Sunday, April 22, 2007

End of a Marriage?

One of the byproducts of a having a two party system is that in order for a party to govern, at least in the long run, it has to build a coalition of several groups who pledge to support the organization in exchange for either patronage, programs, or policies. Coalitions are helpful because they help to stabilize a party’s long term prospects. Without them, a party runs the risk of becoming dependent on the charisma of its candidates and the regional blocs they can deliver. The problem is neither of these are guaranteed, and relying too much on one candidate can lead to their dominating the party so that it becomes merely an extent of themselves. Ross Perot and the Reform Party, Nader and the Green Party, and Wallace with his American Independent Party are all examples of this.

However there is the problem then of coalitions, namely keeping everyone with it satisfied. In Multi-party politics this is somewhat easier. Despite the fact that there are many parties, once one has entered in as a member of a coalition, it is harder for them to leave. The party gains offices and power and is reluctant to give these up, so it advocates on behalf of the coalition to its supporters and will only leave if things get bad enough or they are made a better offer from a rival coalition. In our system, when a coalition of interests groups is formed, there are few perks that can be offered, since there are weaker ties between the party and the members of its union. When a group is offended by the party, it has the option of not only voting for a rival, but also forming a new party, trying to take the old party over, or simply not voting. Since the groups within a coalition in this country are looser, they can easily slip away or find themselves in conflict with other groups under the party’s umbrella of inclusiveness.

This is the problem the GOP is facing now. For the past three decades the party has functioned through a coalition of conservative Christians, business interests, and voters whose positions are determined by issues revolving around Law and Order. The business and law and order wings of the party were traditionally members dating from after World War Two, but the religious right was needed to help mobilize the votes to bring the party into power the way it was before FDR. The law and order vote helped to break ties with the Democratic Party and the business wing of course supplied funding.

It was a good marriage at first. The older Libertarian wing of the party was somewhat shut out but was kept in line with lip service and the threat of a “socialist” Democratic Party. The coalition captured the presidency and then took over congress and many local governments. However like the FDR coalition of Southerners, Blacks, and the Working Class, the “Reagan Coalition” would start to crumble because of its own internal contradictions.

The 2008 election I think will show the beginning of an unraveling of the Republican Party. No candidate seems to be able to please all the major factions, and the party is torn over trying to adopt positions on a number of issues. Illegal immigration is pitting the Business Wing and Libertarian wing of the party against its law and order wing. Gay rights and abortion are contentious with the Religious Right and the Libertarians. The Patriot Act and the War in Iraq, as well as the ballooning deficit are also sources of conflict. Unless a candidate can come forward with the charisma Reagan had, I foresee a difficult election for the Republicans.