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The Jazz Age humourist Will Rogers was responsible for what may well be the longest-serving truism in American political history when he quipped nearly a century ago: “I am not a member of any organised political party. I am a Democrat.”
Rogers was speaking during an era when the Republican party was enjoying a half-century of White House and congressional domination, while Democrats were stumbling from crisis to crisis, riven between a progressive wing catering to a burgeoning immigrant population in the urban north and a conservative base in the post-Reconstruction South. The 1924 Democratic convention was the longest in history, taking a record 103 ballots to pick a presidential candidate — who then lost the general election in spectacular fashion.
But Rogers’s aphorism enjoyed an extended second life much later in the 20th century when, bereft of a southern wing that abandoned the party after the social upheavals of the 1960s, the Democrats found themselves — save a four-year post-Watergate respite — again shut out of the White House for nearly 25 years.
Even after eight years of Bill Clinton, leading political analysts were still musing about the prospect of a “one-party country” thanks to the Democrats’ inclination to romanticise a new Great Liberal Hero every four years (think Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley and Howard Dean). It was Clinton himself who best summed up the tendency: “Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans just fall in line.”
That century of almost uninterrupted Republican discipline and Democratic untidiness is an important backdrop to what has unfolded on the House floor this week, where majority leader Kevin McCarthy astonishingly failed to win multiple votes of his own partisans to become Speaker. The shoe is now on the other foot. Today, it is the Republican party that romanticises ideological purity at the expense of electoral and governmental success, while the Democrats seem willing to put their factional infighting aside and execute.
It’s worth noting that this is not a brand new phenomenon, or even a Trumpian one. The Republican party has been unmooring itself from its “party of government” roots for more than a decade, ever since its Tea Party faction began demonising the kinds of political compromises that make governing possible. McCarthy is not the first Republican leader to be felled by the party’s fundamentalist wing, after all. John Boehner was forced to step down as Speaker in 2015 after proving incapable of controlling his caucus; his successor Paul Ryan was no more successful, deciding to retire after little more than two years in the job rather than herd any more cats.
In many ways, Donald Trump was the apotheosis of this new Republican party, rather than its cause. After decades of choosing presidential candidates from party elders with long resumes and even longer lists of political chits (remarkably, from 1952 through 2004, the party only had one election cycle without a man named Nixon, Dole or Bush on the presidential ticket), they went with a man who had neither. They repeated the trick in the 2022 midterms with political novices such as Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz and Blake Masters, whose only qualifications appeared to be passing grades on this new Republican purity test.
Almost despite themselves, the Democratic party has become the one that now prefers to fall in line. It’s not that the party has given up with its flirtations of Great Liberal Heroes (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). But they no longer nominate them, like they did in 1972 (George McGovern) or 1984 (Walter Mondale) or 1988 (Michael Dukakis). Instead, nominees are almost grudgingly selected on the basis of competence and electability — sometimes successfully (Joe Biden) and sometimes not (Hillary Clinton). And then there is Nancy Pelosi, whose political obituaries were last month filled with encomiums about her ability to keep her caucus legislating despite its factionalism.
The question I have for you, Rana, is what this all means for 2024. In one sense, the Republican party’s political trajectory is good news for Democrats. If Democrats become the party of government and competence, history shows that electoral success is likely to follow — and possibly for a very long time. But the Republican midterm catastrophe has revealed a handful in the party, many now in governors’ mansions, who could yet claw back the party’s reputation for order and aptitude — Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, for example, or Chris Sununu in New Hampshire.
And it goes without saying that the Democratic party is not beyond making Will Rogers relevant for yet another century.
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