In Defense Of Political Parties

When I first became politically active, political parties were far stronger than they are today. (Granted, that observation is much truer of the GOP than the Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats, a far more diverse assemblage, have traditionally engaged in intra-party fratricide.)

There are a number of reasons for today’s weakened GOP.  A prominent one is the ability of candidates to raise money via the Internet–they no longer have to depend upon the party elders to endorse and direct contributions.

Then there’s gerrymandering.

Thank to the Republicans very skillful and successful national gerrymander in 2010–a redistricting that created a large number of deep-red Congressional districts– a number of candidates who won those districts no longer saw any reason to cooperate with national party figures, or work for the party’s national priorities.. Those Representatives (dubbed the “lunatic caucus” by former Speaker John Boehner) knew that the only real threat to their re-election would come from being primaried by someone even farther to the Right, and that they would pay no price for ignoring the over-arching needs of the national party.

The significant erosion of partisan authority has had some positive aspects, but I want to suggest that the negatives have far outweighed the positives. For one thing, in the world I formerly inhabited, lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene and unashamed bigots like Paul Gosar (and so many others) would never have gotten the nod.

I thought about that erosion of partisan authority when I read a post-midterm essay from the Brookings Institution. The author was speculating on the lessons each party should have taken from those surprising results–if they retained the ability to learn and adapt.

Put bluntly, it is difficult for the contemporary parties to learn anything. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are not the coherent institutions they once were, with active local chapters that held meetings and powerful national institutions that held the purse strings. As political scientists have come to describe it, the parties today are “hollowed out”: amorphous ideological groupings populated by media organizations, consultants, issue advocates, and donors.

The hollowing of the parties is very bad for our politics, not least because it makes it hard for parties to learn from electoral experience—mistakes and successes—and shift gears to win more votes. The direction of the contemporary Republican Party is chosen to a meaningful extent by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, and those media are, in turn, driven by their bottom line. Outrage and conspiratorial thinking sell, whether or not they win elections. On the Democratic side, the preoccupation of the donor class with high-profile national races has long left down-ballot races desperately underfunded—even though a vast amount of our politics is determined in states and localities. These are obvious electoral liabilities, but because strategic decisions are not made within a robust party structure, it is very hard for the left or the right to adjust course.

So, neither party is actually well positioned to learn anything from the election, simply because neither party coalition is institutionally strong enough to act as a party. But, given this major limitation, what might the partisan coalitions learn this year?

The author went on to suggest what lessons ought to be learned: certainly, on the Republican side, the need to run higher quality candidates. (I would add to that the need to have a platform, rather than dispensing with policy preferences in favor of running only on a promise to “own the libs.”) The lesson for Democrats is the “need to continue the  vital work of preserving election integrity– shoring up election administration and protecting voting rights.”

Parties should respond to an election by considering how to be the choice of more of the voters. But lessons are hard to learn in politics, and our parties today are exceptionally weak institutions. Under these conditions, the plausible but dangerously wrong lessons of 2022 may well be, for the right, a more palatable authoritarianism, and for the left, a new complacency.

Implicit in this analysis is an even more important lesson: a healthy democracy requires at least two respectable political parties run by grown-ups able to moderate the influence and prominence of the party’s whackos and bigots.

Including the influence and prominence of former Presidents…..


Sports, Politics And A Question

I hate sports analogies, but sometimes, they’re useful.

I’d like to pose a question based on such an analogy to the significant number of Americans who choose a political party and thereafter “root” for it in much the same way they do their favored sports teams: policy, shmolicy, it’s my guys, right or wrong!


Let’s say you are a diehard fan of a particular sports franchise. In this alternate universe I’m positing, the owner of the franchise has lots of draft choices and is choosing someone to be on “your” team.

Would you be happy if he chose to add someone to the team who had never played the sport? Someone who had never been on any team, major or minor league? Someone who didn’t know the rules governing how the game is played, and displayed no interest in learning either those rules or the basic strategies of the game?

If, for some unfathomable reason, the owner did choose this person to join the team, and  placed him in a prominent position, how would you react when he refused to listen to the coaches and boasted that he was smarter than they were? What would you think when he insulted the referees/umpires and refused to abide by their decisions, telling everyone within earshot that the officials couldn’t be fair to him–that they only made calls against him because they came from an inferior background and that’s why they were always yammering about “the rules”?

How would you feel when he constantly attacked the sportswriters who covered the games, accusing them of “making up” stories about his errors (even the ones on camera, the ones everyone could see for themselves)? How about when he engaged in abusive (and frequently misspelled) twitter rants about the missteps of his teammates or opponents, and excoriated sportswriters for writing more about his (numerous and embarrassing) errors than the mistakes of those others?

These are actually peripheral questions, of course.

The most important consequence of the team owner’s choice–the entirely foreseeable result of drafting a self-important blowhard who has no idea what teamwork is or how the game is played or even what the game is–is that his participation immediately drags your team down, makes it play badly.  So badly, in fact, that the entire league suffers. Fans depart, attendance dwindles, sportswriters–even those who usually cover other sports, and live in other countries– make fun of your team for its ineptitude and criticize your league for not stepping in to do something about the constant disregard for the rules. The owner can no longer persuade good players to join the team, so the errors and fumbles get worse.

