Arlen Specter's defection and the big picture

The U.S. political system is becoming more and more like . . . ours

Arlen Specter's defection and the big pictureThe big news out of U.S. politics today is the announcement that Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1980, will leave the Republicans and run as a Democrat. Specter is doing this because it’s the only way for him to survive politically: he was almost certain to lose a primary challenge by a more conservative Republican. But his defection is further proof that the U.S. political system has changed. It used to be a wild, unpredictable system based more on regional interests than party affiliation. Now it’s something closer to, well, a system like ours.

For many years, the party a U.S. politician belonged to didn’t necessarily define how conservative or liberal his views were. Though the Democratic party was overall the more liberal party, it also included many conservative Democrats, plus what amounted to a sort of party-within-a-party in the form of the Southern “Dixiecrats.” The Republicans incorporated everything from hard-core right-wingers like Joe McCarthy to liberal Republicans from New England. Congressmen and Senators’ voting patterns couldn’t be predicted by checking party registration. And cross-party alliances were common; in the ‘60s, when Lyndon Johnson tried to pass Civil Rights legislation, he depended on a coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans to pass it over the objections of the segregationist Southern Democrats.

As time went on, the parties started to become more ideologically consistent; Southern conservatives started to move from the Democrats to the Republicans, and New England started voting in more liberal Democrats to replace the old liberal Republicans. There were a few stragglers left, but they were wiped out in two big Congressional landslides: the Republicans took over Congress in 1994 by defeating nearly all the Democrats from conservative districts, and 12 years later the Democrats took back the House and Senate by beating Republicans from liberal areas (including all the remaining Republican Congressmen from New England). Today, even the most conservative Democrats are to the left of the average Republican, and while Specter was considered the most liberal Republican Senator, he was actually to the right of most Democrats: blogger Glenn Greenwald points out that “time and again during the Bush era, Specter stood with Republicans on the most controversial and consequential issues.” The U.S. now has a conservative party and a liberal party, with strict rules for membership.

That explains the fact, which TV pundits frequently bemoan, that there’s no more “bipartisanship” in the U.S. government. “Bipartisanship” was a relic from a time when politicians didn’t always vote along party lines, so they pushed bills through by making deals with other politicians who agreed with them. But now, politicians must vote with their party on just about everything; if they break on even one issue, as Specter did with the Republicans on the stimulus bill, then they’ll get taken down in the primaries. But more importantly, most politicians agree with their party on most issues; that’s why they got the nomination in the first place. The reason Obama’s stimulus package got almost unanimous support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans is that the Democrats agree with Obama and the Republicans don’t. In other words, the U.S. now has what amounts to a Parliamentary democracy, where each party votes along party lines. There’s nothing wrong with that, as Canada, Britain and many other countries can attest. Maybe the U.S. will get used to being more like Canada.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.