America’s 1 3/4 Party Realignment

“America’s 1 3/4 Party Realignment” by Ron Unz
Unpublished, March 1995

Since November, the national media has focused its attention on the dramatic victory of the Republicans, and the final capture of the party by its conservative, Reaganite core.  Much less attention has been paid to the changes within the Democratic Party, which are actually much more significant.  The hidden story of November was not the victory of so many conservative Republicans but the defeat of so many moderate Democrats, foreshadowing a dramatic realignment, and the possible end of America’s two party system.

The elections devastated the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the moderate grouping which had played a leading role in attempting to move the party back to the center after its McGovernite debacle.  DLC President David McCurdy lost his Senate race, and other leading members such as Jim Cooper, Jim Sasser, David Boren, and Dan Glickman left public life through defeat or retirement.  Conservative white Southerners had always been the DLC’s base, and in this election, they completed their gradual abandonment of the Democratic party, allowing analysts to begin speaking of the solid Republican South.  North Carolina’s representation flipped from 8-4 Democratic to 8-4 Republican, Georgia reversed a 7-4 Democratic majority, and most other Southern states saw major Republican gains as well.  Nearly all the seats lost had been held by Democratic moderates.

By contrast, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party escaped virtually unscathed.  The left-leaning Congressional Black Caucus lost not a single Democratic member, and other prominent liberals such as Massachusetts’s Ted Kennedy, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, and California’s Henry Waxman won huge reelection victories.  Nearly all of these liberals come from overwhelmingly Democratic districts—often created by the racial gerrymanders of the Voting Rights Act extensions—which are unlikely to ever elect a moderate Democrat, let alone a Republican.  Reelected liberal Democrats nonetheless cited their survival as proof that  Democratic candidates should move left to survive, energizing their political base even at the expense of losing swing voters.

The implications for the future of the Democratic Party are grave.  Since 1972, the party’s activist members—so important in primary campaigns—and most of its leading academic and media elites have heavily tilted to the left, and have largely dominated the party, despite the contrary views of moderate rank-and-file members, many of them blue-collar urban and Southern Reagan Democrats, and elected officials.   Now many of these moderate members have finally left the party, and their like-minded elected officials have entered voluntary or forced retirement.  The balance has tipped, permanently.


Just as the mechanical metaphor implies, a tipped political balance is likely to accelerate in its downward trajectory.  Given the disastrous political consequences of Clinton’s most left-wing policies—gays in the military, Cabinet by quota, the huge 1993 tax increase, and nationalized health care—a Clinton Administration eager for survival would normally move sharply to the right, but such an escape route seems blocked.  Prior to November, the leftist Black Caucus controlled some 15% of the Democratic seats in the House, and had the clout to force the Clinton Administration to invade Haiti despite the potential disaster dreaded by most leading Democrats.  Today its share has climbed by over 30%, and it shall surely wield an absolute veto on such far hotter issues as racial preferences and set-asides.

The future direction of the Democratic Party has already become apparent to many of the remaining moderate and conservative Democrats.  Conservative Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama crossed over to the Republicans immediately following the election results, and Sen. Ben Campbell of Colorado and Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia have subsequently done the same, with another dozen or so conservative Democrats, led by Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, expressing their doubts about whether they still have a place within their own party.  Ideological affinity with many Republican policies is obviously buttressed with political self-interest.

Such party crossovers are immensely important to the Republicans and will doubtless be encouraged and rewarded.  Each freshly-minted Republican strengthens the party’s majority in House or Senate, but more importantly also tips the balance in the shrinking Democratic caucus still further to the left, provoking additional defections.  Welcoming prominent Democratic officeholders also sends a strong signal to individual Democrats that they, too, should finally consider re-registering.

This gradual disintegration of the Democratic Party has been underway for decades now, and individuals who were still registered Democrats in the early 1980s now rank among the most influential members of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, including Phil Gramm, Bill Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Linda Chavez.  Ronald Reagan himself was still a registered Democrat just a few years prior to his election as Republican Governor of California.

The enormously powerful issue of racial preferences will certainly accelerate the collapse of the Democratic party.  In the weeks after the election, mere word that two unknown California academics with no funding or resources were planning a ballot incentive aimed at prohibiting governmental affirmative action policies produced an unexpected firestorm of media attention and debate, demonstrating the depth of true public sentiment on the issue.  Ethnic preferences are poisonous to our diverse, multiethnic society, and two decades of such policies have shown us just how poisonous.  In recent years, many thoughtful individuals, both liberal and conservative, have come to this conclusion, but very few have had the moral courage to raise the issue.  Several important Democratic constituencies—Jews, blue-collar workers, and Asians—detest ethnic preferences more strongly than most Republicans do.  By promising to restore Hubert Humphrey’s vision of a legally colorblind society, the Republican Party will show these Hubert Humphrey Democrats which party has become their true home.  Here ironies abound, since affirmative action is a last, terrible legacy of the Republican Nixon Administration, with many of the policies formulated by a young Nixon Republican named Leon Panetta.