Meanwhile, the team’s longtime rival wins games, and gains fans and prestige.

But hey–it’s your team, right? So even when you realize that the owner is keeping this guy on the team because he’s a useful distraction–a goofball whose antics are keeping people from focusing on the deal the owner has made with the other owners to change league rules in a way that will enrich them at the expense of fans like you–why do you keep attending the games, contributing to the “gate,” and rooting for “your” team?

When does team loyalty stop making sense?


Corruption By The Numbers

Although I often use materials I’ve read in journals and other publications as the starting point for blog posts, I rarely reproduce an entire article or commentary. When I received the following analysis in an email, however, I asked for permission to do just that.

There is a widespread impression that Democrats are less upstanding and law-abiding than Republicans. That may be a side effect of the excessive public piety affected by so many Republican officeholders, or the belief that a willingness to compromise on matters of policy (a willingness today’s GOP evidently considers unprincipled) signifies a corrupt “wheeler/dealer” mentality.

Until I read this, my own impression had been that there isn’t much difference between the parties when it comes to bad behavior, so I was pretty surprised by this data. (Honesty also compels me to admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude–I am deathly tired of the incessant moral/religious posturing that has come to characterize the GOP.)

Here it is, unaltered:

“I made a comment recently where I claimed that Republican
administrations had been much more criminally corrupt over the last 50
plus years than the Democrats. I was challenged (dared actually) to
prove it. So I did a bit of research and when I say a bit I mean it
didn’t take long and there is no comparison.

When comparing criminal indictments of those serving in the executive
branch of presidential administrations, it’s so lopsided as to be
ridiculous. Yet all I ever hear about is how supposedly “corrupt” the
Democrats are. So why don’t we break it down by president and the

Obama (D) – 8 yrs in office. Zero criminal indictments, zero
convictions and zero prison sentences. So the next time somebody
describes the Obama administration as “scandal free” they aren’t
speaking wishfully, they’re simply telling the truth.

Bush, George W. (R) – 8 yrs in office. 16 criminal indictments. 16
convictions. 9 prison sentences.

Clinton (D) – 8 yrs in office. 2 criminal indictments. One conviction.
One prison sentence. That’s right nearly 8 yrs of investigations. Tens
of millions spent and 30 yrs of claiming them the most corrupt ever
and there was exactly one person convicted of a crime.

Bush, George H. W. (R) – 4 yrs in office. One indictment. One
conviction. One prison sentence.

Reagan (R) – 8 yrs in office. 26 criminal indictments. 16 convictions.
8 prison sentences.

Carter (D) – 4 yrs in office. One indictment. Zero convictions and
zero prison sentences.

Ford (R) – 4 yrs in office. One indictment and one conviction. One
prison sentence.

Nixon (R) – 6 yrs in office. 76 criminal indictments. 55 convictions.
15 prison sentences.

Johnson (D) – 5 yrs in office. Zero indictments. Zero convictions.
Zero prison sentences.

So, let’s see where that leaves us. In the last 53 years, Democrats
have been in the Oval Office for 25 of those years, while Republicans
held it for 28. In their 25 yrs in office Democrats had a total of
three executive branch officials indicted with one conviction and one
prison sentence. That’s one whole executive branch official convicted
of a crime in two and a half decades of Democrat leadership.

In the 28 yrs that Republicans have held office over the last 53 yrs
they have had a total of (a drum roll would be more than appropriate),
120 criminal indictments of executive branch officials. 89 criminal
convictions and 34 prison sentences handed down. That’s more prison
sentences than years in office since 1968 for Republicans. If you want
to count articles of impeachment as indictments (they aren’t really
but we can count them as an action), both sides get one more. However,
Clinton wasn’t found guilty while Nixon resigned and was pardoned by
Ford (and a pardon carries with it a legal admission of guilt on the
part of the pardoned). So those only serve to make Republicans look
even worse.

With everything going on with Trump and his people right now, it’s a
safe bet Republicans are gonna be padding their numbers a bit real

So let’s just go over the numbers one more time, shall we? 120
indictments for Republicans. 89 convictions, and 34 prison sentences.
Those aren’t “feelings” or “alternate facts.” Those are simply the
stats by the numbers. Republicans are, and have been for my entire
lifetime, the most criminally corrupt party to hold the office of the

So those are the actual numbers. Feel free to copy and paste!” – Kevin
G Shinnick

Wow. Just wow.


Interesting Parallels

History doesn’t really repeat itself, at least in the sense of “re-enactment,” but there are historical cycles with striking resemblances. We really can learn from history–if we are open to pondering its lessons.

Because I think the past can illuminate the present, I found this article by a Brookings Institution scholar fascinating.

Philip Wallach looked at various pieces of evidence offered by November’s elections–the electoral dominance of the GOP, followed by dissent and disarray, and asked whether America might be on the cusp of a realignment:

A month-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, however, the tensions are looking more overwhelming than manageable. Internecine fights between Republicans, about both the party’s biggest priorities and the president’s unprecedented persona, erupt into headlines daily. And so we find ourselves wondering: could the GOP coalition be impossible to hold together? Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a serious partisan realignment, perhaps even the end of the long era of Democrats vs. Republicans in federal politics?

