For all the craziness that marked GOP politics this season, perhaps the best indication of just how badly our political parties are broken can be seen on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid’s mind-blowing insistence on remaining in party leadership positions in the House and Senate provide ample proof that Republicans aren’t the only folks in Washington who have lost their minds. Pelosi represents one of the most liberal House districts in America and has demonstrated a unique inability to comprehend any message, no matter how clear, from the Neanderthals who languish in flyover country.
Reid just narrowly won a Senate race against a woman who, for example, thought Islamic Sharia law had been adopted in Frankford, Texas, a place which does not exist anymore and for the record, is not under Islamic law. Had the Republican Party in Nevada been capable of nominating someone who was only moderately incompetent, Reid would be well on his way to launching a new lobbying career.
In spite of a thorough “shellacking“, these two leaders feel their parties need them to remain in charge. The aggressive disconnection of politics from reality is a thoroughly bi-partisan problem.
No third-party is likely to emerge as an alternative. The structure of our electoral system makes it effectively a two party game. No new national political party has successfully coalesced since the Civil War. But could we see a new wave of politicians who rose through their parties start to break away and run as Independents?
Although the Founders were deeply hostile to political parties, the Congress broke up into factions almost immediately. In the entire history of the Senate (as per my reading of this list), a total of eight Senators have served independent of a political party, mostly very briefly. Until 2006, there had never been more than one serving at any given time (with the exception two brief periods in 1955 and 2002).
If the election result in Alaska holds up to the inevitable court challenge, our next Congress will include a record three Independent Senators – Murkowski, Sanders, and Lieberman. Three is not a tidal wave, but it is unprecedented and may be the beginning of more.
The Tea Party, convinced that it is the greatest thing since late-night AM radio, is going to aggressively target incumbent Senators in 2012. The list includes some popular figures that could be much more successful on their own like Olympia Snowe (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Richard Lugar (Indiana), and Scott Brown (Massachusetts).
Primaries are fertile ground for well-organized extremists. Turnout usually hovers around 5-12%. This year’s Nevada, Alaska and Delaware experiences in particular demonstrate how an organized core of radicals can target the primary process to nominate candidates who will be completely unelectable in November. Clearly they intend to do it again and there is no sign that the Party has any antidote to this poison.
Senators Lieberman and Murkowski have demonstrated pretty plainly how an incumbent can ditch their party and win. The country even picked up an Independent Governor this year, with former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee winning his race in Rhode Island. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine the number of Independents in the Senate doubling in 2012.
What affect would that have? It’s hard to say. In a reasonable world one would expect that loses combined with defections would lead to some reflection, some change of plans.
But so far both parties are incapable of learning the lessons of failure. Instead, on the Republican side all feedback of any kind gets filtered through the agitainers on AM radio and Fox News and gets received as – The Party Should be More Extreme. Win or lose, the solution is always another tax cut and a hard right turn. On the Democrats’ side, heck who can tell? I haven’t got a clue what those folks are thinking.
It is reasonable to expect that another wave of independent defections might start to have some impact on the political parties, especially if it starts to influence Presidential politics. The great neglected center of American politics is slow to anger, being busy with the responsibilities of daily life, but they won’t be dismissed forever.
Perhaps the best remedies for both political parties might emerge from neither of them.
And, for the curious, a list of the folks who have served in the Senate as Independents. It comes from combing this list. Let me know if I am missing someone.
David Davis is the first Independent to serve in Congress, representing Illinois for one term from 1877-83.
Wayne Morse was a Republican Senator from Oregon who left the Republican Party when Eisenhower was elected in 1952, then became a Democrat in 1955.
Strom Thurmond won a write-in campaign for the Senate in South Carolina as an Independent in 1954 after being rejected by the Democrats. He earned the Democratic nomination in 1956, then shifted to the GOP in 1964.
Harry F. Byrd of Virginia became an Independent in 1970 after defecting from the Democratic Party and remained in office another twelve years as an Independent.
Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party in 2001 and stepped down at the end of his term in 2007.
Dean Barkley was appointed by Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002 to serve out the remaining weeks of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s term after his death.
Bernie Sanders was elected as an Independent from Vermont to replace Independent Jim Jeffords in 2006. Sanders favors European-style Socialism, leaving him to the left of the Democratic Party.
Joe Lieberman of Connecticut left the Democratic Party after losing the primary in 2006. He won that election and although he continued to caucus with Democrats for a time, has become steadily more Independent. Lieberman was considered as a potential running mate for John McCain in 2008 and openly endorsed McCain.
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