They say there’s no room for a third party in American politics. There’s a reason for that: If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans can both agree on, it’s making ballot access for third parties as difficult as possible. But wait: Isn’t that antidemocratic? Yes, with the small “d.” For Democrats who want their liberal wing to stay marginalized within their party rather than risk the emergence of a genuine alternative to their politics of accommodation, though, that’s just fine. As for Republicans, they did face an insurgency five years ago in the Tea Party. Because modern Republicans move easily, almost instinctively to the right, they were able to fit the Tea Partyers into their caucus, although who swallowed whom may well be debated.
Actually, though, the Republicans themselves were born as a third party in the 1850s, elbowing aside the Whigs. And if there was ever a moment when they themselves seemed ripe for extinction, it was after the election of 2008 that brought Barack Obama to the White House and gave Democrats firm control of both houses of Congress. In the aftermath of two failed wars and a financial collapse, Republican strategists foresaw a long season — perhaps as long as a generation — in the political wilderness. Surveying the wreckage of the Bush administration with rare candor, they admitted that the party was out of ideas and increasingly irrelevant to a demographically changing population.
With a little more candor, the Republicans might have said that their ideas were not so much old as wrong, at least for anyone not among the soon-to-be notorious 1 percent. After 40 years of controlling the narrative of American politics, they presided over an economy more debt-ridden, inegalitarian and crisis-prone than any since before the Great Depression. After preaching the virtues of free-market economics, their clients — the big banks and brokerage houses — were lined up for handouts from the very government the country had been tutored to despise. The terminal spectacle was of Hank Paulson, a Goldman Sachs mogul turned treasury secretary, telling Congress that if it did not write him a check for $700 billion in 48 hours, world capitalism would collapse.
When the Tea Partyers arrived on their wave of network-inspired nihilism, it seemed like the coup de grace for the Grand Old Party. And Republicans are in truth more divided today than the famously fractious Democrats ever were. It was the Tea Party caucus that forced House Speaker John Boehner into a politically disastrous shutdown of the federal government in October, just as it undercut Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy in 2012. Republicans can’t ultimately live with the Tea Party in their ranks, but they can’t survive with it outside them either. It’s a case of the host that needs the virus that is killing it.
Yet not only is the GOP no longer moribund, but after winning back the House of Representatives in 2010 — a feat even Karl Rove could not have imagined — it is now even odds to take the Senate in 2014. So what has brought the party back from the brink?
One answer is simple: money. The Republican Party exists to protect those who have it from those who don’t, and its prime constituency, small as it is, writes the big checks. The Republican-dominated Supreme Court greased the path for the final monetization of electoral politics in its Citizens United decision and just went even further by striking down more campaign donation limits in the McCutcheon case. With half a dozen large corporations dominating the airwaves and dictating the content of what goes out over them, the mass media — long a target of conservative wrath — is safely in Republican hands.
Another answer is gerrymandering, the process of redrawing electoral districts to favor the party in power. Both parties have played this game, but Republicans have won it: thus it was that the GOP handily retained control of the House of Representatives in 2012 even though Democrats garnered more votes for House seats nationally. Voter suppression and intimidation, at which Republicans have proved themselves expert, have also discouraged minority voting; George W. Bush would never have come close enough to having the presidential election of 2000 handed to him by the Supreme Court without having many thousands of African-Americans in Florida stricken from the registration rolls or turned away at the polls.
These answers are substantive but insufficient. The more important answer lies not with what Republicans have done but with what Democrats haven’t. Between 1932 and 1968, the Democratic Party controlled the political narrative. In that time, they could have evolved into a genuinely social democratic party. Franklin D. Roosevelt had pointed them in that direction in 1944 when he offered a blueprint for a more egalitarian postwar America that would eradicate poverty, build a sustainable middle class and guarantee universal health care and education. But Roosevelt succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage soon after, and his vision died aborning. Cold War prosperity — American economic dominance, undergirded by the growth of a permanent military-industrial complex — contributed to a mood of national complacency. Lyndon Johnson tried to revive the New Deal dream all but buried under Eisenhower and Kennedy, but it died for good with Vietnam. The Republicans rode a backlash against civil disorder into the White House in 1968, and over the succeeding decades they rewrote the American political story. African Americans were not an oppressed minority but a public menace; the poor were deserving of their condition and certainly not of taxpayer money. Anyone could succeed in America who really wanted to, and the freedom to do so was the national creed.
This story was tied to a worship of the so-called free market, given academic respectability in the 1970s by Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago. The enemy of freedom was big government, which stifled enterprise, strangled business in a maze of regulations, and perpetuated itself by creating permanent welfare dependencies. In Ronald Reagan, this new “conservatism” found its ideal pitchman. But as early as the Kennedy administration, Democrats had begun to abandon the alternative New Deal vision of a redistributivist government that would correct the inequities created by unrestrained capitalism and cope with the recurrent crises of the business cycle. Jimmy Carter’s domestic agenda was virtually indistinguishable from that of his Republican predecessor, Gerald Ford; Bill Clinton described himself as an Eisenhower Republican; and Barack Obama pointed out — apparently with pride — that he was less liberal than Richard Nixon had been. All of which raised the question: Why vote for faux Republicans when you could have the real thing?
The 2008 election offered Democrats a once-in-a-generation chance to redefine themselves. They missed the opportunity by nominating in Barack Obama, a man without principle, let alone vision, and as it turned out, without governing skills either. Instead of exploiting his Congressional majority, Obama bent over backward to engage and appease the Republican caucus. This was inexplicable other than in terms of preventing anything resembling a liberal agenda from re-emerging, as was his choice of a conservative and hawkish cabinet. The country had in fact elected a Republican in all but name in 2008. Nor would it have done better to have chosen Hillary Clinton, the heir presumptive in 2016 (but hold your bets).
In short, the modern Democratic Party stands for nothing. Republican principles may be demonstrably false and largely cynical, but Republicans pronounce them with passionate conviction and zeal. That is something, and something beats nothing.
The general result among the electorate is disaffection with both parties. Forty-two percent of American voters now identify themselves as independents, about twice the number of a generation ago. That is certainly an entering wedge for one or more new parties. But any real change in the political landscape will require a challenge to the reigning ideology shared by Republican and Democratic politicians alike and the moneyed interests who call the tune they dance to. It was Richard Nixon who shaped that landscape more than anyone else in the years after 1968. If there’s any proposition most people could reasonably share, it’s that Richard Nixon’s America should not be ours.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at email@example.com.