What happens if the Democrats collapse?

I’ve written several blog essays recently
pondering the deep trouble the Democratic party is in. I believe,
on current demographic and political trends, that their problems
are going to get worse and might actually prove terminal —
especially if the Republicans have the strategic sense to run Condi
Rice for President or Vice-President in 2008.

I’m not going to rehearse all their problems here. Instead I’m going
to try to think through some scenarios for what U.S. politics might look like
after a Democratic-party collapse, and discuss why I think they are
plausible or implausible.

The common premise for all of these scenarios is that the Democrats
collapse or split into warring factions once they discover that they
just cannot win elections any more. The party breaks apart along the
Democratic Leadership Council vs. hard-lefty split that’s been the
main axis of tension within it since the 1980s. The variables are
about what happens to the left-wing and centrist/DLC factions
afterwards. I’m taking for granted that the handful of
Zell-Miller-like conservative Democrats left in congress would jump
the aisle to the GOP.

Case Gray: Republican Triumph

In this scenario, the left faction runs off to the Greens and
minor Red parties such as the Socialists. The centrist/DLC types go
Republican or exit politics. This one is a recipe for really
long-term Republican-party dominance, with the Greens retaining some
degree of clout in a handful of coastal cities and university towns;
it’s the Karl Rove wet dream.

I rate this one moderately likely, and I’m not happy about that.
It has benign possibilities, but it has fairly ugly ones too. Which
we get depends on whether small-government conservatives or the
Religious Right get the upper hand in the GOP’s factional struggles. The
former seems more likely (especially since all those ex-Democrats will be
pulling against the Religious Right). But the latter possibility is
actually fairly scary.

At the worst-case end, we’d end up in the theocratic U.S. of Robert
Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100. Mind you I think this is
highly unlikely, and the widespread lefty panic about it seems to me
to be mainly hyperventilation and hysteria — they’d have
you believe it’s happening right now, whereas I see a decade
or more before the threat could become acute. But it remains an outside

The more likely long-term outcome would be that the Republicans themselves
split along small-government vs. cultural-conservative lines.

Case Green: Green Party Triumph

The Democratic-left refugees run more to the Reds. Greens get some
of them, but absorb a larger cohort of the centrist/DLC refugees and
evolve into a stronger and less left-wing party as a result, one with
prospects to increase its mass appeal. In effect, they become the
successor party of the Democrats and the familiar Democrat/Republican
seesaw resumes, with the Greens out of power most of the time.

I rate this one very unlikely. The problem is that if it were
possible for the DLC to come up with a new, centrist platform and stem
the long-term decline in their base, this scenario (dump the lefty
moonbats and reposition) is exactly the scenario they’d be engineering
themselves as a means of institutional survival. Since they
don’t seem to be able to manage it, I doubt the Greens (who are even more
Red-infiltrated than the Democrats) could either.

Case Gold: Libertarian Party Triumph

The left runs to the Greens and Reds. The centrist/DLC types join
the Libertarians. Small-government-Republican types drift to them, a
process which accelerates as it gradually weakens the holdouts inside the GOP.
At equilibrium, the Libertarians effectively replace the Democrats while
the Republicans become more and more a hard-right party of evangelicals
and nativists.

The key to Libertarian success in this scenario is gun owners.
This is the largest single captive bloc in the Republican voter base
at 50% of American households, one no less a politician than Bill
Clinton has identified as the swing group in the 1994 election and
subsequent Democrat disasters. The Libertarians succeed by prying
them loose from the Republican base.

As a libertarian and a gun owner, this is the one I’d most like to
see. However, I rate it unlikely. While I believe libertarian ideas
could be much more effectively marketed than they are, the LP has
proven almost comically inept at actually doing so. Post-9/11, its
isolationist foreign policy is a non-starter as well; I do not think
Americans will buy this until they perceive that the threat of Islamic
terror has been broken.

I’m, frankly, skeptical that the LP can overcome its own history
effectively enough to grasp this opportunity. But I’d love to be
wrong about this.

