How would you explain our two “major,” political parties today?
They are a puzzlement.
With the custom of the political convention dying a sudden death this summer, it is worth noting that conventions once chose candidates for the highest offices in the land, and produced what were called platforms — the stand of the party itself on the major issues of the day.
Just as conventions once mattered, platforms did, too.
During the Vietnam era, once antiwar forces lost the fight for an antiwar candidate at the 1968 Democratic convention, they turned their attention to the platform. Could the party, as a whole, be antiwar? Could the candidate be pushed a bit that way or this by his party?
Not today. Other than the people who wrote the platforms of the two parties for 2020, it is hard to imagine that anyone will actually read either one.
Parties, at the national level, now seem to be captives of the winning candidate, the primary system that produced that candidate, and that candidate’s personal views and style.
Donald Trump was hardly your typical Republican when he captured his party four years ago. Indeed, on trade, his position was the opposite of what had been one the GOP’s core tenets for decades.
The GOP was traditionally strongly in favor of “free trade.” Trump is for managed trade that openly protects American workers and industry.
And yet, who was actually captured? Apart from trade, immigration and reining in foreign military commitments, Trump’s administration has been standard Republican issue. Arguably his greatest accomplishments — originalist judges, tax cuts and a booming stock market and employment rate (before COVID, of course) — came straight from the GOP playbook.
It is as if a Democrat who is “pro-life,” and pro-school choice, was nominated (impossible) but once elected followed the Democratic playbook on all other issues.
Some day — four years or four-plus months from now — Trump will be gone and we shall then see whether there has been a party realignment. Will the working class and trade and jobs issues belong to Trump-like Republicans of the future? Or will the effect of Trump be to awaken Democrats to what once were their core issues and constituencies?
It is hard to believe there is a future for Democrats in wokeness and pandering to wokeness. Even the folks who want to be on that island right now will eventually grow lonely and hungry for meat. And many will themselves be voted off the island for this thought offense or that.
When I studied parties at the University of Pittsburgh, under the great and beloved William Keefe, the academic debate was about whether parties should be coherent and disciplined, as they are in Europe (allegedly), or whether they should be “big tents,” in which pragmatic politicians assemble winning, and shifting, majorities, election by election.
The notion of realignment presupposes that some shifts can last decades.
Richard Nixon stole the South from the Democrats, which was lasting.
John F. Kennedy ran to the right of Nixon on national defense in 1960, which was not lasting.
It seems to me that what we have today is the worst of both party models. Our parties have become empty shells. But they are full of half-baked and ill-informed zealots.
There is a coherence to both parties, but it is not intellectual. It is a form of bullying. You cannot get elected to Congress and stay there as a pro-life Dem. You cannot get elected to Congress and stay there as a Republican who takes on Trump, or supports Obamacare and the public option.
There is an ideological basis to each party, but it is slight and does not particularly serve the American voter.
There is also a big tent of a kind for both parties. Money gets you in to either party, and tokenism does too. But not diversity of thought. You don’t see many free-market types at a Democratic gathering or Green types consorting with the GOP.
So what happens to the independent thinker who wants to save the Earth — and believes in free speech? Or who wants the public option — and school choice?
Or who fears a government Leviathan spying on all of us constantly — and also thinks we need to ban plastics and the internal combustion engine?
He is out in the cold. He has no home in either party and will be ill-served by either party.
Ergo, there will be fewer thoughtful maverick office holders in either party — no more Democratic Henry Jacksons or Republican John McCains. Our parties will get even dumber and narrower.
Could Dwight Eisenhower be nominated by the GOP of today? Will his name even be mentioned at its ersatz convention?
This process will consign politics ever more to the culture wars. Government will not be about the practical things you do to make life better for your constituents, but whether you genuflected this week to the trans or Portlandia mob.
Why did Bernie Sanders lose? Not because his programs did not connect or because jobs and health insurance don’t matter to most Americans, but because he could or would not get out from under a single word — socialist.
The cultural minuses of the word far outweighed what the word meant to him in concrete terms.
We are not witnessing the end of parties. We are witnessing the end of politics.
Keith Burris is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburrispost-gazette.com).