My powers as a prognosticator are indicated by the fact that in August I made a no-odds bet that Clinton would lose the last election (on the grounds that-as bad as Dole was-I still believed that Clinton’s negatives were so pervasive that he’d lose to a corpse). As it was, even my ill-considered bet was not far off: despite a healthy economy, rising personal incomes, and no war, Clinton beat a candidate not much different from my hypothetical corpse by just 8 percentage points, with less than a clear majority of the electorate voting for him. Still, no respectable odds-maker would now dare be seen with me.
Nevertheless, an outstanding feature of the intellectual class is a boundless faith in their own thoughts (illustrated by the fact that for most intellectuals no beautiful theory can ever be refuted by an ugly fact). I therefore stake my claim to being an intellectual, and my powers as a savant, by favoring you with my (dubious) prediction that the future of the GOP is-not withstanding its historic retention of the House and increased majority in the Senate-nevertheless bleak. I believe that America now stands on the cusp of a major new party system, similar to the emergence of the Whig party in the 1830’s, and the emergence of the Republican party in the 1850’s.
My reasons for so thinking have to do with Dole’s emergence as the Republican presidential candidate in ’96 on the heels of Bush’s successful candidacy in ’88, and his defeat-against the pathetic Clinton-in ’92. Despite the oft-repeated claims that the Democrats are the party of intellectual bankruptcy, I would argue that it is the Republicans who are truly the most bereft of defining ideas. As the Democrats scramble-and scramble they will-to redefine themselves as the instruments of using government to put “Families First,” the Republicans will quickly find themselves reduced to the status of “me-too!” irrelevancy under which they labored for forty years. To put it bluntly, the Republican party is just not up to the task of offering the electorate a choice, not an echo; and it will for that reason, likely fall by the way to a new party which will. One has only to look at the Republican presidential campaigns of 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996, to conclude that Reagan’s victor
y in 1980 should be viewed as an anomaly in Republican politics; and it is just this sort of “normal” Republican politics which, I believe, augurs the eventual death of the party. In fact, the last election underscores the extent to which Republicans-especially in the House-depended upon “normal” politics for their victories: they ran as politicians who brought home the pork, raised the minimum wage, and who would “save” Medicare and Social Security. When even the mighty revolutionary Newt Gingrich lambastes his opponent for his violations of Federal Child Employment law, doubts about the party’s intellectual vigor are in order.
I think it can be plausibly argued that all of America’s major party shifts have occurred as a result of a sizable portion of the electorate becoming deeply concerned about an unchecked, arrogant, and dangerous power being exercised in Washington. In the 1790’s opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s efforts to construct a fiscal state on the European model provided the germ of the Democratic Republican party. That germ reached full flower with Federalist diplomatic “capitulations” to Britain-Jay’s Treaty-and their ill-conceived countermeasures against the French Revolutionary bacillus-the Alien and Sedition Acts. America’s second party system was more roundabout in its genesis, but similarly rooted in revulsion against the arrogance of power. The end of one-party politics was inaugurated with a major portion of the electorate’s anger over the “corrupt bargain” of the 1824 election, which seemed to insure a Washington clique the power to use the federal government as an instrument f
or the promotion of “agriculture, commerce, manufactures, the cultivation of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and profound;” or as the Jacksonians saw it, rent-seeking. Jackson’s own imperious exercise of power in the name of “equal protection and equal benefits”-most notably, in crushing the nullification movement and the Second Bank of the U.S.-led in turn to a new party of opponents of the mis-rule of “King Andrew I,” the Whigs. Their commitment to using the federal government as an instrument of economic growth was fully congruent with their origin in the fear of power misused. One has only to read de Tocqueville’s Whig-inspired musings on the dangers of democratic tyranny to see that a demagogue-led rabble could be every bit as potent a party-creating force as was a secret cabal of Masonic elitists bent on creating a new world order; and both fears figured heavily in the creation of the Whig party. When the Whig party proved i
ncapable of guaranteeing opportunities for free labor in the face of the incessant and insidious machinations of “the slave power,” a new Republican party was created out of the Free-Soilers, Whigs, and Democrats convinced that slavery’s expansion had to be halted to secure the nation’s liberty.
Since the 1850’s there has not been a potent enough threat to galvanize the electorate into the defections from normal politics which produce the creation of new party systems. It is interesting to speculate that, had the Soviet Union not imploded, and had the Republican gentry turned from Reagan’s “recklessness” to the Nixonian norm of “constructive engagement” (appeasement), there might well have been a new party re-alignment based upon Washington’s disregard of the Soviet threat. Such a scenario is not, I think, on its face preposterous: who could have imagined the Soviet Union’s collapse from the vantage point of 1980? And who doubts for a moment that a “kinder, gentler” Republican leadership would have beat a hasty retreat from Reagan’s policies had things panned out differently? Indeed, it is the plausibility of this scenario-and the party’s resolute hollowness of principle-which leads me to believe that the Republican party will, sometime in the not-too-distant future, i
nevitably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When it does, it will tank, just as surely as the Whig party of office-holders and pork did when confronted by a problem incapable of solution through the normal politics of compromise.