Case Red: Reds Triumph

This is Michael Moore’s wet dream — a major comeback for American
Marxism. It only happens if the Angry Left turns out to have been correct
about the DLC/centrists sabotaging their efforts to tap a huge pool of
naturally leftist voters. After the centrist/DLC types have faded from the
scene or gone to the GOP, one of the Red parties successfully markets
itself not just as a replacement for the democrats but in a way that
peels off a significant part of the Republican voter base.

I’ve listed this one for completeness. I think it’s wildly
unlikely, because I think the Angry Left’s belief that it can become
the vanguard of a mass movement is a drug dream. I don’t believe
there is any group in the majority-Republican voter base that is
vulnerable to a Marxist pitch, so even if they cornered all of the
Democrat base they’d still be in a minority position.

Case Blue: New Centrists

The lefty refugees dissipate themselves among the Reds and Greens.
The centrist/DLC types either keep the Democratic rump or boot up a
new party that abandons the socialist-economics and identity-politics
side of the Democrat platform, fights the War on Terror hard, and
remains strongly liberal shading towards libertarian on other social
issues. The result is, in effect, a new party of classical liberalism
— the Barry Goldwater Democrats.

As in Case Gold, their key tactical move is to peel gun owners out
of the Republican base. Over time, small-government Republicans drift
over from the GOP, which goes harder-right in consequence.

Nowadays I think this one is more likely than Case Gold. The key
to it may be the blogs, in which I see a kind of pro-War-on-Terror
libertarian centrism emerging as a new political force. The blogs
have been far more successful than the Libertarian Party at creating a
movement with mass appeal, quasi-libertarian attitudes, and enough
influence to have already arguably scuttled one presidential campaign
(Kerry’s, over Rathergate).

Case Blue is different than Case Gold in that the new centrist
party is not tied to libertarian ideology and pursues a
neoconservative foreign policy. This is the future in which “Glenn
Reynolds for President!” doesn’t sound crazy.


  1. Remembering how nasty the Bush-McCain infighting was during the 2000 primaries, I suspect the Republican party split in Case Gray would only take a few years. So the final outcome would be pretty close to Case Blue, though probably with different party names. Either way you’d probably be looking at a McCain-Lieberman ticket.

  2. Is Sweden “Red”?

    If so, I am moderately optimistic about Case Red. If a country is denounced by the Commies as being Capitalist and by the Libbies as being Marxist, then they must be doing something right.:)

  3. Hmmmm… Personally I think the most likely scenario is sort of a hybrid between your blue case and your grey case.

    That is: The Democratic party effectively implodes over a period of time, then when the Dems become obviously irrelevent, the Republican party will split into a libertarian-ish party and a religious-conservative party.

    The libertarian-ish faction will be “philisophically impure” enough to seriously annoy some of the more doctrinaire Libs, but they will manage to win elections. They will be regarded as centrists.

    My other prediction is that all of the social engineering nonsense the dems engage in, i.e. welfare schemes, public schools, anti-smoking crusaides, etc, will be picked up by the religious conservatives under the guises of “charity” and “promoting public morality” within a few years of the split.

  4. I think the analysis of Case Green is correct. Then again, maybe they would be able to get their acts together collectively.

    I think the likelihood of Case Red is almost zero. Even if the Marxists were right (and I don’t think they are), their ideas are so diametrically opposed to the American psyche they’d never get power. Then again, stranger things have happened.

    Case Gray does seem to have scary implications. I don’t know enough to say whether the Republican Party would end up splitting though. Would the “small government” section really have enough power in its own right? Wouldn’t a lot of those people already be libertarian if that were the case? I think things are going to get more extreme than they currently are , given the power the Republicans have, so that may indeed lead to a split within the party. It would be a great irony if by gaining more power, the Republicans split themselves.

    I think Case Gold is extremely unlikely. The problem is that libertarianism has such extreme positions and most people cannot accept more than a few of them. For example, who on the left is going to be pro-gun, anti-welfare? Who on the right is going to be pro-gay marriage? There’s obviously a major divide in America today, and people feel really strongly on either side. To imagine them meeting in the middle seems strange, unless the Libertarian Party waters its doctrine down so much as to be libertarian no longer. The irony of that would be that a fair percentage of people who currently consider themselves to be libertarians would desert, and the party may collapse from within before it could get the ball rolling.