If the Republicans move boldly and courageously in restoring a colorblind society and implementing the rest of their basic platform—cutting regulations, cutting taxes, and cutting the size of government—the next twelve to eighteen months could see the Democrats reduced to little more than their core constituencies: social welfare recipients, ethnic nationalists, radical feminists, extreme environmentalists, and the public employee unions.  Under such circumstances, the 1996 Democratic presidential primary could become more hard-fought and interesting than the race on the Republican side.  President Clinton’s many failures and compromises have already alienated much of his base.  If he moves toward the center—perhaps by endorsing an end to explicit racial preference programs—he risks a vigorous primary challenge, presumably led by Jesse Jackson.

In 1988, Jackson unexpectedly stayed even with Michael Dukakis through much of the primary season, and many of the Democratic voters who then supported Dukakis and Al Gore are no longer registered Democrats.  If Clinton’s credibility is further crippled by continuing Whitewater revelations, and if many moderate Democrats are drawn off by a more conservative challenger such as Sen. Bob Kerrey, Jackson could well win the Democratic nomination.  And even if he loses a strong challenge, and Clinton is then crushed at the polls in November, the Jacksonites could still become the inheritors of the Democratic Party.

A Democratic Party controlled by policies of Jesse Jackson, Pat Schroeder, Henry Waxman, and Ralph Nader will have completely marginalized itself, following the path of the British Labour Party during much of the Thatcher Era.  It would be reduced to a solid 20-25% of the national electorate, numbers which would not shrink but which would be unlikely to grow.  This would mark the effective end of our two party system.

The 75-80% of America’s voters no longer affiliated with a Democratic Party reshaped in Jesse Jackson’s image would not necessarily become Republicans, and any Republican “big tent” strategy aimed at capturing all these voters is doomed to failure.  The issue most likely to divide potential Republican supporters is economic and political internationalism, symbolized by the heated debates over the ratification of NAFTA and GATT, in which a substantial fraction of Republican conservatives followed Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan into vocal opposition.

This should not be surprising.  The end of the Cold War, and the bizarre, almost reductio ad absurdum internationalism of the Bush and especially the Clinton Administrations—typified by the Somalia and Haiti interventions—has provoked an obvious isolationist backlash.  Simultaneously, tough international business competition, worsened by America’s job-destroying regulatory and tax policies, have inflicted serious economic stress on much of America’s middle-class.  When prosperity is threatened, people naturally search for scapegoats, and while the worrisome Japan-bashing of a couple of years ago has been temporarily displaced by immigrant-bashing, it may soon return.  The approaching economic downturn of the mid- to late-1990s may see the permanent establishment of a political party or movement based on protectionism, isolationism, and general xenophobia, with Perot as its likely spokesman.

Such a movement might draw off more than a few Democrats and Republicans.  Senior Democrats such as Richard Gephardt and David Bonior have long favored protectionist measures. More surprisingly, most of the conservative wing of California’s Republican Congressional delegation actually opposed GATT, with their public concerns about the flaws in the treaty probably masking their actual fears about the size and vigor of the Perot groups organized in their districts.  However, Buchanan’s forthcoming Presidential campaign on a platform of economic nationalism will probably reveal that such ideas have very strong appeal to 10% of Republicans, but little resonance beyond.  And while Jacksonite Democrats might share protectionist sentiments with Buchananite Republicans, they would agree on virtually nothing else and would have no chance of coalescing into a single political force.  Buchanan himself is only a recent convert to protectionism, perhaps opportunistically, and just a few years ago was as staunch a free-trader and internationalist as any other Republican.

Thus, a Republican Party which retains its longstanding commitment to free trade and America’s involvement in world affairs might well provide an opening for a small new party rooted in narrow nationalism.  Thoughtful Republicans might welcome this development.  If such a party draws off the most rabidly protectionist elements of the Republican and Democratic parties, and gains the adherence of perhaps 10% of the American public, it removes much potential dissension from the governing Republican majority and has no negative impact on the shaping of American public policy.  Any loss of Republicans to such a party would be more than made up by the gain of conservative Democratic internationalists such as Joe Leiberman, Pat Moynihan, and Sam Nunn.  America’s business groups and intellectual elites would certainly gravitate to the Republican Party in this political landscape.

Thus, by the turn of the Century, America’s political landscape might be radically transformed, containing a 25% Jacksonite Social-Democratic Party, a 10% Perotist Nationalist Party, and an overwhelmingly dominant Republican Party representing most other voters.  Just as in the post-Jeffersonian period, after the collapse of the Federalists and prior to the rise of the Whigs, an era of single party dominance might be on the horizon, based on a one-and-three-quarter party political system.

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