Not since the political control of the South switched from Democrat to Republican from the 1870s to the 1960s — nearly a century — has this nation seen such a disruption in political parties as we are experiencing right now. Early on, there were shifts from Federalists and Whigs to Democrats and Anti-Federalists to Democratic-Republicans and Republicans, with the first Democratic president being Andrew Jackson and the first Republican president being Abraham Lincoln. To this day, the two parties persist, yet are different in their makeup as when they were first founded. For many recent years, people associated the Republican party with the South, and the Democratic party with the North, though for many years prior it was the opposite. Aside from the Bull Moose Party of Theodore Roosevelt and the Dixiecrats which led to the South turning largely Republican, it has been relatively smooth. Now, it seems, the delineation is mainly between the coasts and the interior of the country. But even that is a nebulous line, though it can be said that the Northeast and California are solidly Democrat with the South solidly Republican.
Still, the solidity of the parties themselves is in question. Instead of two political parties, I’d say we have four, with a president of no party but clearly to the right of the political spectrum on some very big issues. The Republican party has the traditional leaders, who some call RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only. In that big tent have entered the tea party, or constitutionalists, represented in Congress by the Freedom Caucus. The tea party movement originated with opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and some say it is an acronym for “Taxed enough already,” though it harkened back to the Boston Tea Party and the fight for no taxation without representation. The tea party has all kinds but seems to be mainly focused on government spending. Taking over the tent, though really an independent is the president, who I thought would be more politically agnostic, though he seems to be doing a lot of different things to focus on his base, which appears to be an amalgamation of tea party people and others who did not like the left leanings of the prior administration. President Trump appeals to the populists and those who have been left behind by the technology generation — while they are mostly center-of-the country Republicans, some are independents, or former working class Democrats who did not like the status quo.
One might think that such divisions between old guard Republicans, the tea party and populist newcomers would create a party in disarray, and that may be true, but the divisions in the Democratic party are becoming deep fissures.
In 2000, I knew someone who voted for Ralph Nader on principle and recall hearing a Gore supporter excoriate him for ruining it since Bush won. Fast-forward a few years and it seems that the Nader-style voters have grown as evidenced by the support for socialist Bernie Sanders. Now, it appears, a large percentage of the Democratic party has been taken over by Bernie supporters who believe in more government control, or at least their style of government control. Case in point is the single-payer health care debate in California, the election of the party chair or even the dissent against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in which the progressive wing is getting more aggressive. There have been whispers that this new energy has the potential to disrupt the Democratic party and turn off more moderate voters who stick to the middle of the road and perhaps like their politics backed by deliberative processes rather than theoretical philosophy.
The Democratic party is not the only one being disrupted right now but the head of the GOP and the ongoing turmoil that came with him can do wonders to paper over some dissension. However, that papering over can only come through victory, and there hasn’t been that yet. In fact, victories are hard to come by on all ends right now, which largely speaks to the large-scale change facing political parties of all stripes right now. How will the parties end up? It took a few decades for our current political parties to form, with more than a few decades for them to become what they are today. So while we still maintain a two-party system, it might be a matter of a few more years, or even decades, for the progressives, the old-style Democrats, the traditional Republicans and the tea party Republicans to separate into new political parties. Or they could coalesce again into the traditional two-party system under new leadership that certainly is not apparent right now. So we will just have to wait and see.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.