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Appendix E: History of the Two-Party System in America

 

Historical Perspective:

Liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican used to have a clear meaning in terms of the lower and upper classes and political policies favoring one or the other. The liberals (leftists, or Democrats) favored poor people while the conservatives (rightists, or Republicans) favored the rich. In the first half of the 20th Century, this political division took shape around struggles between labor and management. Even today, labor unions form a solid base of support for the Democratic Party while corporate executives, bankers, and others with money tend to be Republican.

During the 1960s, the political alignment changed as organized labor began a long-term period of decline. The new cleavage took shape around the black Civil Rights movement. This movement, supported by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, brought black people as a bloc into the Democratic Party (which is strange considering that Lincoln’s Republican party freed the slaves.) The Republicans moved into opposition during the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns in appealing to white voters in the South. In the 1970s, women became a Civil-Rights type voting bloc in assuming the posture of a disadvantaged class. Other groups also became loosely associated with this movement: Jews, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, and disabled persons. These groups were not correlated with money; membership in them was birth-determined. In common, they all claimed to have suffered from social discrimination. They expected the political process to address this.

Historically, we saw much the same situation in the division between nativists and immigrants. While the former tended to be richer than the latter, the split was not between social divisions defined by money. (The Ku Klan Klan, a nativist group, consisted largely of lower-middle-class people.) Instead, it was a split between incumbency and mobility. Various immigrant groups came to America from Europe hoping to share in its prosperity. Native groups resisted this encroachment upon their territory. Black people, though native, belonged to the spectrum of those outsiders wanting to enter the mainstream society. Slavery and Jim Crow politics had kept them subservient in America.

Prior to the 1960s, the more visible political rift was the one having to do with money. Labor unions were aggressively attacking business. Marxist socialism was attacking the capitalist order. Leftist politics, defined in this way, seemed to have the upper hand. But the business groups saw an opportunity to turn the situation around.

During the 1930s and 1940s, business managers had learned to fight strikes by hiring blacks as strikebreakers. This sent a powerful message to the white, lower-middle-class strikers that management could draw upon a huge pool of truly disadvantaged persons if the union continued to reject what was offered. On a political level, the Communist Party was actively recruiting black Americans as a group dissatisfied with capitalistic society. Government officials wishing to blunt the appeal of communism were motivated to make concessions to the Civil Rights movement as a means of removing the causes of black dissatisfaction.

By the 1960s, the black Civil Rights movement had allies in the business community which wished to pit blacks against whites and thus divide the labor movement. To marginalize white males, who formed the core of the labor movement at that time, was in big business' political interest. The communist-fighters also supported Civil Rights for blacks. Support also came from American Jews who had a strong presence on college campuses, in the media, in the legal profession, and in the entertainment industry. In this case, there was Jewish sympathy for blacks as a group who, like Jews in the earlier part of the 20th Century, had experienced social discrimination in the United States.

Even so, the first test of this "new politics" was not one questioning discrimination against blacks but against Roman Catholics. John F. Kennedy made the religious prejudice of Protestants an issue in the 1960 campaign. Having positioned themselves on that side of the issue, the Kennedy brothers could not easily refuse to side with the black Civil Rights movement when it came calling several years later. Indeed, the only significant group which opposed Civil Rights in the 1960s was lower-middle-class white Southerners. These people, who tended to be uneducated and poor, were easily defeated by the Freedom riders and federal troops from the North.

The Civil Rights movement succeeded primarily because the vast majority of white Americans did not want a racially segregated society. They bought the argument about needing to end racial prejudice. They believed in the concept of "equal justice under the law". Powerful and respected figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, and Hubert Humphrey gave political and moral support to the campaign of ending racial segregation in the South. The deaths of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King created martyrs for the cause. After President Kennedy's death, Lyndon Johnson moved quickly to consolidate his political position by enacting sweeping legislation against restrictions which had kept blacks from voting in the South. Thereafter, the politics of the Democratic Party was shaped by an alliance between the party and black voters as well as voters from other groups which considered themselves socially disadvantaged.

