We have a hegemonic two party political system in the United States. Neither party attracts the identification of a consistent majority of voters, yet most “independent” voters primarily vote for one party or the other rather than choosing between candidates on a case-by-case basis. During the period of their hegemony the Republican and Democratic parties have changed their regional, ideological, cultural and racial make-up without losing their shared control of substantially all of government at a federal and state level.
At present, American politics is primarily about culture, which is reflected in what political scientists identify as an ideological separation in which the two parties in Congress no longer substantially overlap, especially due to the defeat of liberal and then moderate Republicans especially in the Northeast and Midwest and the success of “tea party” and other movements and political funding mechanisms that have moved Republican representation well to the right. At the same time, the Democratic Party has to a lesser but perhaps growing degree moved left and does not seriously try to compete in large swaths of the country that were its traditional strongholds.
The specific policy issue that constitutes a near absolute “litmus test” divide between the parties remains abortion, which is primarily determined in the courts and is little legislated on at the federal level. While each of the parties has reinforced the rigor of the divide on that issue in recent years they have moved to “sort” across a whole diverse range of issues– most any issue that arises really.
This divide between the parties, culturally derived, then generates reverberation back into the broader culture. While most Americans don’t care that intensely about politics and politicians as such, we seem to me to be becoming more disputatious about issues that come to the fore in politics and governance, more suspicious of each other, less willing to accord legitimacy to opinions we don’t reflexively agree with, and less inclined to listen and learn in a way that would support mutual persuasion and/or compromise.
Shortly after returning to the United States from Kenya in the summer of 2008 I remember being struck in reading Rick Perlstein’s then new sociopolitical history Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America how glad I was to have been too young to have had to really deal with the depth of divisions of “The Sixties” and the “culture wars” and “generation gap” of that era. Unfortunately these divisions have been gearing up since that summer.
Some of this is surely just the ordinary social cycle, some of it is the inevitable stress of an unprecedented era of seemingly permanent war, along with economic trauma from globalization and the finance crisis, but just as the political strategies of Richard Nixon and George Wallace and others had broader consequences of historical import from the late 1960s and 1970s, the decision of so many leaders and elected officials in the Republican Party to actively or passively indulge and humor the bizarre conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya and somehow smuggled into the country as an infant is to me a factor that future historians may view as quite profound.
Obama was a candidate of thin experience with significantly opaque aspects to his background with some legitimate controversies–this was always fair game politically for the Clintons and for Republicans. But, when you are mute or noncommittal when conspiracy theorists turn the basic facts of what could be seen as a uniquely American success story aside from divides of policy, party and ideology into a sinister, evil conspiracy resulting in a wholly illegitimate and unlawful usurpation of the White House by the clear winner of the election you cannot expect to easily manage the impacts over time. Surely any upstanding, patriotic citizen who actually believes the conspiracy is duty-bound to oppose the usurper?
Most senior Republicans could never have believed any of this–I am afraid they just did not have the courage to confront it because they knew it had profound traction at the grassroots as consistently confirmed by polling. John McCain as Obama’s GOP opponent (and International Republican Institute chairman) was notably above the nonsense personally but he was also notably outside the cultural mainstream of the party even by 2008 and more so now. The problem was not so much the campaign as the deligitimization of the elected President.
Thus now we have Donald Trump, unapologetic carnival barker of the birther conspiracy from its revival in 2011, as the dominant front runner for the Republican nomination for President to the chagrin of probably most people of his generation who have actually been involved in the party over the years. Whatever happens from here on out in this particular election campaign which remains partially in flux, the nature and trajectory of one of our only two parties, at the least, has been profoundly impacted. And the consequences will continue to play out well after the next President takes office.