Sunday, January 22, 2012

Nice Whig!; or, Are you ready to (have a new) party (system)?

It's really hard to look around us and realize that we live in a contingent world--we take for granted many things that might easily have been different. And so, for a presentist, it's hard to remember that things were once different and things might once again be different in a future.

So, when you look around at the Republican and Democratic Parties, it's sometimes hard to remember that these weren't always the major parties in America.

Political historians break down American history into several big chunks, which roughly look like:

  1. First Party System
    1. When: 1792 - 1824
    2. Who: The Federalist Party vs. the Republican/Democratic-Republican Party
    3. ...or: Hamilton vs. Jefferson
    4. Why: Federal power vs. State power; Industrial power vs. Agrarian power; British ties vs. French ties
    5. How did it end?: Hamilton had some success with the federal bank, but the next generation arose with new issues
  2. Second Party System
    1. When: 1828 - 1854
    2. Who: The Democratic Party vs. the Whig Party
    3. ...or: Jackson vs. Henry Clay
    4. Why: New South/West vs. Old Northeast power; Jackson's anti-central bank issues vs. Whig's modernizing/industrializing interest; the Mob vs. the Rich
    5. How did it end?: Whig ideas on modernization become mainstream but the Whig party falls apart due to slavery.
  3. Third Party System
    1. When: 1854 - 1890s
    2. Who:  The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party
    3. ... or: Carpetbaggers and Scalawags vs. Southern Redeemers, Lutherans vs. Catholics, etc.
    4. Why: Civil War, Reconstruction, even more Manifest Destiny.
    5. How did it end?: Once again, new issues bring about a political realignment (rise of labor unions, series of bad recessions), including the rise of third party Populist movements.
  4. Fourth Party System
    1. When: 1890s - 1932
    2. Who:  The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party
    3. ... or: Calvin Coolidge triumphant! 
    4. Why: Trust-busting and big business, government inspection of meat production
    5. How did it end?: Prohibition put strains on certain political alliances, but the Great Depression does it in. The Democratic Party begins to lose the Southern Redeemer stink. Blacks and college graduates start voting Democratic.
  5. Fifth Party System
    1. When: 1933 - ? (1960, end of New Deal Coalition; 1980, formation of the Moral Majority)
    2. Who:  The Republican Party vs. the Democratic Party
    3. ... or: FDR vs. Reagan
    4. Why: Social security
    5. How did it end?: Civil Rights Era drives final wedge between Democratic Party and white Southerners, including rise of Dixiecrat segregationist third party (1948); post-war baby and jobs boom ends up with spoiled Reaganites crashing the party in the 1980s.
When you look at a rough history like that, you probably see some big consistencies--conservative, agrarian, anti-bank tendencies vs. modernizing, industrialization, pro-bank tendencies. But we should also see the differences. (A good gauge for this is probably your first thoughts: in the First Party System, I'm Hamiltonian--I like a strong banking system; in the Fifth Party System, I'm all for bank regulation. I guess the difference is I like a strong central bank, but I don't like cocaine-fueled bankers. It's a subtle distinction.)

So here's really why I'm bringing all this up: with the Republican party pulled in three ways--Romney, the technocrat financier from the East; Gingrich, the angry populist from the Southeast (born PA, served GA); and Paul, the libertarian philosopher from Texas--do you think we're going to see a party breakdown and realignment ushering in a new party system?

Probably not, right: all the other party realignments coincided with/were spurred on by new issues emerging from the background. Slavery was always an issue for some people, but it became more of a dividing issue in the 1850s and 1860s with the admittance of more states into the union--and that's what led to the breakdown of the party system. 

But today, all the issues that are coming up are pretty much the same as in 2008--social security, culture war, future panic. In 2008, the Republican party, in some disarray, tried to energize the base through a mixed ticket: old line pragmatist McCain and firebrand Palin. (I mean, that's the way they were packaged; these days, it's hard to look back at McCain as anything other than a doddering senile tumor full of rage.)

The fractures this year seem worse--c.f. Gingrinch's attack on Bain, which has to sound like socialism to some people. But I'm expecting some amicable patch-up this year that leaves more people unsatisfied both with the selection and with losing. (Which I think they will, baring some terrible Euro breakdown.)

But once more and more people get unsatisfied? Maybe we're do for a realignment--not so much a third party, but for a sloughing off of some voters into the other party.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly I would LOVE to see a viable multi party system but I just don't see it happening any time in the near future. I also have been wondering if the Republican party is on the verge of splintering off its more crazy supporters into their own party (why don't "Tea Party" candidates people keep talking about run under a "Tea Party ballot" separate from Republican? Because then they probably wouldn't stand a chance in hell of getting elected in the numbers they have, so running under the GOP flag is best for them).
    The fact that party change and realignments have happened in the past makes me a bit optimistic, but not terribly.

    Honestly I am so fatigued by politics I don't know if I can emotionally deal with another big election year. Oh well.