We independents like to whine and moan about the abominations of our nation’s two-party system, but it is increasingly evident that the two-party system is a lie. It is a myth we told ourselves to make ourselves feel better. Just because every time we go to cast a ballot, each candidate has either a “D” or an “R” next to his or her name does not at all mean that the choices were so simple as one or the other; rather, it seems, the race begins much earlier, in small contests in America’s backwoods to which we have traditionally paid very little attention. Until it is too late.
That fact has become ever more apparent now, with the close of the Republican caucuses in Iowa last night that brought former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a fire-breathing moderate, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, an iconoclastic fundamentalist, within eight votes of carrying the first contest of the 2012 presidential race.
And in third, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a one-time Libertarian Party candidate for president who has his very own wing of the Republican party.
The way the two parties have managed to secure their stranglehold on the American politic has been by holding up a wide umbrella – or casting a wide net – to usher different beliefs into the fold. This means that people often affiliate with one party or the other for fundamentally different reasons. Civil rights, abortion rights, populism and a secular government are the reason many become Democrats. Evangelical Christianity, socially conservative principles and fiscally conservative principles are among the leading reasons that people become Republican.
But these standards are frequently in conflict. Black Christian congregations have not taken a shine to abortion rights, and many leaders in the black Christian organization have said that they do not consider the quest for gay marriage or gay rights to be the same as the quest for civil rights. The party was all but ripped asunder in 2008, with a white woman (many women vote Democratic) and a black man (again, many blacks are staunch Democrats) vying for the party’s presidential nomination. Many debated which deserved to head a major party ticket for the first time in history, just as many debated whether blacks or women should first get the vote a century before.
In the end, Barak Obama got the Democratic nomination and Sarah Palin became the Republican candidate for vice president, in order to woo all those disenfranchised women who believed that Hillary Clinton ought to head the ticket.
(Indeed, this played out within my own house; I was partial to Obama, and my wife to Clinton. Though, it turned out, her affinity was not due to Clinton’s policies or even her gender, but because my wife happens to own an autographed copy of Clinton’s memoir, which sits on the bottom shelf of an upstairs bookcase and that I’ve never once seen her open, except, oddly, to make sure the signature is still there.)
But in the Republican Party, the ties that bind seem to be absolutely strained to the point of snapping. In 2008, the Democrats had Obama, about whom everyone was excited – young, articulate, attractive, and vigorous. The Republicans compromised with each other and gave the nomination to John McCain, a candidate about whom no one was excited and who likely ran because, well, it was his turn (see Dole, ‘96). He wasn’t especially socially conservative, religious or fiscally conservative. He was, you know, the other guy.
Democrats turned out in droves to vote for Obama. I waited in line for more than an hour. With a baby. During early voting.
Hardly anyone came out to vote for McCain.
In 2012, the Republicans want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. They want a candidate all their members can be excited about. The problem is, what each sect of their party wants is not wholly embodied in a single candidate, and in fact, some strands of the fold are feeling so disenfranchised by the party that they may be inclined to run their own third-party candidate (see Roosevelt and Taft, 1912), which could split the vote and give President Obama a clear course to a second term – and possibly even a perceived (though fictitious) mandate (see Bush, 2004).
Santorum opposes a woman’s right to choose, believes that church has an important role to play in the affairs of the state and appeals to people like the Duggars, who have something like 19 kids and (obviously) don’t believe in birth control. Romney was governor of Massachusetts, a notoriously liberal state (elected Ted Kennedy for, like, what? a century?) and whose “Romneycare” reform in Massachusetts was the basis for the now much-decried “Obamacare,” and who used to support a woman’s right to choose and was OK with gay people but now says not so much.
And neither has especially broad appeal. Romney is a quintessentially Republican, er, Republican. Owns a few houses, has a lot of money, is “pro-business” (whatever that means), doesn’t like high taxes, goes to church a lot and has beautiful hair. Santorum is a fundamentalist Republican – without compromise on “traditional” beliefs to which a “Christian” nation such as ours ought to adhere (see Huckabee, 2008 – but without the charm or sense of humor).
Then there’s Paul wants to close all our military installations overseas, shut down a whole bunch of government departments, make everyone pay the same tax rate, rich or poor, and do a bunch of other stuff that scares the hell out of anyone who’s not part of his messiah-like following. And he finished third. And not a distant third, either! He had more than 21 percent of the vote! Romney won the thing with barely more than 24 percent!
The only thing these candidates really have in common is that, well, they don’t really want Obama to be president anymore. And it’s nothing personal; they don’t want any of the other guys to be president, either. But the vision they have for the nation is very different, because at the heart of it, the Republican Party is very different.
This is not a single party – it’s a group of parties who pool their votes to be stronger en masse than they are individually. And the strange thing is, they act like it’s some kind of a big secret. Some Republicans will whisper to you, their voices low, that they’re really Libertarians, but they know the Libertarian Party doesn’t have a chance, so they vote Republican so they can elect politicians who might help move the Republican party in a more fiscally conservative direction. Some Republicans will say, “I really wish Sarah Palin would run,” but they don’t know why, nor can they name one policy position of hers with which they were familiar. Some Republicans will say, “well, the Democrats want to let gay people marry, and I just don’t think that’s right,” and will be in direct contrast to the Libertarian Republicans.
The Republican Party is actually the Republican Parties. And in some instances, when it comes to treating corporations like individuals, Republican Parties, Inc. That the group has tried to corral so many separate and distinct ideologies under one banner for so long – without giving any one of them what they’ve asked for in exchange for their vote – is bound to be the party’s undoing.
So, next time someone says they’re voting Republican, ask which one.