Polarization has become the most distinctive aspect of early 21st-century American politics. At no time in our history--with the possible exception of Reconstruction--have the two parties been so monolithic in their views. Before the civil war the new Republican Party presented a fairly united front on the critical issue of keeping slavery out of new territories, but the Democrats were split between southerners determined to maintain and extend a slavery empire and northerners led by Stephen Douglas who wanted to find a compromise. (The split, indeed, made Lincoln's election possible in 1860.) The Democratic Party in the North split again after the war broke out, and War Democrats played a key political role during the conflict. 70 years later the New Deal enjoyed considerable support from progressive Republicans like George Norris, William Borah, and Hiram Johnson, and aroused considerable opposition from southern Democrats. The parties were at their broadest from the end of the Second World War until the 1980s. The Democratic Party still has more liberal and more conservative elements, and has been much less confrontational, even during the last two years, because of its Silent Generation leadership in Congress. But the Republican Party is dominated by extreme factions as never before, including neoconservatives in foreign policy, tax-cutters who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub, and the religious right. Liberal Republican Senators used to hold a monthly Tuesday lunch in Washington, and when Senator John Chafee was elected in the mid-1970s it drew more than 20 members. By the time his son replaced him early in this decade the number was down to 6, and it continues to shrink. Northeastern Republicans in Congress have become a very endangered species.
The domination of extreme views within the Republican Party has been quite apparent throughout 2008. Despite John McCain's former status as a moderate, he, along with every other Republican candidate, kowtowed to the major lobbies on every single wedge issue--and eventually, in the choice of his vice president. Yes, McCain in his acceptance speech accused his own party (and the Bush Administration) of having lost the trust of the American people over the last eight years, but his foreign policy is as confrontational as any neoconservative's, he now supports further tax cuts and embraces supply-side economics, and he promises to appoint more conservative judges. That was the price of nomination, and he paid it.
McCain is benefiting, however, from an odd constellation of factors in the meida. First of all, reporters still like him, even though the freewheeling exchanges he used to have with them are now apparently a thing of the past. Secondly, liberal reporters are still bending over backwards to avoid sounding partisan (a problem their conservative counterparts do not share.) But most of all,. a cadre of Republican intellectuals who should know better are not willing to forego the emotional satisfactions and practical advantages of standing with the winning side--and thus refuse to face the truth about what has happened to their party. In today's New York Times David Brooks actually argues that Sarah Palin, as well as John McCain, is determined fundamentally to reform Washington. Meanwhile, neoconservatives like William Kristol have long ago swallowed any doubts they might have had about their alliance with Evangelicals, and will not be disturbed even by Governor Palin's minister's statements--readily available on the web--suggesting that terrorism in Israel is God's judgment on the Jews for failing to turn to Christ. (Footnote--in his September 8 column, Kristol argues that an inexperienced VP is no problem and embraces the resentments that might lead some Americans to vote for Palin/McCain. He doesn't mention, of course, that he worked for Vice President Dan Quayle himself.) In fact, the Republican punditry--taking their cues, undoubtedly, from McCain's campaign--is even employing the tactic of turning every obvious weakness of Sarah Palin into a strength--her attempt to fire her brother-in-law from the state troopers has become an admirable defense of her family. Certain analogies have to be used with care, but frankly, the behavior of these conservatives reminds me of the established German conservatives' alliance with the Nazis in 1932-3. They viewed them as useful vote-getters who were not serious enough actually to govern Germany. John McCain has just turned 72, and some of these people might do well to ask themselves what a Palin presidency might actually be like. (They should also ponder that were McCain to step down after one term, Palin would enjoy the unanimous and enthusiastic support of "the base"--something that no conservative candidate had this year.)
Barack Obama, meanwhile, wants to win by behaving more like a grown-up--a laudable strategy, but one that would be more likely to succeed twenty years from today than now. I think that he, like Lincoln in 1860 and FDR in 1932, will have to leaven his nonpartisanship with a clearer definition of what American politics needs to reject. Sad to say, I doubt very much that he will dare to make a sensible foreign policy--one that does not, for instance, actively court an armed confrontation with Russia over Georgia and the Ukraine--a key theme of his campaign. Although the Bush foreign policy of violent unilateralism has produced nothing but one disaster after another, there is no clearly articulated alternative before the American people. He is also unlikely to run on a platform of fiscal responsibility--it would be easier not to provide an opening to Republican attacks on him as a tax-raiser, and wait until some of the Bush cuts simply expired after he was in office. Health care may become his major issue, and I think he could improve his position considerably by adopting Hillary Clinton's plan for universal coverage. It is too risky, however, in my opinion, simply to run agaginst the last eight years, catastrophic as they have been, and pledge better government while the Republican base whips up its troops. He needs a positive goal with substantial emotional content, because we still live in a highly emotional age.