Although the U.S. has always been a two-party system, it hasn't always been the same two parties; some have withered and been replaced by others. And it is time for it to happen again.
The Democratic party is a tired, defeated group, without vitality or values. It has been fading since the 1960's, and today seems almost completely incapable of producing leaders, judging political trends, or establishing a relationship of trust and confidence with an electorate that still consists of a majority of registered Democrats. The last Democrat to be re-elected for a second term stepped down in 1951; Kennedy would almost certainly have been re-elected, but Johnson had to retire to save his party's life, Jimmy Carter went down to political oblivion and Bill Clinton appears headed the same way. In the last forty-five years, by contrast, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have all been elected to two terms, with only George Bush being turned out of office. The Republicans have never seemed healthier than today.
Parties, and the leaders they promote, are like flags: if we are to salute them, we must first know what they stand for. Despite the existence of a few liberals in their ranks, the Republicans have a far more consistent identity than the Democrats. It was the Republican party that fought the Civil War and freed the slaves; this is historically the reason why Southerners, whose values are more in line with the Republicans, are members of the Democratic party. But it has debilitated the Deomocrats to be a grab bag of such unlike ideologies; by trying to contain all, the party has been stretched until it stands for nothing.
What else has happened? The Democrats were associated with the war in Vietnam; two of the party's leading lights were assassinated in the '60's. For these reasons and others, by the 1972 elections the party had run out of mainstream leaders, candidates from the center or center-left who could command the respect and love of an electorate who knew what they stood for. Most Democratic candidates from McGovern on, the winners and losers alike, have been outsiders, people from the political margin or from a backwater, whose reputations were created during the primaries but who were vulnerable to the belittling, the expert cutting down, of which the Republicans have made themselves masters. McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and now Clinton, all lacked the stature, the experience in either the executive branch or in Federal government that would reassure voters and allow the candidates and the voters alike to withstand the torrent of Republican abuse. One Democrat after another has allowed himself to appear other-worldly, unemotional, lacking common sense, unable to pick advisors and running mates, not presidential material.
Something very ugly is happening. The Republicans, successes and failures alike, have mainly stood the abuse better, and retired from the field intact. Richard Nixon, clinically paranoid and a gangster, had restored himself as an elder statesman by the end of his life, but no-one respects the more intelligent and ethical Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan, "Mr. Teflon", was immensely popular despite the unprecedented number of indictments of members of his administration and other screw-ups including the creation of the greatest deficit in American history.
It hardly matters at this point if the Republicans merely play the game better, or play it dirtier, or have been in power enough of the time over the last fifty years to constitute themselves the "permanent government." To avoid having a one party state, we need a strong second party. The Democrats, too exhausted, deeply wounded and inconsequential, will never restore themselves. The time has come for the brightest and most ethical of the center and left to detach themselves and form a new party. This may attract some of the more liberal elements of the Republicans as well, and then we may have two strong parties, truly organized along political lines, free of history, inconsistent forces and paralysis. If it is true, as I think, that some of the best have stayed out of politics, (it has been said that Jefferson, if he lived today, would be an obscure university professor) a realignment of the parties, coupled with a change in the way elections are financed and run, may attract them back. Bill Clinton, with the aid of Democratic majorities in both houses, was unable to advance even a fraction of his agenda; a party that goes down to defeat when it has everything, does not deserve another chance. Time for a new party, with some real and consistent values, brightness and excitement, and the ability to get work done. See also "Prohibit All Campaign Finance" in this issue.