The first week in October, the U.S. government shut down. The second week in October, it was the Republican Party's turn, with brutal back-to-back polls from Gallup (GOP 28 percent favorable) and NBC/Wall Street Journal (24 percent favorable) showing the party's approval levels at record lows, a scenario potentially even worse than that brought on by their 1995 government shutdown. This followed a set of MoveOn/PPP polls showing the GOP could lose 17 of 24 contested House seats in 2014 — enough to lose its House majority. On Friday, a Salon story by Elias Isquith asked just how long it would be before the civil war within the GOP that surfaced this month results in a full-scale split.
It would not be an unprecedented event. Something similar happened in the 1850s with Whigs, the GOP's predecessor as the opposite number to the Democratic Party, and like it, a party of national infrastructure, activist government and inter-regional economic integration (see Henry Clay's “American System”). It was the rise of slavery as the top-tier issue that tore the Whigs apart, brought to a head by the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act, which proved to be the undoing of the Whigs. This gave rise to two rival successor parties: the Republicans, whose opposition to expanding slavery defined their rapid rise to national dominance, and the American Party (aka the “Know-Nothings”), whose anti-immigrant policies put them briefly ahead of the Republicans in Congress, before they slid quickly into obscurity.
The swift demise of one half of the Whig Party split should be a sobering lesson for Republicans even beyond the near certainty that Democrats would clean up against a divided opposition in the immediate aftermath of a split. But there's a sobering lesson for Democrats as well, since the same period also saw the Democratic Party split in two as well — but, remarkably, only for a brief period of time. In 1860, there were separate candidates for the Northern and Southern Democratic parties. This split made it particularly easy for Lincoln to win the presidency with a remarkably low 40 percent of the vote. Then came the Civil War. Yet, after the war the Democratic Party reunited itself, although it remained Southern-centered, Southern-dominated and politically weaker than the Republicans up until Roosevelt's election in 1932.
This history highlights the potential stakes and uncertainty involved if a GOP split should occur, and raises a series of questions: How will it affect the Democratic Party? Will the Democrats split as well? If so, how will that split manifest? Will it be temporary or permanent? Will the splits in both parties lead to new coalitions? Of course, the knee-jerk response would be that any party split would be disastrous. But neo-liberal dominance has repeatedly failed to revitalize the Democrats as promised — in fact, it led to catastrophic losses in 1994 and 2010, both with crippling long-term consequences. So it's at least worth considering if there could be more to the story.
The most obvious way in which the Democratic Party might split would be along the Main Street/Wall Street divide — essentially the same divide that's manifesting now within the Republican Party — just as slavery divided both parties internally in the 1850s. The ascendance of Wall Street and neo-liberalism within the Democratic Party is commonly associated with Bill Clinton “revitalizing” the Democratic Party with his 1992 election. Conveniently ignored in this narrative is the Democrats' loss of Congress — losing the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954, and losing it five more times in a row for the first time since before the Great Depression. A concerted effort to reverse this “revitalization” seems long overdue — particularly after Obama's disappointingly similar pro-corporate agenda (TARP, RomneyCare, “looking forward, not backward,” talk of “entitlement reform” as part of a “grand bargain”) brought about a repeat in 2010. If it takes a party split to reverse that “revitalization,” then a GOP split might just provide the opening to make it at least thinkable. And just the threat of it becoming thinkable would tend to shift power to the left within the Democratic coalition.
Many progressive activists supported Obama in 2008 under the mistaken assumption that he represented an ideologically progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton — not just a stylistic one. This has proved to be a baseless hope. But Obama's neo-liberalism has been electorally costly as well. It's not just that his timid, pro-corporate policies helped produce the 2010 repeat of Bill Clinton's 1994 disaster.
Looking back at the 2008 race, there are clear indications that a more populist campaign could have racked up a much larger victory and given Obama and the Democrats a much freer hand — thus sharpening their differences with the failed policies of the GOP, rather than blurring them, as Obama did. For example, John Edwards — despite his deep personal failings that surfaced later — provided a “proof of concept” that a powerful message of economic populism could have significantly expanded Obama's margin of victory. The polling firm SUSA did a series of polls testing potential running mates for both Obama and McCain. As I pointed out at the time, the average increase Edwards provided — unmatched by any other candidate — was enough to put Red states like Montana and North Dakota into the “lean Obama” category, while making toss-ups of deep Red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi. This clearly would have put us into a very different poltical universe than the one we inhabit.
Returning to the situation today, Wall Street is obviously extremely powerful on the agenda-setting, donor side of the equation, but is widely seen in extremely negative terms by the Democratic base. The role of neo-liberal Democratic mayors in crushing the Occupy movement is indicative of how clearly the donor class understands what's at stake here. It also shows how fragile progressive populist organizing power is. But it's far easier to crush a nascent movement than it is to alter the underlying forces feeding it. Abolitionists remained marginalized even after the outbreak of the Civil War, yet the contradictions of slavey worked inexorably toward its doom. Could something similar happen in our own time? The fact that Elizabeth Warren sits in the Senate and Bill de Blasio seems headed to be New York's new mayor are signs that it's not impossible. They might just be isolated political developments. But the history of the 1850s underscores the possibility that they are surface reflections of a deeper historical dynamic.
