End of the Political Parties

December 22, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--Nineteen ninety-four saw the end of the American political parties as we have known them since the 1930s, and in the case of the Democratic Party, since the election of 1800, when an alliance of Southern agrarians and Northern city-dwellers made Thomas Jefferson President. That coalition of interests survived to elect John Kennedy in 1960, but it is now dead.

The uneasy alliance in the Republican Party between Eastern internationalist banking and trading interests and the suburban and small-town middle class is also finished. Liberal Republicanism has ceased to exist. What comes next?

There has to be a major political regrouping. The continuing -- indeed strengthening -- phenomenon of anti-party and anti-politician populism is another proof of that. The people who support Ross Perot, the radical-right talk-show audience, and the majority who do not vote at all in national elections, will either be assimilated into one of the existing parties, changing its character, or will back some new movement (or movements) to challenge the old parties. The Democratic Party in particular is ready for replacement.

It has been wounded and groggy since the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson was the last leader of the old coalition of conservative white Southerners (in a still-segregated South) with western populists, northern industrial workers and middle-class liberals.

Franklin Roosevelt had re-energized the old Jeffersonian coalition in 1932, when the South and West were poor, the unions growing, and the Republicans blamed for the Crash and the Depression. His vice president, Harry Truman -- something of a populist himself -- won in 1948 despite the defection of part of the South to the ''Dixiecrats'' and of some liberals to Henry Wallace's Progressive Party. John Kennedy, with a little help from his father's money, and a lot of help from Lyndon Johnson, put the coalition together one more time in 1960.

But with the catastrophe of Vietnam the liberals deserted Johnson, leaving him with the war they had created. The foreign policy directorate he inherited from Kennedy bailed out, one by one, awarding one another the Ford Foundation, World Bank, Council on Foreign Relations, etc., leaving Johnson to face the crowds chanting ''Hey, hey, L.B.J. How many kids did you kill today?''

The Democratic Party afterward fell into that schism which ever since has pitted social and racial interest groups and activists against ''New Democrats'' trying to write a new platform with national appeal. The party's two successes -- the elections of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and of Bill Clinton -- occurred only because of Watergate and the willingness in 1992 of voters to blame hard times on the Bush administration.

Today the South is rich and largely Republican. Political correctness has discredited liberalism for the mass of Americans. The unions have been smashed by Reagan-administration legislation and by free trade. The elements in the old Democratic coalition are gone.

On the Republican side, the tenuous coalition of Eastern internationalist finance and industry with conservative isolationism has ended in a rout of the internationalists. The coalition first split in 1912, when the progressive and imperialist Theodore Roosevelt ran for a new presidential term as a Bull Moose, and Robert La Follette's Republican reformers backed him. The isolationists were in control from the world war to 1941, but the internationalists dictated the Republican Party's presidential choices from 1940 to 1952.

Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower were all from the progressive wing of the party. Even Richard Nixon was launched as a presidential candidate by his service under Eisenhower, and although he disliked, distrusted and undermined the party's liberal wing, he was an internationalist president.

George Bush was the last of the liberal Republicans, and even he did his unconvincing best to pass as a Texan. The Republican Party today is firmly in the control of what before was its right wing, and this, now, is increasingly a radicalized libertarian right, influenced by doctrines of radical individualism that would have appalled Robert Taft's generation of Republican conservatives. In foreign policy it combines belligerent and moralizing interventionist rhetoric with a fundamental isolationism.

The public itself, always more conservative than in most countries, has turned right -- sometimes to an anarchic or even insurrectional right -- following its loss in economic security and decline in economic expectations during recent years. In the past such factors would have more likely caused voters to turn left.

The Republicans' success in November is vulnerable, as the Republicans themselves admit. Bill Clinton had two years to remake the Democratic identity and failed. The electorate has now put the Republicans on two-year trial. Two years aren't much time. If the Republicans cannot square the contradictions in the promises Newt Gingrich made to voters in September, they will be out in 1996.

We are still far from any permanent recombination of the electoral forces at work in the country. We can say only that the old combinations are finished. America's political parties in the new century will be new parties, whatever names they bear. They may not even be parties, in today's sense. The trend even now is toward a politics hinged on personality, not principle or program -- where principle and program may even be handicaps.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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