Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What? There Are Two Parties?

As we continue to wait for the Democrats who control both Washington and Madison to actually do something about money's paralyzing grip on our politics, my thoughts stray to my father.

To dad, politics was simple. He never worked on a political campaign. He belonged to no civic groups. He was a dairy farmer, which occupied him from sunup to sundown seven days a week. He had an eighth-grade education. All he knew about politics came from religiously reading the newspaper. To his dying day, he never once so much as turned on a computer.

Republicans were for the rich, Democrats were for the poor. Republicans favored business. Democrats sided with labor. Democrats made war, Republicans brought on depression. Economically speaking, that is.

He never said so at the supper table, but for most of his life Dixie was home to the Democratic Party. After standing for slavery, Democrats were stalwarts for segregation. Republicans were abolitionists. The party of Lincoln.

Because dad didn't speak of it and because children were to be seen and not heard, no one in our family talked about the political realignment brought on by LBJ signing all the civil rights legislation. Nixon's southern strategy was never a topic of table talk.

Maybe such shifts in the tectonic plates of politics were unwelcome complexity. Republicans are for the rich, Democrats are for the poor. Republicans favor business. Democrats support labor. Democrats make war, Republicans depression. Republicans are tight with a buck. Democrats spend like drunken sailors.

It's hard to say what dad would make of politics today. Republicans are still for the rich, but so are the Democrats. Both are money parties and both now get most of their loot from business. Unions still prefer Democrats, but the Democrats get five times as much money from business and are reluctant as hell to ever cross the guys holding the capital.

No one talks much about the poor. The most Democrats are willing to say is they are for "working families," whatever that means. Wisconsin used to have usury laws. No lender could charge more than 18% interest. Today loan sharks charge the poor over 500%, and the Assembly's top Democrat says capping interest rates at 36% "goes too far." Especially because "there's a lot of jobs that are impacted if you just eliminate the industry." One of his lieutenants who chairs the financial institutions committee justified inaction by pointing out that loan sharks "did not create poverty. It was there before they got there." This from the party of the poor.

Both parties are fond of war. But the Democrats clearly have surrendered the mantle of war party. Prominent Democratic hawks, like Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn, are long gone. If anything, it's the Republicans who are today's masters of the military-might-equals-national-security mantra.

Neither party is fiscally responsible. Any Republican claim of being better stewards of taxpayer money is demolished by the history of federal deficits since Eisenhower's day. Democrats haven't been bashful about running up debt, but Republicans have done it with even more reckless abandon. Obama is well on his way to evening the score, though.

The political calculus on race has been turned upside down. Today it's the Republicans who most overtly and zealously court the white vote. And it's the Democrats who are friendlier to racial minorities that are fast becoming majorities. Given this emerging demographic reality, it's hard to see how this is a sustainable posture for the GOP.

Circling back to money's influence in politics, it's long since been forgotten that great populist reformers like Teddy Roosevelt and Fighting Bob La Follette were Republicans. The Republican Party is now squarely in money's camp. But so, unquestionably, are the Democrats.

Which leads to the question: What would TR and Fighting Bob do today?

They'd probably do what they did then. Ruthlessly battle their partisan enemies. And fight those on their own side just as fiercely. And then maybe try starting a new party.

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