|View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Sunday, December 28, 2003
Bret Stephens has an insightful article parallelling the misfortunes of three of the West's most venerable political parties, Israel's Labour, Britain's Conservatives, and America's Democrats. He rightly traces the decline of all three to ideas: the lack of ideas, a split over ideas, or being on the wrong side of an idea. Sometimes the lack of ideas results from having your previous ideas win out. Stephens sees this as the problem with both Israel's Labour and the Conservatives. I think this analysis is about 75% right. There's no doubt that the Tories suffer from more than a style issue; New Labor has conceded most, if not all, of Thatcher's gains, and the Tories have little to offer in the way of an alternative.
Sharon has adopted some of Israeli Labour's ideas, if only to the extent of disengagement, and abandoning the notion of a Greater Israel. But to say that Labor will have the better of the argument when Israel is secure enough to focus on economic and social issues seems to me to be wrong. Likud, especially Netanyahu, has taken on Histadrut, looked to deregulate, and put the Israeli economy on a more capitalist and less socialist footing. Social issues may favor a greater secularization and religious pluralism, but the wildly left-wing Meretz and Shinui, currently in government with Likud, have made those their core issues. There's no particular reason for it to favor Labor over Likud.
Stephens almost certainly overestimates the long-term decline of the Democrats, however. It's true that the party has been in decline since at least the late 1970s, when it became clear that it wasn't up to the last major foreign policy challenge. But while the bench may look thin now, there's still a very skilled Clinton waiting in the wings. Georgia and Arkansas have both produced Democratic presidents, both smaller to mid-size states from the South, and with 50 states, new talents isn't constricted by a national pipeline to the same extent as in Britain or Israel.
Also, the War on Islamism could develop into a low-level throb rather than continuing as a sharp pain. If this were to happen, many, if not most, elections over the next few decades could be determined either by social or economic issues. Much as it pains me to say it, the Democrats seem more attuned with the country on the first, and the latter always offers opportunities to the party out of power.
Stephens has to go back to the pre-Civil War Whigs to find a major party that actually goes out of existence. This is almost certian not to happen to the Democrats, for many of the above reasons, but also because of the size and complexity of American politics. Third parties almost always have a short shelf-life. Their issues are almost always narrow; once they begin to make a dent, one of the major parties, with broader appeal, sees the threat and absorbs their issues into its own platform. Social fractures large enough to produce wholly new, comprehensive world views almost never arise.
Finally, even long-term minority status doesn't mean either impotence or extinction. Leave aside the obviously partisan control of the bureaucracy, education, judicial, and news establishments (this and other blogs notwithstanding). The Senate Democrats have been very adept at promoting their agenda. The Republicans didn't hold the House for 40 years, but elected Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I.
Perhaps the most telling difference between the two parties right now is that you can't really imagine any of the leading Democrats making such a statement.