Wallach proceeded to analyze this question by comparing today’s political landscape to a “neglected chapter in American history”: the downfall of the Whig Party from its peak in 1848 (the year its outsider candidate won the presidency and gave Whigs effective control of American government), to 1856, when for all intents and purposes, the party no longer existed.

That period featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, and a striking number of rhymes with our current political moment. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place.

Wallach proceeds to enumerate the schisms within the GOP that might well lead to that party’s disintegration–the various factions rejecting Paul Ryan’s healthcare “reform,” similar disputes over tax policies, deep disagreement with Trump’s populist policies on trade, and concern over what Wallach delicately refers to as Trump’s “preoccupations” and “personality.” He then turns to the Democrats.

Although the GOP’s troubles are more vivid just now, Democrats are in some ways in just as serious a predicament. Insurgent populists and establishment neoliberals are deeply suspicious of each other and divided on where the party’s future lies, as was made apparent by the bitter fight over the DNC chairmanship.

What internal conflicts ultimately fractured and dissolved the Whigs? The most important was slavery, but there were also deep divisions over prohibition and the rise of anti-Catholic nativism. There had been a major influx of Catholic immigrants, especially German and Irish, and the “native” Protestant Americans, who tended to be  Whig voters, accused these immigrants of “popery,” criticized their use of foreign languages, and decried their participation in “corrupt” urban political machines. (They also tended to drink demon alcohol.) A number of Whig politicians adopted virulently nativist positions as a way of energizing their base. (Sound familiar?)

Wallach identified a lack of leadership continuity as another reason the Whigs imploded:

As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all. General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, seemed to be “a new Cincinnatus, a man who, like the revered Washington, stood above party.” There were even those who were enthusiastic about rebranding the party, abandoning the “Whig” label in favor of “Taylor Republicans.”

However, Taylor’s policies enraged a substantial number of Whig partisans, allowing the “Know Nothings” and others to step into the breach.

It is hard to exaggerate how rapid and widespread the expansion of Know-Nothingism was in the 1850s. Founded as the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849, Know-Nothings built up a vast hierarchical organization of lodges and established themselves as the dominant force in many parts of the country. Officeholders of both parties, but especially Whigs, found that their political fortunes depended on having themselves secretly inducted into the rapidly growing order. As long as Know-Nothings remained officially secret, they seemed to offer a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Whig Party rather than posing a direct threat. But members of the movement, active in both the North and South, soon desired a more public arm of their movement, leading to the founding of parties variously called “Native American,” “American,” or “American Union,” in 1854 and 1855.

I won’t belabor these parallels further (although I can’t resist comparing the Tea Party to the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”).

It may be that the American political structure–a structure that overwhelmingly privileges a two-party system– will end up saving both Republicans and Democrats in their present form, although not necessarily in their present, respective substances. But the parallels–and their implications– are worth pondering.

On the other hand, we may truly be in previously uncharted waters….


I Yield My Time to the Gentleman from Dispatches from the Culture Wars

One of the blogs I read regularly is Dispatches from the Culture WarsEd Brayton’s “tell it like it is” reports on the crazier precincts of the Right. Brayton himself is a “left-libertarian” with whom I have much in common philosophically.

Sometimes, he says things so clearly and succinctly that there is no point trying to improve on his message. The other day he shared one such observation, and I am simply copying and pasting most of it. (With attribution, so I don’t think he’ll mind.)

He begins by addressing the oft-repeated assertion that there is no difference between the parties:

Even as someone who has spent most of his life voting third party, the claim that there’s no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is simply one of the most ridiculous and reality-defying statements of epic bullshit I have ever heard in my life and I cannot take seriously anyone who makes that claim.

Then he gives “chapter and verse.”

Here’s what I have said for a long time: When there’s a big bunch of money at stake, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two parties. If the profits of major corporations and the net worth of billionaires is at stake in a policy fight, they’re going to get 100% of what they want from Republicans and about 90% of what they want from Democrats. But that does not mean that there are no meaningful, life-changing differences between the parties, not even close. Let me list the ways:

Only one party has passed more than 100 anti-choice bills after taking control of state legislatures in 2010. Only one party has passed bills to defund Planned Parenthood, putting the healthcare of millions of women in jeopardy. Only one party is furiously opposed to paid parental leave.

Only one party passes bills to prevent trans people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Only one party supports discrimination against LGBT people in every possible way. Only one party supports giving Christians a “get out of discrimination laws free” card. Only one party rails against marriage equality. Only one party includes organizations that demonize LGBT people as demon-possessed child molesters. Only one party supports gay reversion therapy.

Only one party tries constantly, in every possible way, to cut or eliminate food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies and every other imaginable means of support for the poor.

Only one party puts justices like Scalia, Alito and Thomas on the Supreme Court.

I could go on, but that’s quite enough to show that the claim that there are no differences between the two parties is patently ridiculous.

So there!