The two party system ain’t what it used to be, but with something so old, there’s no reason why it should be. The Democratic party was founded in 1792 by Thomas Jefferson as a caucus to fight for the Bill of Rights. The Republican party was founded in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery to the new western states, so each party had a noble purpose as its initial reason for being, but that was then, and then was a long time ago.
If technology had advanced at the same pace at which our political culture has developed, making buggy whips would still be a going business. There have, of course, been many attempts to form new political parties over the past two centuries. There were the Whigs, the Know Nothings, the Populists, the Socialists, the Farmer-Labor(ers), the Dixiecrats, the Greens and other movements known mostly to political scientists and historians. But for the last 155 years, the Democrats versus the Republicans has been the only meaningful game in town.
These days, however, things look like they could be changing. Steroidal Republicans have proposed a purity test: vote the way they say is proper on eight out of ten issues or they’ll confiscate your American flag lapel pin and banish you to the outer darkness. The tension created by a handful of conservative Democratic senators and a minority of Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives on the issue of health care reform could be the first crack in what will widen into a party schism.
I’ve always considered myself to be an independent voter at heart. I voted for Senator Charles Percy, Republican; I voted for Jon Anderson, Republican turned independent, for president; I’ve voted for various Republicans to hold local offices, but that was before the GOP took a hard right on every social issue I can think of, and before the GOP became a wholly-owned subsidiary of big business. At that point, I registered as a Democrat, so I could vote in primary elections. My favored candidates for president usually were eliminated before the Illinois primary rolled around, and I was stuck with second-best choices who frequently got clobbered by Republicans. I thought Bill Clinton could have been a great president, if he hadn’t had a junior high school student’s lack of impulse control. I had high hopes for Barack Obama, but I liked him much better as a candidate than I do as president. At least so far.
Having exhausted my patience with both major parties, I’m looking for something new. So I’m happy that our party politics seem to be evolving. Some people insist that the big tent model is the only way for a political party to thrive. Maybe in the past that was so; these days, I don’t think so. I never would have voted for Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln or any other ConservaDem to be my senator. It’s likely most Democrats who fervently want either a single payer system or a public option feel the same way. So if Lieberman, Nelson, et al continue to thwart the wishes of the majority of Democrats on other important issues, something will have to give. To be fair, this is the same sentiment hard-right Republicans feel from their point of view. The presence of fifth columnists is not to be abided. In a sclerotic body like the U.S. Senate, one contrary jerk can become a wrecking crew.
Rather than expel the Democratic Party’s right wingers, as the Republicans would do with their apostates, I’d like to see the forward-looking majority of Democrats leave them behind and become the Progressive Party. (If somebody already has that name, maybe an acceptable purchase price could be offered.) That way there could be a fresh start; all the old baggage could be left to history. The new party would be free from blame if Joe or Ben continued trying to gum things up.
Some might argue that those left behind might simply switch to the GOP, increasing its numbers and power. Maybe, if the purist Republicans could stomach accepting them. An infusion of former Democrats might be just the thing to cause a schism on the right. Or, those whom a new Progressive Party eschewed might try to form a new centrist party; an AC/DC bunch which could swing either way, depending on the issue. Fine by me, let the progressives have the courage of their convictions, the right-wingers certainly do. Each side can clearly articulate its positions, refuse to compromise them into mush, and we’ll all find out what kind of country we really have.