To put things simplistically, if the Democrats did split in two, with Hillary Clinton representing the Wall Street wing and Elizabeth Warren representing the 99 percent, what would the outcome be — particularly if the Republicans ran Ted Cruz representing the Tea Party wing and Jeb Bush Bush representing Wall Street? More importantly, what would happen in the next election after that? It need not come to that, of course. But there are historical forces moving in that direction. Understanding them can help us avoid certain pitfalls.
The connections to the Whig era are instructive here. As mentioned above, the Whigs were an activist government party. The U.S. Senate website explains:
"Henry Clay's 'American System,' devised in the burst of nationalism that followed the War of 1812, remains one of the most historically significant examples of a government-sponsored programme to harmonise and balance the nation's agriculture, commerce, and industry. This 'System' consisted of three mutually re-enforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other 'internal improvements' to develop profitable markets for agriculture. Funds for these subsidies would be obtained from tariffs and sales of public lands. Clay argued that a vigorously maintained system of sectional economic interdependence would eliminate the chance of renewed subservience to the free-trade, laissez-faire 'British System'."
Writing about Clay's system during the election last year, I noted, “Clay's 'American System' became, in turn, the standard model for successful modernisation projects around the world. Second only to the notion of democracy itself, it represented the essence of the U.S.' unique transformational gift to the world -- a gift that US' political class now openly scorns.” *
German conservatives under Otto von Bismarck essentially went Clay one better, stealing the socialists' most popular idea of universal health care, and weaving it into an even more comprehensive foundation for national economic development. Today, Tea Party Republicans are determined to destroy the last vestiges of Clay's thinking, by attacking the welfare state first. They could be counted on to wage this fight even more furiously if they were to form a separate party. But Occupy-sympathetic Democrats could potentially win this battle by starting on the other end — perhaps doing so even better if freed from the influence of Wall Street Democrats.
We can see this quite clearly by looking back at the disastrous 2010 midterms, when Democrats could have continued pushing a pro-growth agenda, but allowed themselves to be guided by spooked “centrists” (Blue Dogs and New Democrats), who ended up getting slaughtered as a result. While the results are well known, the whole story is not — especially the story of the dog that didn't bark. In June of 2010, the Alliance for American Manufacturing released a poll on manufacturing conducted by the Melman Group, which showed broad bipartisan support for a pro-manufacturing agenda. The poll found 94% ranked "creating jobs" as either "most important" or "very important," compared to 83 percent for "reducing the federal deficit." "Strengthening manufacturing" and "creating manufacturing jobs" scored 88 percent and 85 percent respectively. An overwhelming 78-11 percent majority expressed support for a national manufacturing strategy "to make sure that economic, tax, labor and trade policies in this country work together to help support manufacturing in the United States." This poll was available long before the midterms. Democrats had plenty of time to craft and pass legislation based on it — or at least to get Republicans on the record opposing it. They simply failed to act.
After the election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg released a poll showing the price Democrats paid for failing to press a similar agenda. "Those suggesting this election represents an ideological shift are simply wrong," said Greenberg in a press release. "Voters are not buying what Republicans are selling, particularly cuts in Social Security and Medicare, education and the environment.” Most compellingly, as I reported at the time, by 80-9 percent, a super-landslide of voters favored a proposal to "launch a five-year strategy to revive manufacturing in America."
So long as Democrats are dominated by Wall Street's influence, the chances of them pushing this sort of broad-based winning agenda seem slim to none — which is why a split in the Democratic Party might seem attractive, if the Republicans split apart first.
There are other signs that such a split could be politically feasible, particularly if Democrats in both splinter parties were strategic in picking their fights in the House of Representatives. Blogger, activist and former music executive Howie Klein at Down With Tyranny has long been involved in promoting progressive candidates while being relentlessly critical of the DCCC's retreat from Howard Dean's full-court press approach embodied in his 50-state strategy. Following the MoveOn/PPP poll mentioned in the first paragraph, Klein noticed that the poll included no seats that the DCCC had ignored. He asked MoveOn to poll in 12 such seats, after which PPP reported the GOP was in danger in 29 out of 36 races — a much weaker position than originally shown.
This is not suggest that progressives should welcome a Democratic Party split. The dangers of such a split should be obvious. Neo-liberal Democrats have long been incredibly hostile to populist Democrats, so such a split could end up being even bloodier on the Democrats' side than on the Republicans'. What it does say is that there are objective foundations on which a post-split strategy could be built. The more that people explore such possibilities, the more leverage progressive will have within the Democratic Party as it now exists. And that, in turn, could help reduce the need for a split. So long as people believe there is no alternative, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is true when someone kindles the possibilities of hope and change — and others start to take him seriously.
*This is how Al Jazeera English editors rendered it for their international audience.