AMERICA HAS HAD PERIODS OF SINGLE-PARTY DOMinance before. It happened under FDK's New Deal, in the Republican 1920s and in the early 19th-century "Era of Good Feeling." But if President Bush is re-elected, we will be close to a tipping point of fundamental change in the political system itself. The United States could become a nation in which the dominant party rules for a prolonged period, marginalizes a token opposition and is extremely difficult to dislodge because democracy itself is rigged. This would be unprecedented in U.S. history.
In past single-party eras, the majority party earned its pre-eminence with broad popular support. Today the electorate remains closely divided, and actually prefers more Democratic policy positions than Republican ones. Yet the drift toward an engineered one-party Republican state has aroused little press scrutiny or widespread popular protest.
We are at risk of becoming an autocracy in three key respects. First, Republican parliamentary gimmickry has emasculated legislative opposition in the House of Representatives (the Senate has other problems). House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has both intimidated moderate Republicans and reduced the minority party to window dressing, rather like the token opposition parties in Mexico during the six-decade dominance of the PRI.
Second, electoral rules have been rigged to make it increasingly difficult for the incumbent party to be ejected by the voters, absent a Depression-scale disaster, Watergate-class scandal or Teddy Roosevelt-style ruling party split. After two decades of bipartisan collusion in the creation of safe House seats, there are now perhaps just 25 truly contestable House seats in any given election year (and that's before the recent Republican super gerrymandering). What once was a slender and precarious majority--229 Republicans to 205 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats)--now looks like a Republican lock. In the Senate, the dynamics are different but equally daunting for Democrats. As the Florida debacle of 2000 showed, the Republicans are also able to hold down the number of opposition votes, with complicity from Republican courts. Reform legislation, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), may actually facilitate Republican intimidation of minority voters and reduce Democratic turnout. And the latest money and-politics regime, nominally a reform, may give the right more of a financial advantage than ever.
Third, the federal courts, which have slowed some executive-branch efforts to destroy liberties, will be a complete rubber stamp if the right wins one more presidential election.
Taken together, these several forces could well enable the Republicans to become the permanent party of autocratic government for at least a generation. Am I exaggerating? Take a close look at the particulars.
I. LEGISLATIVE DICTATORSHIP
Political scientists used to describe America's Congress as a de facto four party system. There were national Democrats, mostly liberals; "Dixiecrats," who often voted with Republicans (Congressional Quarterly called this the conservative coalition and tabulated its frequent wins); conservative Republicans; and moderate-to-liberal "gypsy moth" Republicans, who selectively voted with Democrats.
Ad hoc coalitions shifted with issues. Back-benchers and committee chairs alike often defied both the leadership and the party caucus. Party loyalty was guaranteed only in the biennial election of the speaker, to give the dominant party formal majority status and perquisites. Only at rare moments, such as the New Deal's first six years and Lyndon Johnson's storied 89th Congress of 1965 67 (295 Democrats, 140 Republicans), were majorities so large that one party had effective parliamentary discipline. Infrequently, there were other moments of centralized leadership and relative party unity, among them the 100th Congress (1987 89) under Democratic Speaker Jim Wright and the tenures of two autocratic Republican speakers, Thomas Reed and Joe Cannon, back in the Gilded Age. …