Perpetual Crisis and the Sixth Party System

A post on Talking Points Memo is a brief reminder that the period of relative calm in Washington we’ve enjoyed these past few months is coming to an end.   It follows this up with a half-assed explanation that Obama wants to give speeches to “set the tone”, but the key point is that there is yet another crisis point coming with the upcoming expiration of the debt limit.  Since the last crisis, Congress has actually been working on real legislation concerning immigration, but I think that the debt limit battle will push immigration right off the table.  Why?  Because there’s a hard deadline, because the Republican House continues to demand concessions, and because most of the easier compromises were signed at the last crisis points.

Little has changed since the last time I wrote about government by crisis, a year and a half ago (ugh).  Government-by-perpetual-crisis is a terrible way to do things, because sooner or later someone will miscalculate and send the country hurtling off the cliff.  Nevertheless, it seems to be a real passion for the GOP House for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me.  While it could use regular appropriations bills as opportunities for standoffs without the chance for global financial crisis, the House seems fixated on seizing the opportunity with the highest stakes possible.

I think the real question is: why did this only start in 2010, and will Democrats act similarly in the minority? Here’s my hypothesis – it’s time to put the Fifth Party System to bed and acknowledge the emergence of the Sixth Party System over the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The politics of the Fifth Party System are generally oriented around Roosevelt’s “New Deal Coalition”, whereas they have been replaced by a new party system organized primarily around culture.  The Democrats represent the North and the cities; the Republicans the South and the country.  This matters a lot because it gives massive cultural import to previously mundane issues like spending levels.

Under the Sixth Party System, with the unification of party and culture, all politics takes on symbolic value to voters.  Previously, it was hard to get regular voters to care about policy because it’s a dry and boring topic.  But when every policy conflict becomes invested with cultural significance, it’s a lot easier.  Hence why you have every Republican politician and Fox News anchor talking about “taking our country back”; repealing Obamacare isn’t just a policy issue, it’s rolling back the Northern domination of America.

The system reached its full fruition only with the election of Barack Obama for a few reasons.  Not only is Barack Obama the first black President; he’s also the first Northern Democratic President since Kennedy and I don’t think this is irrelevant.  He personifies the value system of the North – multiracial, professional, coastal, urban, educated (and not a veteran).  The Southerners who now comprise the vast majority of the GOP look at him and see their values under siege.  Racism likely plays a role – but I think it’s foolish to see rabid hatred of Obama as motivated solely by racism.

Ultimately, I think this explains both why the House GOP has adopted a posture of total war and why Democrats are unlikely to do the same.  Each has come to represent a culture and the North is winning.  America is becoming more diverse, less white, less Christian, more tolerant and more urban.  It’s natural that in such a scenario the party of the cultural losers will perceive perpetual crisis and will act accordingly – it’s also just as natural that the party of the cultural winners will act with less urgency.  I posit that the dynamics of this Sixth Party System does predict perpetual warfare and crisis from the GOP, and less so from the Democrats when they are in opposition.  It also suggests a Democratic advantage in electoral politics, though one which translates poorly to Democratic policy goals.  But we shall see!

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