It is a big thing, and I don't think the story will be alright

>> Monday, May 21, 2018

Into the Facebook feed this morning pops up a thing Jonathan Chait published last month in New York Magazine, "The GOP’s Never-Trumpers Are Really Just Never-Democrats." As is often the case, Chait is perspicacious about many things, and has some good points and observations.  Except that Chait does write this: 

We have in our heads a basic model of how the parties and voters are supposed to operate: If a party swings too far to one side or otherwise forfeits its claim to responsible governance, it will suffer some political consequences from voters, who will ultimately force it back. 

That intuition has a sound historical and theoretical basis. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show in their recent book How Democracies Die, the first and strongest defense against the election of an extreme or unfit leader is for his more mainstream partners to defect en masse. In Finland in 1930, and in Belgium later that decade, conservative politicians closed ranks with their socialist adversaries in order to block the ultranationalist right. In France last year, François Fillon called for his center-right party, the Republicans, to support Emmanuel Macron in the runoff rather than Marine Le Pen. Almost nothing of the sort has happened in the United States.

And he also writes this:

Over the long run, the country needs two small-d-democratic parties that are tethered to empirical reality. 

The problem being that a major reason you see very little coalition building in the United States of the sort you see in European parliamentary democracies is in fact the two party system of small-d democratic parties.  Those two parties are already coalition parties: the center-right and socialist wings of the Democratic Party, for example, or the libertarian and social conservative wings of the Republican Party.  There's not the kind of party-hopping Chait (correctly) sees as being a solution to the Trump problem because there's not actually anybody for a reasonable Republican to ally with who will represent him on anything OTHER than the Trump problem, and this is likely part of the reason you're seeing Republican office-holders announcing their retirements from politics and many from the small remaining fringe of reasonable registered Republicans defecting to the "independent/unaffiliated" box on their voter registration forms.  (Liberals can't really count on these defectors for future wins, by the way: it is at least as likely or more likely that these voters will abstain or quixotically vote for third parties and/or fantasy candidates like John Kasich.)

In other words, the two party system is one of the ways in which the American politcal system is fundamentally broken, hand-in-hand with the constitutional model it lives with.  In a multi-party parliamentary system, a temporary alliance between left-wing and right-wing parties to shut far-right (or far-left) extremists out of leadership roles doesn't require the parties to change their allegiances on other disputed issues like taxes, healthcare, or foreign trade.  In the United States, a never-Trump Republican faces the prospect of having nowhere else to go; to defect on Trump is to cast one's lot in with others whom one may be ideologically and temperamentally unsuited to be around, to give up on opportunities for committee appointments and leadership roles, to lose the love and trust of one's political soulmates while throwing in with people who never loved or trusted you in the first place and only grudgingly and opportunistically welcome you into their ranks.

This absolutely isn't a defense of the cowardly choice to enable Trump, or to defend (rather than explain) the meek decision to collaborate with the Occupant-In-Chief while secretly hoping the Mueller investigation or the 2018 House races or the 2020 primaries will somehow magically let one off the hook.  Rather it's an attempt to point out that Republican choices are constrained by our system, and it's a lot to ask that they choose wisely (it's also necessary to ask that they make better choices; we are not talking about what they ought to be doing differently, only about how little we can really expect from most of them by the end of the day).

(One might also point out that these circumstances constrain liberals in ways that are destructive to the body politic.  Without wishing to relitigate all the questions about the 2016 Clinton candidacy, it's undeniably fair to say that Clinton struggled to hold on the Demcrats' coalition--hence the Saunders primary campaign and the incessant critique of Clinton from the Democratic left that continued through election day and probably sucked away some percentage of Democratic votes.)

Chait talks about the Republican Party's salvation, but I think there's a fair question--one that might ultimately applied to the Democratic Party as well--as to whether it's worth saving.  This arising in the meta-context of whether the two-party system is toxic, and whether there's an actual cure for that or is it something that has become so baked into our political system that we are, in the final analysis, well and truly boned.  It's not at all clear to me that even if Reasonable Republicans rallied and purged the party of the enthusiastic Trumpers who propelled him to the nomination--the roughly one-third of the Republican voting public who are mostly white and feel alienated from a country that is going through profound economic, political, and demographic transformations that leave no place for them if the can't evolve to come to terms with Twenty-First Century America--that anything would really be solved; the Brand New GOP would be democratically compromised until or unless the Democratic coalition fell apart, the Disgruntled One-Third Ex-GOP would still be a fairly powerful faction in conservative American politics (and their numbers a temptation to the Republican Party--this being one of the ways we got into this mess in the first place).  In short, I don't really see a way out of this that continues with American Politics As We Know It, nor do I see a permanent way out of American Politics As We Know It.


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