From my vantage point I’ve always thought the conservative coalition that makes up the Republican Party in America consisted of three mostly aligned legs – the religio-social, the economic, and the defense oriented elements of the Grand Old Party. For the last fifty-odd years their interests have more or less aligned and policy differences have been manageable. What I’m looking at now in the wake of a caucus and two primaries, though, seems to show a coalition that’s fragmenting further each day. I suspect the primary results we’re seeing are the first deep clefts in a political party that’s in the process of shredding itself.
There’s no constitutional ordination that requires there be but two political parties in America, though for most of our history there has been a two party system. It’s a system that has mostly given a helpful shorthand for people deciding between differing opinions on large blocks of issues. In Great Britain there are currently 13 parties represented in the House of Commons. In other parliamentary democracies that number can be much higher. If you think politics in a two-party system are challenging, you wouldn’t believe the circus that leading a real coalition government can bring along with it.
I’m not saying the two party American system is an artifact of an earlier age, just that other options exist and are practiced. I am saying, however, that there’s a very real chance that in our lifetimes we might expect to see the Republican Party fractured into a handful or more of its constituent parts. It’s not as if the evangelicals, budget hawks, libertarians, tea partiers, and defense hawks even have all that much in common any more. Most of us on this side of the aisle stand in one or more of those camps, but damned few of us stand in all of them. It’s harder still when each group cries that they are the only “true” conservative voice.
For better or worse, America is changing. We can seek to manage that change in appropriate and productive ways or we can collectively decide to pretend it’s not happening at all. Conservatives led this country through the fat years of prosperity in the 1950s, the opening of relations with China, and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. We could be that party again, but it’s going to mean giving up the bullshit of having some kind of purity test. It means being a little less fanatical and a little more tolerant of new ideas and different solutions. It means we have to talk not just to ourselves, but also to the Democrats, the moderates, the unaligned, and to anyone who’s willing to listen to our best-reasoned alternatives rather than to our inflamed rhetoric.
By way of alternative we can stay the course and let the party descend into factional squabbling and ensure that a conservative doesn’t sit in the Oval Office again for twenty years. The choices are ours – and so are the consequences.