2013: The Beginning of the End for Our Two-Party System?

2013 exposed the inconsistent ideologies of both Republicans and Democrats.

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One hundred years ago, in 1914, the old order came crashing down. The future may look back similarly at 2013 as the last year of the current paradigm in both foreign and domestic politics.

In his famous book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Thomas Kuhn observed that paradigm shifts rarely occur gradually: Those invested in the conventional wisdom jerry-rig modifications as necessary to prop it up until eventually – and suddenly – it collapses of its own weight. Similarly, over the last several decades our two political parties have grown increasingly out-of-date; we've been due for a new political synthesis for years. And, in 2013, the internal tensions of both parties weren't so much resolved as dissolved.

For much of the previous century, Democrats united diverse constituencies – urban blue-collar ethnics, farmers and the rural poor, and African Americans – with a shared interest in an activist government redistributing resources in their direction. Republicans, who had previously supported activist government in the service of corporations and the rich, became foes of the new, more egalitarian government interventions, but this didn't win many elections. With the upheavals of the 1960s, however, Democrats embraced a social liberalism that enabled Republicans under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to build a new majority that welded white working class anxieties to the elite economic agenda. These developments posed ideological inconsistencies for both parties.

[2013: The Year in Cartoons]

The Republican problem is the most obvious and most discussed today, but it isn't new. From Taft to the tea party, conservatism has meant small government only for the economically powerful. Those "anti-government" conservatives in fact have been ambitious promoters of government intervention in countless areas – religious orthodoxy, private and intimate human affairs, the national-security state, social control through the highest rates of incarceration and execution in the developed world and protection of the interests of economic incumbents (such as enforcing drug-makers' market segmentation that keeps low-priced medications out of the U.S.).

The GOP's combination of extreme libertarian rhetoric with its actual statist urges is causing the party difficulties at present, but intellectual incoherence has always been just as much a problem for Democrats. Liberals' enthusiasm for government regulatory and redistributionist policies always begged a more cogent explanation from the same folks who constantly feared governmental abuse in the realms of civil rights and liberties. This just hasn't caused Democrats as much political trouble since Bill Clinton remade the party by trimming its sails on pressing social issues like Sister Souljah while teaching it to love Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

But 2013 was a bad year for believers on all sides. For conservatives, the culture wars aren't quite over yet, but this past year was a watershed if not their Waterloo: Gay marriage is a near fait accompli; despite conservative legislative action, polls show that continued (if not unconstrained) abortion access is likely the future; and the war on drugs has begun winding down with little comment. The disastrous government shutdown probably will stand as the high-water mark of the tea party – the end-of-year budget deal negotiated by Paul Ryan represents the final exhaustion of the current party system's potential for synthesizing a clear vision of social welfare and economic policy, either left or right.

Meanwhile, the major legacies of 2013 for liberals have turned out to be (1) undermining public trust in big government programs more than conservatives ever could through the shockingly incompetent roll-out of Obamacare, and (2) perhaps the largest and broadest assault on civil liberties ever directed by a president (let alone a constitutional law professor). In sum, 2013 has been disastrous, as well, for both prongs of contemporary liberalism – "big government" welfare statism and "small government" civil libertarianism.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

We now live in a world where there is no more privacy but little constraint on private conduct, widespread acceptance of a large public sector but little belief in it. 2013 was the year where everyone's ideologies went to die.

Perhaps we simply need to return to a politics based on economic division: Liberals would explain that they hate Big Government except in an economic context and conservatives would admit that their love of freedom extends to only the economic context. In fact, such blunt admissions may finally be stirring on both sides of the aisle: Establishment Republicans are openly trying to jettison their "crazies" so they can focus entirely on a libertarianism for just the 1 percent. Meanwhile, disenchanted liberals increasingly call for the regulation and redistribution to benefit Mitt Romney's 47 percent that they thought (and Republicans still think) they were getting with Barack Obama. Both approaches neatly ignore the 52 percent in the middle.

As I've previously suggested on this page, all this makes plausible a realigned two-party system pitting statists against libertarians. The Democratic Party has essentially already evolved into the former. The question then is whether Republicans can cobble together a competitive and coherent national alternative combining the laissez-fare interests of low-margin retailers with Rand Paul libertarianism in a way that also attracts small and disruptive high-tech entrepreneurs, and a reshaped small-town and rural social conservatism that settles for being "left alone" rather than the Moral Majority that also attracts civil libertarians and anti-globalization lefties. The alternatives – the Establishment GOP focused on keeping governments' hands off exploitive businesses (high-margin industries have already defected to the Democrats – see the surprisingly muted business concern with a minimum wage increase) or the Revivalist GOP interested mainly in keeping government's eyes on people's private lives – don't appear likely to command majorities any longer.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

There is a synthesis that might provide a more broadly-held consensus: what Phillip Bobbitt has called the "Market State," but might better be described as the Empowerment State. This would be a government that regulates less but spends – and particularly invests – more, in order to achieve public aims through catalyzing rather than dictating. This would cut across most of the divisions explored above, but requires a different conception of government – really, of the nation-state – than that which dominated the 20th Century. We'll turn to this changing nature of states on the world stage in my next post.

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