The fog of party transformation

By Dr. Marty Wiseman

Politics: Where are we? It taxes the memory to recall when the political landscape looked so unfamiliar. Do you ever get the sense that we are witnessing the collapse and potentially even the disappearance of the Republican and Democratic parties?

Indeed, one is reminded of that occasional trip home in the night when the fog is so thick that it is impossible to see anything around you. The wonkish term “party transformation” is normally reserved for academic types to use in explaining those rare occasions when the framework of party loyalty fails to keep its adherents in line and new coalitions of likeminded citizens are formed around a new combination of ideas.

Wiseman

Wiseman

Typically the average political observer only knows what has transpired after it’s over. Only a look in the rearview mirror confirms that there has been party realignment. Most recently we may look to the era from 1948 until around 1970 as a case in point.

The Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt began disintegrating with the onset of the Civil Rights movement in 1948 and its demise, particularly in the South, commenced in earnest with the departure of the Dixiecrats in that same year.

Conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater proved in 1964 that a Southerner would not die of some dread disease if he/she voted Republican. The pathway from the Democratic to the Republican Party was completed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today’s Republicans were yesterday’s Democrats – party transformation had taken place.

Now here we are once again trying to make sense of party loyalists of both of the major parties who have grown tired of what they would describe as their respective party’s worn out positions and talking points.

Republicans, Democrats and a growing legion of independents are prosecuting open warfare against “the political establishment.” Voters of all stripes are stampeding away from their long-occupied bases. Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus and Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz are, at least for the time being, irrelevant.

Evidence of the current party implosions abounds. Take the Republicans for example. Normally the predictable party of whom it’s been said, in contrast to Democrats who “fall in love” (see former upstart Barack Obama), Republicans “fall in line.”

Indeed the GOP seemed to be headed in that direction once again despite having to sort through 17 candidates. It was simply assumed that the ultimate in Republican establishment candidates, Jeb Bush, would merely ascend to his rightful place at the top of the heap and in turn would anoint one of the “also-rans” as the No. 2 person on the ticket.

Enter Donald Trump – anything but a GOP regular. While it was no doubt fun to have him around for a while Trump has missed his cue to leave. Not only that, but the Donald came with a list of past positions any one of which would have traditionally been fatal to one seeking the blessing of the Republican establishment.

A former Democrat, a longtime friend of the Clintons, a supporter of universal health care, an unabashed advocate of mass deportation of the voter-rich Hispanic immigrant community, Donald Trump even maintains an active threat to bolt the Republican Party altogether if he doesn’t receive the nomination.
In short none of the seemingly staunchly held and defended GOP positions apply to Trump and he is maintaining a double-digit lead in the polls over his 16 fellow Republican candidates. It is clear that the old litmus test positions no longer matter other than a hatred for all things Washington and a manifest disdain for anyone who can be identified with “the establishment.”

The Democrats are certainly not to be outdone. With Hillary Clinton as the presumptive standard bearer, the Democrats wondered what they would do for entertainment until the Republicans gave them an opponent.

Low and behold the avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders exploded on the scene with massive crowds jamming arenas to hear him speak and has subsequently overtaken Clinton in the key primary state of New Hampshire. In addition, the Republican e-mail hounds have clearly found an issue that will stick. The vigor of Sen. Sanders’ anti-Wall Street diatribe clearly matches Trump’s anti-Washington appeal.

Those in positions of power in government and their counterparts in the corporate world are clearly targets of leading outsiders from the respective parties. It is apparent that the parties are no longer in control of the messages. The independent voters and the party renegades have taken over and party loyalists and denizens of the establishment in both parties are being shoved to the side.

As for party transformation what will the fallout look like? Will populists from both sides of the political fence join forces with independents in a new coalition party? Are one or both parties destined to be the next Whig party?

The national political battle is no longer being fought over the ornate marbled halls of Washington. It is rather one of how the masses can organize to wrest control from the “inside-the-beltway” political establishment and take it home to the states and communities across the country. Regardless of the outcome things will look radically different when the fog lifts.

Dr. Marty Wiseman is professor emeritus of political science and public administration and director emeritus of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. His email address is wmw3@msstate.edu.