Today, the values of the Civil Rights movement have become the basis of a social and political religion as it has spread to groups which, in the aggregate, comprise a majority of the U.S. population. Women have used its ideology to fight personal battles in the family or work place. Gays and lesbians have used it to elevate themselves from being considered behavioral deviants to that of belonging to an oppressed social class. The idea of belonging to an historically determined "oppressed class" and of fighting back, enjoying favor in the courts, and having one's opponents be continually on the defensive has proved attractive to members of this demographic coalition.

In the meanwhile, after many decades of economic and social progress in America, the tide has turned in the direction of social and economic stagnation. Real wages flattened, working hours increased, and the disparity of incomes widened. Politicians no longer cared what the average citizen thought. Business managers began to loot the organizations that they managed. Trial lawyers became a predator upon productive enterprise. The United States increasingly resembles a "Banana Republic" society replacing what was once a flourishing democracy with a government "of special interests, by special interests, for special interests."

But instead of uniting to oppose the poor performance of their leaders, Americans are encouraged to bemoan the evils of 19th Century slavery. At work they are exposed to compulsory "diversity training" courses, Black History and Women's History programs, and affirmative action, designed to make white males as a group feel ashamed. It has been in the interest of our business and political leaders to pit black against white, female against male, to foment rifts within the family, and otherwise stir the pot of social divisiveness so that attention would be removed from their own lack of performance.
 
Current Politics:

It is not right to ask simply whether the liberals or conservatives are winning: for there are two different fronts. Liberals are winning on one front and conservatives on the other. If the liberal-conservative division is defined in terms of class warfare between rich and poor, then conservatives have won. The business class has beaten back the challenge from organized labor and from the Marxist socialists. Big money rules the political process today. On the other hand, if the liberal-conservative division is defined in terms of the culture wars, then liberals have won. The Civil Rights legacy has triumphed.

The Democrats and Republicans between them regularly attract more than 90 percent of the votes in national elections. Ross Perot was able to assemble an unusually large vote as a third-party candidate in 1992 and 1996 by denouncing the rise in the national debt, opposing NAFTA, and spending millions of his own money on the campaign. In 2000, the Green Party attracted 3 percent of the vote by running Ralph Nader for President. The Reform Party, or its larger splinter group, which ran Pat Buchanan for President attracted less than 1 percent of the vote. Both of these third-party candidates were well-known political personalities who argued, quite convincingly, that the differences between the two major parties was small.

The Republicans are the party of big business. They comprise the conservatives who won the old-style ("class warfare") political battle. True, they have developed a power base in the southeast with its legacy of opposition to Civil Rights. However, whatever opposition there may be within the Republican Party to the dominant racial and gender politics is muted. George W. Bush has made an effort to downplay this aspect of his party's heritage. Instead, the Republicans, following Reagan, stress their opposition to big government and the high taxes needed to support it. This represents an attempt to weaken government as a business regulator. The Republicans have dismantled government in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. They have promoted "free trade" - i.e., allowing large corporations to move products across national borders with minimal governmental control.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are primarily the party of the Civil Rights movement, the Women's movement, and the gay/lesbian movement - dominant forces on the new political front. Secondarily, they remain the party of organized labor. They are especially strong among the feminized public-sector unions including those which represent teachers. (In Minneapolis, a newspaper reporter has identified three core groups among the Democrats' constituencies: public-sector union members, feminists, and gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgendered individuals.) Nationally, the influence of private-sector unions has declined while moneyed groups such as trial lawyers and the entertainment industry have become pillars of support.

The Democrats enjoy a ten-percentage-point "gender gap" among women (offset by one of similar size among men favoring the Republicans). However, white women are fairly evenly divided between the two major parties; it is because about 90 percent of black women vote for the Democrats that the total for all women shows this gap.

Nationally, the Reform Party split into two disharmonious factions in 2000. The larger faction, led by Pat Buchanan, advocated opposition to abortion, "economic nationalism", and stricter control of immigration. Even though Buchanan's running mate was a black woman, his platform was perhaps the most strongly negative (conservative) of the four largest political parties' platforms with respect to the Civil Rights-type issues. Pat Buchanan attracted about 1 percent of the vote. Ross Perot himself supported George W. Bush.

