The problem is not that the two parties are polarized. In many ways they're closer than ever. The problem is that the parties in Washington, and the people on the ground in America, are polarized. There is an increasing and profound distance between the rulers of both parties and the people--between the elites and the grunts, between those in power and those who put them there.
On the ground in America, people worry terribly--really, there are people who actually worry about it every day--about endless, weird, gushing government spending. But in Washington, those in power--Republicans and Democrats--stand arm in arm as they spend and spend. (Part of the reason is that they think they can buy off your unhappiness one way or another. After all, it's worked in the past. A hunch: It's not going to work forever or much longer. They've really run that trick into the ground.)
And I think that she does have a point, especially when it comes to how close the two parties, at least at the national, have become on many issues. Only a few issues seem to really remain (abortion, the meaning of the second amendment and gay marriage are the ones I can think of). Both parties seem to be comfortable with spending the electorates money, sometimes wisely and sometims not. Twenty years ago, during the heyday of the Reagan Administration, who would have thought that the Republican Party would assume the mantle of not only upholding an entitlement program but of expanding it (e.g. Medicare Part D)?
Now, Noonan's question brought forth a response from a conservative blogger, Ace of Spades. In his response, he examines the Noonan's idea and rejects. His basic contention is that the system cannot support a third party, and that really the only option is for a revolution within the existing parties. He writes,
In Europe, new parties are created at the drop of a hat. In the American system, however -- which is a winner-take-all system, and a loser cannot gain marginal influence by joining with other parties -- third parties are generally unsuccessful and almost always marginal.Now there is something to his analysis. Our first past the post system does minimize alternative parties. While on the one hand, that is good (think about the nightmare that Italy's parliament went through for years). On the other handit does stifle alternatives.
In America, a "third party" is created when someone has the balls to challenge the anti-voter consensus in one party and take over that party, installing a new pro-voter consensus.
That's exactly what Noonan's old boss, Ronald Reagan did. For those of you who are too young to remember, Reagan was despised and considered borderline lunatic for championing heretical, and supposedly dangerous, positions. Seeking not detente but victory in the Cold War? Insane! Punishing criminals with long jail sentences and even the death penalty, rather than coddling them and making excuses? Troglodytic! Neanderthalic!
However, although I agree with Noonan's position that the leaders of the national parties are out of touch with the people on the ground, I also agree with Ace of Spades in that it is very, very hard to have a third party under the form of government exists in the U.S. However, I think that his solution to the current problem, is not necessarily the only one.
What I am thinking of has happened before in U.S. history. At certain points in U.S. history, the political leadership of the national parties has become disconnected with its power base. It happened to the Whigs in the years leading up to the Civil War (or as it is officially known, the War of the Rebellion). It was the other half of the two party system, but because of disagreements, it splintered and its supporters eventually sorted themselves out into other parties. One of them still remains today: the Grand Old Party aka the Republican party.
While I do not think that this is imminent, as in I do not think it will happen this year, I do think that it is closer to happening than not. In particular, I think that the Democrative Party, which seems to have lost its way since the end of the Clinton Administration, is in danger of passing like the Whig party.
Would this be a bad thing? To me, it could be a good thing. As I've mentioned before, I do not know what the democrats are for. I know exactly what they are against. But what they have failed to do is lay out a strategy for moving this nation forward. In looking at the Republican 1994 Contract with America, it lays out in clear, simple terms exactly what the Republican Party stood for and what they were going to do when they got into office. In comparison, the 2006 Democratic Party wants our support yet they do not lay out what the plan is. They offer the 50 State Strategy and the Democratic Party Agenda. All these documents tell us are what the Democratic Party in very, very general terms. As a lay observer, it seems to me like this is a sign of party that has to keep things in very general terms because they cannot agree on a way to go forward. This way, by keeping the goals somewhat vague, all Democrats can say that they are working to this agenda.
Not only is the Democratic Party failing in giving a clear vision of what the future should be, it seems that they are not even willing to do the one thing that they are saying they will do. Take for example former Attorney General John Ashcroft. This was a man who was beaten by a dead man in an election. He is extremely conservative, opposing gay marriage, abortion, and many women's issues to name a few. All of these supposedly antithetical to the Democratic Party's platform. However, the Senate confirmed him. The Republican Party in 1992 managed to reject President Clinton's choices for cabinet positions, including two nominees for the position of Attorney General, over comparatively nanny problems. In looking at the two situations, which seems more serious? Failure to pay a tax (which was eventually voluntarily paid by one of the nominees upon discovering the error and before a law had been broken) or a person with an agenda to overthrow the law of the land and who had demonstrated a consistent disdain for civil rights.
For me, allowing the confirmation of Mr. Ashcroft as Attorney General was a sign of what the Democratic Party has become: weak-willed. Following Ashcroft, the Democrats allowed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act. They have given us a presidential candidate who could not decide what he was for or when he was for it.
Instead, the national leadership when faced with a hard decision or a tough spot inevitably does the same thing: retreats only to complain later that the Republicans did it all wrong. Whatever happened to the notion of a party bucking the polls and leading? Deciding that perhaps losing, but putting up a fight, was worth doing? Sometimes the Fabian Strategy is the right one. But sometimes, there needs to be a 300 that blocks the way to show the rest that the fight, the cause, the principle is worth the struggle.
So maybe it is time for a third party to arise and take over as the progressive/liberal force in this country. One that is interested in actually governing and winning elections instead of whining about the Republicans being mean guys with bullies for campaign strategists.