Republicans got a nasty jolt from last Novembers mid-term elections, but mostly not for the reasons Democrats believed. Sure, voters affirmed that theyd heard enough about Monica Lewinsky to hold them until the Titanic sequel. And the framers ingenious constitutional mechanisms once again saved Americans from electing themselves a right-wing dictatorship. But the true signal from polling booths was the still-distant but insistent knell sounding the end of the two-party system.
For more than a century and a third, the Republocratic Hydra sprouted one new head after another as the old ones were cut down by a frustrated electorate. In the GOP, abolitionists gave way to robber barons, robber barons to Cold Warriors, Cold Warriors to the Christian Right. In the Democrat Party, slavocrats yielded to populists, populists to internationalists, internationalists to New Dealers, and New Dealers to the Republicans. Party coalitions shuffled, waxed and waned. But more than party names remained the same.
As conservatives are wont to remind us, and even diehard liberals must reluctantly admit, the United States is a republic first and a democracy only grudgingly second. Universal suffrage and direct election to federal office have prevailed for only 40 percent of our history; for most African Americans, less than 20 percent. Direct referenda on major issues are an even newer phenomenon, resisted by politicians, discouraged by legal challenges. Republicans tacitly admit they benefit when fewer Americans vote. And both parties have woven themselves into the American governmental apparatus almost as completely as the old Nazi Party was wedded to the German state.
The presumption on which representative government was established when it was a daring experiment 200 years ago was twofold. One, that people were too ignorant, if not stupid, to govern themselves. Two, that representative democracy was the best compromise between mass ignorance and the masses demand for self government. The impoverished, preoccupied mass was expected to yield governance to professionals.
This status quo remained fundamentally intact during the last two centurieseven the Civil War was driven more by Northern industrys insatiable thirst for free labor than by any idealistic yearnings of abolitionists. It has proven so stable that, like an autocracy, our political class can no longer imagine a time when it was not so.
Yet abetted by instantaneous decentralized mass communication, that time appears to be approaching. Last years midterms were indicative of the transformation. A socialist enters his fifth term in the House from Vermont, where alternative politics has reached deep into the grassroots. Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingolds spending limited back-from-the-grave re-election against a gold-plated GOP onslaught proved voters in at least one state favor campaign finance reform. Spending limits and public financing, along with same-day voter registration, helped boost Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura into the governors seat in Minnesota.
These are not anecdotes; they are symptoms. When American democracy was born, literacy was for professors and books were as valuable as silver. Communication with ones neighbor took hours; procuring essentials was an all-day affair. Today, the ignorance our Founding Fathers compromised to establish representative government must be reinforced by manipulative ads and disinformation campaigns. Next year, America will experience its first political contests in the free-for-all of cyberspace.
The democratization of society thus precedes the democratization of government. The former will overwhelm the latter. It will take time. Mistakes will be made. Obstacles must be cleared. But the tools are coming to hand. The masses have been demanding self government for 200 years. Because ofor in spite ofthe best efforts of their representatives, they will get it.