The Green Party, running Ralph Nader for President and Winona LaDuke for Vice President, attracted 3 percent of the vote. Nader ran a strongly anti-corporate campaign - i.e., one attacking the Republican Party's center. However, Nader was fiercely attacked as a "spoiler" by black Civil Rights leaders, feminists, and gays. The Green Party's platform is actually quite friendly toward those constituencies as evidenced by its support of pro-choice and its commitment to "vigorous public action to combat discrimination on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation." His choice of a native American woman as running mate reinforced that stance.

In summary, the two sides on both battle fronts constitute four possible configurations:

(1) a pro-business, anti-Civil Rights position,
(2) an anti-business, anti-Civil Rights position,
(3) a pro-Civil Rights, anti-business position, and
(4) a pro-Civil Rights, pro-business position.

To align oneself with the fourth configuration is to enjoy support from the stronger side on both fronts. That is what President Clinton consistently did. It is also what both the Democrats and Republicans have generally done, although the Democrats are stronger on the Civil Rights side and the Republicans on the business side.

Ralph Nader's Green Party embraced the third configuration - opposition to big business and support of Civil Rights.

Pat Buchanan's attacks on free trade put him in the anti-business camp (though he came from Republican, "big business" circles) and his rhetoric, including ridicule of Chinese people, smacked of opposition to the Civil Rights position. That puts him in the second category. He was supporting the weaker position on both fronts.

There is, to my knowledge, no significant political party that reflects the first configuration - pro-Big Business, anti-Civil Rights - although there may be some individuals who prefer that political configuration.
 
Whither now?

As Lord Acton said, power breeds corruption. It follows that the stronger position in any situation gains power and, in time, will become corrupt. The better stance for an idealist, or for one who wants to rid society of its corruption, is to choose the weaker position in whichever way the contest is defined. In this context, it means that the second configuration is best.

Let us assume that Ralph Nader made the strongest possible attack on the abuses of big business, on the excessive political influence of moneyed-interests, on the evils of free trade, etc. The Green Party program stands as a viable reformist platform in that area. With respect to opposing the Civil Rights position, no major political party wants to be seen in this role. No one embracing such views would be elected to public office. Yet, the politics of the Civil Rights movement forty years after its ‘60s heyday have become socially toxic.

The anti-big-business or Naderite plank does not condemn business altogether or even the activities of large corporations per se. It is instead an attack on corporate welfare or, in other words, the exercise of corporate power to obtain public money or special favors from government to advance private interests. This plank is related to appeals for campaign reform. Another aspect is opposition to free trade as embodied in NAFTA and the WTO. Such trade agreements represent a decision by government not to use its regulatory powers in international trade to hold business to certain labor and environmental standards.

The attack on the Civil Rights coalition would be more controversial. Yet, what began as a reasoned appeal to combat prejudice has advanced prejudice in an overt and often malignant form. Earlier calls for a "color-blind society" have degenerated into an attitude of injecting race or gender into nearly every situation.

Affirmative action is a policy of benefiting some persons at the expense of others on the basis of historical grievances. Of course it involves "quotas" and numerical preferences. It involves a proliferation of lawsuits against alleged acts of discrimination. The appeal to "celebrate diversity" is, in fact, a code word for displacing the white male from so-called "positions of privilege" and marginalizing him in public life. This fits the corporate agenda and is, of course, congenial to those who would benefit from such policies.

The defenders of affirmative action have become emotional, even hysterical, in insisting that it be maintained. They shout down their opponents at public gatherings, burn newspapers which publish opposing views, and generally try to censor free speech. The Democratic Party panders to this type of person unceasingly while Republicans are afraid of challenging the new orthodoxy. Public opinion, however, supports the movement away from affirmative action and back to earlier ideals of an evenhanded, multi-racial society that can function without prejudice.

For African Americans, women, and others, there would indeed be life beyond affirmative action; most likely it would be a better life than at present. Those politicians and corporate types who stir the pot of racial and gender divisiveness to gain a power advantage would be the main losers if affirmative action went away. Lawyers would lose if the various anti-discrimination and sexual-harassment laws were abolished or, at least, caps were put on jury awards. Opponents of affirmative action and similar race- and gender-based policies need to respect their adversaries as human beings while remaining firm on principle. To live up to higher ideals, this politics should make every effort to purge itself of hate.

See next item in Appendix.

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