominee. The challenge is even greater on the Republican side, where I hope we will see some more conventional players (like Romney and Flake) perhaps teaming up to try to rob Trump of the nomination.
The prospect of a unified opposition isn’t too bright, however. Presidential hopefuls who aren’t equipped to beat Trump or run the country are already throwing their hats in the ring. If the national parties can’t exercise discipline over such narcissistic candidates, divisions will increase, allowing Trump to retain his ascendancy. The lost art of pulling together is all-important now.
I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election. When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons. Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being. They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party). The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me. And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.
After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person. The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited. To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy. Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.
The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals. Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history. They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings. In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.
While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties. Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.” The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.