When I was 10 years old, I discovered politics. I was glued to coverage of the 1980 Carter/Reagan race and began asking my folks a lot of questions about politics. One of the first questions I asked – and I suspect one of the first questions anyone asks about our system – was “What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?”
Dad explained that Democrats believe in the power of the federal government and think that providing for the general welfare requires a large central authority with weaker subservient state governments. (Before you Democrats who are reading take issue with the definition, you should now my Dad is a life-long Democrat and that’s the way he described you then at 46, and the way he describes you today at 74).
Republicans, he said, have always believed power should begin at the state level with specific authority given to the federal government to handle issues that involve transactions between states and “common welfare” activities. Little else should be the duty of the fed, and general welfare projects especially should be undertaken by the states alone.
That response worked for me for a long time. It may not have been true in 1980, but lately I have become absolutely convinced it is no longer true today. While most within the GOP still believe a small federal government is the best route to effective government a split is clearly emerging with those in the party who increasingly look to the fed as the solution (especially to values issues.)
It amazes me that someone who sought to carry the mantle of the Republican Party in the presidential election would a) argue that government’s really not that bad, b) suggest that we need to figure out a way to pay for it (i.e. raising taxes), and c) claim anyone who opposes this view and believes that government is not the solution is somehow a great threat to Republicanism.
This is why I fundamentally believe we are on the verge of a fundamental shift in electoral politics, though I’m not sure how long it will take to come to pass. As the ‘compassionate conservative’ wing of the GOP turns more and more often to the federal government as a source of funds for their ‘conservative spending’, the libertarian wing of the party will pull away from the coalition more and more. As the pursuit of religious tenets leads to more and more constitutional amendments to implement theologically based bans, more and more of the center will sour on the GOP.
At the same time, the progressive wing of the Democratic party, as it exerts more and more control over the levers of the left, will alienate what I call the “Colorado Democrats” – the moderate Democrats that simply want to be left alone. They, too, will start to drift from the far-sided ideology of the parties. I firmly believe they were represented by a large segment of the 50% of the Democratic party that didn’t vote for Obama.
Together with the leave-me-alone wing of the GOP, they will unite in the middle and form a new, more pragmatic, socially tolerant, fiscally conservative voting bloc. You will see the emergence of a third tier in American politics – united by the simple desire to keep government off of their backs, out of their pocket, and out of their bedroom.
I still have several questions regarding how I see the final shakeup playing out. Will the social conservatives looking to the fed and the progressive community form a new coalition of big government believers? If so, will that lead us back to a simple division in politics based on the size/scope of federal powers? Or will their conflict over issues like gay marriage and abortion keep them apart? If they remain separate, and the electorate splits into three distinct groups, what sort of coalition policies will be born of the resulting mix?
I do believe that one thing is for sure – the formation of a third party will not be born of an egomaniacal billionaire or the rabid ideology of the political extremes. It will be born from the common minded ideology of those who have seen their parties abandon them and believe there is a better choice than two flavors of vanilla.