Political strategists of all stripes have been pulling their hair out over the last year about the seeming fragmentation of the US into five voting blocs – progressives, Democratic Party faithful, centrists, GOP faithful, and the so-called Tea Party. The reason this is so problematic for US politics is because the United States has a voting system known as First Past the Post, used exclusively in only a smattering of countries with functional governments. Comparativists call the different forms of group identification in the US and in other states where parties are purely ideological “cross-cutting cleavages” – essentially the idea is that party identification will be fluid because parties aren’t allowed to purposefully represent one ethnicity or religious group. So, a committed Roman Catholic might believe strongly in the Puritan value set of it being everyone’s responsibility to care for the weaker brother – Jesus referenced this in the Beatitudes – and thereby identify best with the Democrats. Or, that same Roman Catholic might decide that protecting the rights of the unborn is the most important thing this election cycle, and so will vote with the Republicans.
The beauty of this system is that it balances group identification to prevent our political system from becoming overly fragmented. But in 2010, my America looks very different. Disillusioned voters on both sides, upset with a lack of leadership in Washington, are flocking to their respective pundit classes to be told the way of the future. Now, with a balanced and responsible Fourth Estate, this would be workable. But talking heads on the right such as Glenn Beck (the keynote speaker at CPAC 2010) and Sarah Palin are passing themselves off as mainstream, and in efforts to both widen the tent and make more cash, have refused to exclude even the dangerously crazy from their faithful following. It is irresponsible to pretend that attacks from “birthers” pretending that there is something to contest about the first African-American president’s birth certificate are anything less than racist. However, it is equally irresponsible to write these conspiracy theorists off as some kind of fringe movement. Although their ideas are certainly not typically associated with the mainstream, they seem to have found the perfect blend of ambiguity and populism to bring as many people in as possible, whether out of terror at the health care bill (“ObamaCare”) or out of fear for Obama’s tax hikes (while actually, the opposite is true).
It is fair to assert that these groups will be somewhat marginalized by the realities of the 2010 election. However, it doesn’t necessarily take a huge amount of people to push mainstream candidates out of the way. New York’s 23rd District was nearly hijacked by a Conservative Party candidate after he won support from Beck and Palin. And the dearth of leadership and epidemic of opportunism in the GOP right now is so desperate, it is not unrealistic to anticipate a new Republican Party after 2010, tied to the coffin of Ronald Reagan and some amorphous agenda focused on tax cuts and smaller government – as long as we keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.