Nowhere is it written that major political parties will live forever. In fact, over the course of the first 100 years of our country's history, Americans saw the rise and fall of numerous nationally powerful political parties. The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans ruled the day in the late 18th and early 19th century. By the 1850's it was the Whig Party and the Democratic Party battling for national political supremacy. The Whigs would ultimately be destroyed in 1856 by the question of whether to allow the expansion of slavery into the territories of the West. That gave rise to the Republican Party and henceforth the major two-party system that has dominated American politics for the past 153 years.
We are witnessing today, however, an unmistakable emergence of deep fissures within the Republican Party. These are serious indications of a momentous, generational shift underway in the American political landscape not seen in almost a century. It begs the question, are we watching the beginning of the end of the Republican Party--the long, slow death of the GOP?
The name of the aggressive and virulent upstart Party that is trying to push its Republican patriarch into an early grave is unclear--call it a re-energized national Conservative Party, a Social-Conservative Party or maybe even the "Tea Party" (the revolutionary-era moniker it seems to prefer). While the label may be in question, its faces are not. This is the Party of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Dick Armey, Glenn Beck, Grover Norquist, Michelle Bachmann and Mike Huckabee (just to name a few--yes, I left out Chuck Norris). They have launched a nationwide political insurrection--on the ground and in the airwaves--that is inflicting serious injury to the party of Lincoln, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Don't believe me? Just look at what is taking place today in New York's 23rd Congressional District. What should have been a low-visibility, off-cycle special election to fill a vacant Congressional seat has erupted into full-fledged Republican civil warfare--with serious national implications for the future of the GOP.
Apoplectic that local Republican Party leaders had nominated as their candidate a socially-moderate state legislator by the name of Dede Scozzafava (she supports abortion rights, gay rights and has ties to organized labor), local Conservatives revolted and ran a candidate of their own--Doug Hoffman. Sensing the moment and the terrain were ripe to make their stand, the national Tea Party masters declared open warfare on Scozzafava, if only to use her as a proxy in what looks more like an insurrection against the pillars of the Republican Party.
The Tea Party has filtered millions of dollars in donations to the Hoffman campaign through organizations like the Club for Growth. Glenn Beck has hosted Doug Hoffman live in the studio. Michelle Malkin, the conservative commentator, said of Scozzafava, "[s]he's an ACORN-Friendly, Big Labor-Backing, Tax-and-Spend, Margaret Sanger Award-Winning Radical in GOP Clothing -- a left-wing saboteur who seeks to marginalize mainstream conservatism with conservatives' own money." Wow, how's that for a family feud.
By taking direct aim at the chosen candidate of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee (which combined have poured millions into the race on Scozzafava's behalf), the Tea Party has resigned itself to splitting the right's voting base and dramatically increasing the likelihood that Democrats will win the NY-23rd seat for the first time since Reconstruction. They obviously see a loss here as an acceptable casualty in the wider insurrection they have launched--one with the twin goals of becoming the power-center of the political right, and elevating a socially-conservative agenda into the American political mainstream.
The Tea Party has even launched a few salvos against one of their own high-priests and potential 2012 presidential candidates--Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has endorsed Scozzafava and has returned fire by accusing the Tea Party of conducting a "purge."
All of this infighting currently revolves around ideological warfare, but when you dive even deeper into the cross-currents of American politics, the structural signs of the future viability of the Republican Party are equally as bad. Two examples: the current youth generation--Gen Y or the Millennials--are the largest generation in US history. They have gone 2-1 for President Obama. Latino's are the fastest growing voting bloc in the United States (from 2% of actual voters during the Clinton years to 12% today). They went 2-1 for Obama. And it is the Democratic Party that has staked its claim as the big-tent party, one that today is full of southern moderates and rational-conservatives like Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor and Florida Senator Bill Nelson, and western libertarians like Montana Senator Jon Tester and former Colorado Senator and now Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
The GOP can find a way to win this war. They must launch a concerted effort to win back youth by embracing science, evolution, and the obvious impacts of climate change. They must embrace minority growth with comprehensive immigration reform, and shun the blatant bigotry of Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and other Tea Party masters. Republicans must pull their party out of the Vietnam era and into the modern day by turning away from an epically failed neoconservative foreign policy, embrace the reality of a globalized world, and start working with President Obama to win wars and rehabilitate America's power at home and around the world.
While Election Day is less than a week away, unquestionably a modern day, political Fort Sumter has taken place in upstate New York. It seems as though the Republican Party-of-old is bloodied and in retreat on this early battlefield. While it may only be the first volleys, however intense, it is certainly not the last in this war for the hearts and minds of the Grand Old Party. Democrats will be wise to stay out of the cross-fire.