In an ideal world, ideology and government would have nothing to do with each other, and like an ideal world of scholarship and law, politics would be value-free - with no agenda but the most effective possible governance for the greatest number of people. But ideology exists, and political considerations are the reason the field of governance is called ‘politics’, not ‘policy.’ At the turn of the last century, the Republican party was the party of value-free governance. Process mattered more than result, policy more than politics, and ‘good government’ was an end in itself. The Republican party of Theodore Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, and the Anglo-Saxon establishment, stood above all for the ideal world’s honest governance, the best possible policies, and a transparent process. If the policies didn’t work, then there was no end of other options to consider with all due deliberation. Opposed to them was a very different Democratic Party from today’s, the party of Boss Tweed, James Pendergast, and poor immigrants. If the Republicans of that era believed in process, the Democrats believed in results. The process to obtaining such results did not matter; whatever corruption and whatever authoritarianism was necessary to enable the best possible lives for their constituents as quickly as possible, they would do so without hesitation, because the ends inevitably justified the means.
But gradually, everything America knew about the two-party system changed to something unrecognizable. Franklin Roosevelt, still the most eminent Democrat of them all, was so entrenched in the Republicans’ WASP establishment that he brought ‘good government’ principles to the Democratic side as a means to care for those impoverished immigrants which Republicans didn’t care enough about to compromise their ideal government. For a few decades thereafter, some Republicans were even more enthusiastic about using Government leverage to solve civic problems than Democrats, and the result was the the Warren Court. But as the party of Lyndon Johnson grew ever less process-oriented, the Republican party became ever more opposed to government in itself, and it ironically used the mechanisms of ‘bad government’ to enact its agenda of limiting government.
In a sense, the roles of the two parties have now reversed completely from where they were 100 years ago. Today’s Democratic Party is not only the party of “Good Government” but of ‘Government’ in itself, because today’s Democrats take it for granted that Government is good and should be used for the common good. The Republican Party is the party of “No Government”, believing that government is so evil that they must use any means necessary to limit its interference.
But the world is the world, and America is America - other countries try to slow down the speed of the world, America tries to speed it up. It’s one of the great ironies of this government shutdown that after twenty years of painstaking Republican gerrymandering, vetting candidates for ideological correctness, focus tests for media propaganda, cultivation of ironclad relationships with big business donors and credulous constituents, it all broke down in a fit of chaos. Politics is chaos theory, and as President Ian Malcolm once declared in the Jurassic Park Proclamation, Mother Nature always finds a way. We should have known, even in the heyday of Tom DeLay and Dick Cheney, that there is no such thing as a monolithic coalition. Too many members have too many agendas to hold it together for more than a small amount of time.
But in some ways, what’s happened next is still scarier. The logical outgrowth of a coalition of so many conservatives is that a faction would emerge from it still more conservative, which looks at the ideological libertarianism of Grover Norquist and the Koch Brothers as an entrenched establishment - too complacent to effect the necessary change. In twenty years of ‘total war’, Republicans still have not managed to shrink the size of government, nor have they managed to keep their hold on congress - which ten years ago looked unbreakable for an entire generation. The Republicans wanted a line-item congress which rubber-stamped every ideologically conservative bill introduced. Instead, they got something like a parliamentary coalition which includes a sub-party which demands a still more conservative agenda than even they can offer. To Tea Party members, even big business is too much of an imposition on their freedom. For reasons both eerily similar and different, the far right and the far left of America share the goal with getting rid of corporate dominance of American government. The far left sees corporate lobbying as the source of government corruption, the far right sees corporate lobbying as the source of government’s growth. But since the far left ultimately wants the government to function, the far right is willing to use far more extreme measures.
It’s 2013, but many people still view the world as though Robert Bork just lost his Supreme Court nomination. There was an era, stretching approximately from Earl Warren’s recess appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court until the ‘Borking’ when Democrats and Republicans vied for who could most politicize the most basic functions of government (and not so ironically, book-ended by Supreme Court nominations). But after Newt Gingrich’s assumption of the House Speakership in 1995, Republicans clearly won that battle. Under Democratic control, yearly earmarks in spending bills were in the hundreds, under Republicans, yearly earmarks were in the thousands. Democrats played politics with Richard Nixon’s Watergate break-in, but they never backed Nixon into breaking the law in the manner Republicans forced Bill Clinton to commit perjury.
Every person who cares about American Politics should read Cycles of American History by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger posits that American voters vacillate between reformation and restoration as naturally as the cycles of the moon. He correctly notes the prevailing winds of 20th century government in America: periods of American liberalism followed by periods of American conservatism, each redefined for the zeitgeist of every generation.
But towards the end of the book’s first chapter, he makes an off-handed observation which has haunted me ever since I first read it. Around the time that he wrote the book in the mid-80’s, Schlesinger noted with alarm that we’ve had a period of democratic liberalism followed by a period of of democratic conservatism, and neither convinced the American public thoroughly of its long-term functionality. He then speculated that since democratic conservatism was being proven not to work, and so had the authoritarian socialism of the Soviet Union, a period may soon approach of authoritarian conservatism.
We are beginning to live in good times again. Barack Obama has brought the economy from the brink of super-depression, he’s enacted universal healthcare, and even corporations are beginning to see that their profits grow when they do not cut corners in their cost structure. We are entering another, direly needed, period of American liberalism. But Mother Nature always finds a way, and when Obama's modernized liberalism eventually fails to live up to what it promised, what’s next?