Leading Democrats have appeared apoplectic of late. Tom Daschle has accused talk radio hosts of encouraging terrorism. Al Gore claims that conservative personalities foster "narcissism" and "nihilism" in America. As Fred Barnes has suggested, the Democrats seem to be having a "nervous breakdown" in the wake of last month's election.
But there may be a method to the Democrats' madness. They perhaps believe that the 2002 election was merely an aberration. Political analysts John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, for example, argue that there is an "emerging Democratic majority." They suggest that demographic trends, such as the growing hispanic population, favor the Democrats.
Gore et al. may, therefore, believe that it is best to keep to the left. They hope that when the war ends and the memory of 9/11 fades, President Bush's popularity will diminish, just as his father's did after the Gulf War. When that happens, Democrats want to be in position to energize their "base."
But some observers believe that we may be on the verge of a party realignment, a "Bush Epoch," in the words of Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon. Since the Democrats are sharpening the "fault lines" between the parties, "Bush now has an opportunity to forge Republican majorities for the next generation."
Bell and Cannon correctly note that Democrats tend to view "America as a collection of interest groups." Democrats present this as "compassion," and this is the rhetorical advantage of their position that has frustrated Republicans in the past.
Bush's response to this problem in the 2000 campaign was his message of "compassionate conservatism." He used, in effect, a Republican version of Bill Clinton's "triangulation" strategy, the attempt to live on both sides of the political fence. Bush has since pursued education reform with ultra-liberal Ted Kennedy and floated notions of amnesty for illegal aliens.
Such an approach, however, is not conducive to leading a realignment. It blurs the distinctions between the parties just at the moment when such distinctions should be emphasized. It contributes to the belief that both parties are legitimate.
During a realignment, the question before the voters is this legitimacy itself. In other words, the party is the issue. Indeed, the choice of party becomes a matter of honor for the voter.
Consider the first realignment in American history, in which the Jeffersonian-Republicans defeated the Federalists in 1800. The parties quarreled over the extent of American involvement in the war between England and France. The real question of the party struggle, much like today, centered upon what our foreign policy would mean for our self-understanding as Americans.
The Federalists, the party in power, passed a controversial sedition law, which was interpreted by Republicans as an attack upon the freedom of speech. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton thought the Republicans were extremists like the Jacobins of the French Revolution. Republicans like Thomas Jefferson railed against what they perceived as the "monarchism" of the Federalists.
James Madison, also a Republican, suggested that at stake in the election was no less than the "doctrine that mankind are capable of governing themselves." Indeed, the name of his party was derived from what he called the "republican interest." He meant that the purpose of the party was to recover the principle of republicanism itself, the idea that the end of government is to secure the common good.
Bush actually has begun to lay the foundations for a new Republican realignment. He won the debate over homeland security by presenting the Democrats as more concerned about the interests of labor unions than the interests of the American people. He, too, has defended the "republican interest."
But he must resist the attempt to "triangulate." To do so would play into the hands of the Democrats, who are waiting for just such an opportunity to regain legitimacy. Bush should push hard on every conservative front, whether it be education or immigration or taxes. He must unite in the minds of the people the American cause, the effort to win the war, and the principles of the Republican party.
This would not be mere opportunism in the time of war. It would be rather to make the Republican party itself an instrument for the renewal of republicanism. Observing the first realignment, Jefferson remarked that, "The Revolution of 1800 was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." Bush and his fellow partisans would do well to follow the examples of Jefferson and Madison. It would be good for America, and it would be good for the Republican party.
- Progressivism and the Party System, by Scot J. Zentner, delivered at the 2002 APSA meeting (pdf)
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