[Those of who who have found this page because you received a forged email, attributed to me, comparing President Obama to Hitler, should know right away that it is a forgery that does not reflect my views. I ask you however to read this entire post.]
With the exception of relatively short periods such as the 1820s, the late 1850s, and 1912, the United States has essentially had a two-party system. In the 1820s the Federalists disappeared and what drama remained took place within the Democratic Party, until in the early 1830s the Whigs formed in opposition to Andrew Jackson. About twenty years later the collapse of the Whigs, followed by a split among the Democrats in 1860, created a very confused situation that allowed Abraham Lincoln to win a sweeping electoral majority with only a little more than 40% of the popular vote, but the war turned the Republicans into the majority party at least in the North (and for a while, during Reconstruction, in some of the South as well.) In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt's attempt to return to the White House split the Republicans and Woodrow Wilson, like Lincoln, won a huge electoral majority with a popular minority. (Wilson failed again to win a popular majority in 1916, although he had a bare plurality.) Third parties won about five southern states in 1948 and in 1968 because of the civil rights movement, once again depriving the victor of a popular majority. Ross Perot played the same role in 1992 and 1996, although he won only a few electoral votes.
The two-party system has fulfilled the essential function of modern democracy: to allow the public, or that part of it whose votes cannot be counted on by either the Republicans and Democrats, to change our leadership when things go badly. William Henry Harrison, the first Whig president, defeated Martin Van Buren in 1840 because of an economic panic. Grover Cleveland came into office by a very narrow margin in 1884 because of disgust with Republican corruption. Franklin Roosevelt came in by a landslide in 1932 because of the Depression, and Dwight D. Eisenhower did the same in 1952 thanks to frustration with the seemingly endless Korean War. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War destroyed the New Deal coalition in the mid-1960s and Richard Nixon barely made it into the White House in 1968 as a result. Watergate and the Nixon pardon brought in Jimmy Carter in 1976, but more economic problems and setbacks abroad turned him out four years later. Recession brought Bill Clinton in to power in 1992. The case of George W. Bush in 2000 was very different: the country showed no overwhelming disgust with the Democratic Party, and the best available evidence suggests that he was not really elected at all.
Most of these transfers of power, however, made relatively little difference to the country, because they took place in eras of broad consensus about the role of government. Harrison and hid immediate successor John Tyler made no attempt to bring back the Bank of the United States. Grover Cleveland's only policy difference with the Republicans involved the extent of the tariff. Franklin Roosevelt, of course, was a truly revolutionary President, but after he left the scene the Republicans did not try to undo his revolution. Indeed, Eisenhower not only left the major achievements of the New Deal alone, but also defended and continued Truman's highly controversial foreign policies. Richard Nixon made no attempt to undo the great society and even brought the EPA into being simply because he did not want to take on a Democratic Congress on that particular issue. Ronald Reagan's major contribution was to change a progressive tax system into a regressive one. Meanwhile, however, a new generation, the Boomers, was growing up without much respect for anything their elders had done.
We are now in a new crisis era, and we face a potential catastrophe because only one party--the Democrats--seems remotely capable of governing at all. That is not to say that the Democrats are doing at all well. Barack Obama's response to the economic crisis he inherited fell short in critical respects. The stimulus was not nearly large enough, nor sufficiently focused on jobs. His Justice Department and SEC decided to let the big banks and mortgage companies escape their responsibilities for the crisis unscathed. He did not take the opportunity to let the Bush tax cuts expire. After last year's elections he adopted the catastrophic idea that cutting the deficit was more important than creating jobs, and he refused to give up the fantasy that the Republicans might cooperate with him to restore the country's confidence. As a result, his approval now hovers around 40% and his re-election is anything but assured.
The country survived that kind of situation after 1932, 1952, 1968, and 1992; but should the Republicans regain the Senate and the White House next year we will truly be entering uncharted territory. Today's Republicans reject not only the American achievements of the last century, but also some of the foundations of modern western civilization. As Rick Perry explained to a New Hampshire voter last week, he believes both creationism and evolution should be part of school curriculums. (Perry actually said that Texas requires this, which is not the case.) The Washington Post reports today that while over 70% of Democrats believe in global warming, less than 40% of Republicans do. Perry, it turns out, is a genuine acolyte of Glenn Beck, who wants to undo the Progressive Era as well as the New Deal, and repeal both the 16th and 17th Amendments, ending the federal income tax and returning the election of Senators to state legislatures. All the Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, have violently repudiated traditional American ideas of the separation of church and state. They are all committed to a fantasy world of low taxes, no government regulation, a free market for health care, and the end, more or less, of workers' rights. And we could find them in control of the government in January 2013.
How has this happened? The shift of the Republican center of gravity to the South, starting in 1968, is perhaps the biggest factor. The traditional southern distrust of government in general and the federal government in particular gave way to something new during the New Deal, but the civil rights movement restored it among white southerners. Meanwhile, the explosion of personal freedom that also began in the 1960s deeply unsettled many heartland Americans, some of whom turned to fundamentalist religion in response. Much of today's Republicanism is reactionary in the literal sense. If one listens to Rush Limbaugh for a while, the impression becomes inescapable that many Republicans reject global warming, stimulus programs, and evolution because Democrats and urban liberals believe in them. That is why the Republican Party now rejects so much of the western rational tradition--which those of us who live on the coasts or in the upper Midwest have been taking for granted for a long time.
And let there be no doubt: there is an element of racism in present-day Republicanism as well. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is known as a realtively sensible Republican--a doctor, as it happens, who has refused to sign Grover Norquist's no-tax-increase pledge. Yet here is what he said last week when a constituent asked him whether, in fact (as Rush limbaugh says almost every day) President Obama's policies were designed to destroy America:
“No, I don’t... He’s a very bright man. But think about his life. And think about what he was exposed to and what he saw in America. He’s only relating what his experience in life was...
“His intent isn’t to destroy. It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him. I don’t say that critically. Look at people for what they are. Don’t assume ulterior motives. I don’t think he doesn’t love our country. I think he does.
“As an African American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them. I just don’t believe they work overall and in the long run they don’t help our country. But he doesn’t know that because his life experience is something different. So it’s very important not to get mad at the man. And I understand, his philosophy — there’s nothing wrong with his philosophy other than it’s goofy and wrong [laughter] — but that doesn’t make him a bad person.”
(You can actually here exactly what he said here. Barack Obama in fact graduated from law school with many thousands of dollars of student loan debt, money that was only paid off after the success of his autobiography. But Coburn must surely be speaking for millions of white Americans who refuse to believe that Obama could have honestly gotten where he is.
The Democratic Party remains a traditional American political party, with a broad spectrum of opinion and a tendency to give in to its moderate wing. The Republican party does not. Its most enthusiastic constituents, its media outlets, and nearly all its candidates are from its most radical wing. And that wing is entirely out of touch with reality.
This week about 3500 people looked at this web page. At least a thousand of you were conservatives drawn here by the fraudulent email, attributed to me, comparing President Obama to Hitler. That email has now been circulating for two and a half years, even though I and several media outlets immediately pointed out that it was a forgery. It regularly reappears on the same conservative web sites, such as freerepublic.com , and if anything it seems less likely recently that anyone on those sites will come forward to note that the forgery has been debunked again and again. To my fellow Americans who reached here because of that email I ask you to think about where you, and your country, are going. I believe you have lost your bearings and given up your judgment. Should you get what you want--should the Republican Party take over in 18 months--you will find yourselves and your children much worse off than you can possibly imagine.