Maybe it’s just wishful thinking

Is the two-party system the best we can do? From the perspective of this unhappy Republican it has a major flaw: It is impossible to stretch a unifying political tent over a party where the political differences are so great and where the so-called “wedge” issues play such a major role. 

These issues, such as abortion, guns and fundamentalist values, are seen by their adherents to brook no compromise and offer no room for negotiated flexibility. They have become the “base” on the Republican side, offering only “my way or the highway.” This is the very logical core of a conservative far-right party. Many more moderate Republicans — centrists — would do well to go elsewhere. But where?

The “socialist” label will be hung on those Democrats pushing for a single-payer medical system. The question is whether that banner — with the good Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont leading the parade — can create a fault line in the party deep and explosive enough to shake out the more conservative Democrats. 

There must be a substantial number of them, party members who will be appalled at the extremes to which the new credo would take them. It will be increasingly difficult for them to remain effective. One of the things politicians in that position do is to look around for kindred spirits. They can find a large body just across the aisle. 

A similar schism of the Republican Party is easier to visualize. The division would be along pro-Trump, no-Trump lines, a division already apparent in practice. Those not members of the hard-core base are mostly moderate anti-Trump individuals of a centrist inclination. This group — if adroitly led — could join forces with the anti-socialist conservative Democrats.

 Thus, we have the makings of a perfectly symmetrical  three-party system: Socialists on the left, the Republican Base on the right, and a combined Center of conservative former Democrats and moderate former Republicans in the middle. Could it be done? 

The answer is, well, in  theory, yes, but it would take some doing, and it would also require  some leadership and leaders yet to be identified. As a practical matter, it’s simply wishful thinking, and nothing like this has ever happened before. 

Or has it? Consider the chaos of the 1860 election when the force of a political issue  literally blew the existing party system  to smithereens and changed everything.  That issue, of course, was slavery.

The election that year presented the country with four major contenders. Three of these were from parties designed for this event, and one  from a relatively new party engaged in its third such  election. All organizations were driven by the same overriding issue of slavery. 

The old Democratic Party of Jefferson  had split into two geographic  factions. The northern wing nominated the “Little Giant”, Stephen A. Douglas, the veteran Senator from Illinois and Lincoln’s nemesis in their recent campaign debates. It would  permit popular sovereignty to determine the spread of slavery in the territories. The southern wing distrusted any limits on expansion. It nominated its own candidate, then-Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was later a Confederate Major General and CSA Secretary of War. 

Senator John Bell of Tennessee was put forth by the Constitutional Union party, an ad hoc gathering of former Whigs and others willing to endure more compromise. Bell had considerable standing and respect: He carried Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia in the election. The fourth party was the new Republican Party, rising from the ashes of the old Whig organization,  with its first winner: a virtually unknown , unpolished, log cabin-born country lawyer from Illinois. He had thin credentials: one term each in the State Legislature and  U.S. House of Representatives, and a lost U.S. Senate contest with  Stephen Douglas. Yes — that was when they had all those debates. But he was the one who  made the speech  at Cooper Union. Lincoln’s stand was clear:  he would not interfere with  the existing status quo, but slavery  was barred in the territories. In the end, he did not win a majority  of the popular vote — no one did — but he did win a majority of the Electoral   College.

Lincoln’s election was certainly the most improbable in our political history. It illustrates the fact that the totally unforeseen can happen, and that powerful issues can assert their own will on the course of events. So I say, “Go Bernie! Start the ball rolling and let’s see how far we can make it go!”


Dick Bell lives in Sharon.