What, then, is the issue of principle on which compromise will prove impossible, the shoals on which the Republican party will founder? It is, ironically, the size and growth of the federal government, the very issue which Republicans have used to gain majority status. The coming crisis will be over the need to do more than talk about scaling back the federal Behemoth, and to actually cut spending on programs which have constituencies. This the Republican party, as such, will prove incapable of doing.
The same party which nominated Bob Dole as its standard bearer in 1996 was responsible for re-institution one of the most laughably worthless federal programs, the wool and mohair subsidy killed by the Democrats in 1993. At the behest of rock-ribbed conservative Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center now has $50 million per annum to disperse from the public trough.
Welfare reform was a victory though, wasn’t it? A more fundamental question should be, what about the Department of Energy? If ever there were a target for scaling back the welfare state, here was one which transferred billions upon billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money to a handful of huge corporations and rich business interests: no assault on this welfare program would be met with howls about taking bread from the mouths of the starving poor. Why did welfare reform not start here? The answer, of course, is that the DOE is an income-transfer program which works largely to the benefit of the South and West, areas of Republican strength. No Republican Congress or President will ever eliminate it.
The dirty little secret about the welfare state is that its chief beneficiaries have never been the poor, but rather the middle-class and rich. That is why the Republican party machinery and leadership-made up, as it is, of people whose lives are devoted to holding public office-will never be able to reverse the growth of programs like Social Security and Medicare; and why it will never institute political reforms, like term limits, which would make such changes possible. The Republicans are quite clear on this: they do not seek to end entitlements, but to save them. What we will see from the Republicans are a series of largely cosmetic “reforms.” They will continue to be what they were in the 1950’s (the last time they held power): a party devoted to running the welfare state on sound business principles.
Nor is any respite likely to come from the party’s idea factory. Indeed, National Review-the intellectual guiding force of the party for decades-has recently attempted to hitch the party’s fortunes to Enoch Powell’s nativism: i.e, wog-bashing. National Review is explicit in predicting that current crops of ethnic-Americans can somehow be relied upon to stave-off the coming crop of ethnic-Americans; the assumption being that ethnic Italians, Poles, Jews, etc., can reliably be persuaded that America must somehow be foreclosed to Guatemalans, Chinese, Russians, and Nigerians.
Although I’m all in favor of English-not Ebonics!-as our nation’s official language, I cannot help feeling that these clever people have judged wrongly. Having lived in Great Britain-Enoch Powell’s homeland, as well as the birthplace of those nation-betraying turncoats, Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan-a country whose very claim to civilized status ultimately turned on the willingness of foreigners to work on weekends (and sacreligious assent to the selling of food and diapers on Sundays!) I can only pass a skeptical judgment on the electoral successes of such patriotic souls as those who seek to spare honest Americans from the depredations of heathen Chinese computer programmers; price-gouging Korean grocers; illiterate Mexican upholsterers and household help; and dangerous foreign-born journalists. Conservatives also still believe-against all evidence-that an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution together with prayer in schools represent the path to permanent majority
status; they are the “values issues” that matter more than government share of GDP. While it is indeed clear that Americans support both prayer in schools and limits on abortion, the key questions remain: whose prayer?; and whose limits? More importantly, as David Frum pointed out in his perceptive essay, “It’s Big Government, Stupid!,” it is only the growth of Leviathan government which has permitted the decay of American morals and underwritten the promulgation of ethical nihilism in everything from the academy to art galleries. The conservatives’ “values” card is likely to lead to a new direction for federal government growth, as federal officials get involved in “aiding intermediating institutions and building neighborhoods.” Creating programs and delivering services to constituents wins elections; we are likely to experience in the next decades the sorts of federal ministrations to our values which the schools received in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Behemoth will develop a soul. <
Moreover, sooner or later-almost certainly the former-Republicans will embrace the value of the Democrats’ ploy of granting legal privileges to select constituencies (look forward to the day when total immersion Baptists gain the status of a protected class under Affirmative Action laws) and the federal government will become ever larger, bloated, and intrusive. How long this will continue, I cannot say. Perhaps another decade or so of Republicans presiding over an expanding federal government will do the trick; perhaps more will be required. A party which boasts of such men of principle as Al D’Amato, and whose leading contender, as of now, for the presidential nomination is Colin Powell, can be expected to soldier on somnambulistically for at least the next decade, as can the country which will elect them.
There is, however, a broad and deep undercurrent of discontent with the status quo, most notably expressed in the polling data on the ratio of people preferring less government with fewer services to more government and more services. As the Democrats increasingly ape Republican efforts at “conservative” tinkering programs, and both parties become increasingly transparent in their inability to actually restrain the growth of government, some upstart is-ala Perot-going to run for President on a platform of radical change. On the day that person takes office, the death knell of the Republican party will begin tolling.
Rick Vernier is a historian living in Chicago.