    I think Case Blue is perhaps the most likely of the scenarios presented. In a way, it seemed to work well in Britain with New Labour (not that New Labour is perhaps that close to what might occur in the US), although there may soon be a backlash against that.

    Of course there’s another possibility that hasn’t been considered: Case Rainbow. Perhaps US politics would go more like European politics where there are several different political parties with a decent share of the vote, but none of which can form a government by itself. I don’t know how likely that would be to last for long, and why that would be so (Americans may get sick of the constant bickering and so on and just want some solid results). However, if the left is destined to break apart, and the right is too, how likely is it that some from each side would meet in the middle? Perhaps there would be two “right” parties and one (possibly two) “left” party of note, grabbing something like 70% of the vote between them, and thus having to cut deals with minor parties (perhaps of wacky persuasion) in order to take power. Maybe it would be even more devolved than this and there would be five or six parties of note. Then again, maybe there will be a major secessionist movement too. Who knows.

  5. Nature abhors a vacuum. If the Democratic Party dissolves, there will be an immediate rebirth in a new improved version.
    The question is will it be more left or more right than it is today. My guess is right.
    Let’s not forget, these creatures are not really ideologues, they are attention craving insecure narcissists who live for reelection. They’ll change their core beliefs when it suits their needs.

  6. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for case gray. I think it the Democrats did finally collapse, the left fringe would head to the fringe parties, and most of the rest, especially the already in red states(and strongly in the South) would head to the Republicans, and create a dominate Republican party that is a bit closer to the center than it is now.

  7. From the perspective of a freshman at a West Coast university, the country is becoming more atheistic and slowly leaning left. I’d tack down Bush’s reelection to Kerry and the Democratic party’s image problems. They have to overcome the image of being disorganized , or perhaps they should just become organized. It depends a lot on who runs for President: someone like Clinton could easily get elected, especially opposed to another Bush or, ugh, Condi Rice.

    Voters are just supremely confused right now. It’s impossible to make a really good prediction from my point of view. I suppose we can expect the significant Republican base not to change, but the youth surely leans Democrat.

  8. Wouldn’t a lot of those people already be libertarian if that were the case?

    No. Many people who are in fact libertarian refuse to join the Libertarian Party for two reasons:

    First, because our elections are winner-takes-all. This causes two and only two major parties, both of which aim at the center.

    Second, because people don’t perceive Libertarians as centrist. Even though they take the best of the left and the best of the right, the people on the right hate the left part and the people on the left hate the right part. Rather than loving the part they recognize, they hate the party they don’t.

    I think that yes, Eric is correct in that the Republicans are subject to having their party split at the gun-owners and small-government edges. The small-government folks don’t like gun regulations anyway, and gun owners are used to the idea of having to defend themselves, so they’re both philosophically aligned. Since both of those sets of folks are perfectly aligned with the Libertarian party, all that the Libertarians need to do is turn all their issues (e.g. drug legalization, isolationism) into small government issues.

  9. The one thing that seems to be in common in most, if not all, of your “spectrum” of scenarios is that if the Dems implode, the Republicans will follow soon thereafter.
    This I tend to agree with.
    While I am reluctant to speculate on what exactly will emerge from the ashes, I believe that most, if not all of what keeps the Republican party together, is opposition to the Democrats. Exit the need to defend against the predatory goals of the left, the right’s need for unity will vanish.
    On-The-Other-Claw, I am old enough to recall the aftermath of the 1964 election. It was said at that time that our two-party system was in peril, with the Democrats so dominating things. Richard Nixon was elected just four years later. Sixteen years after Goldwater’s defeat a conservative Republican was elected.
    There is however a difference. Goldwater conservatism was something new. Kerry was just the opposite, presenting a recycled New Deal / Great Society socialism, with luddite environmentalism thrown in for spice.

  10. I’d rate a direct transition to Case Blue as rather unlikely, but I think that Case Gray would transition into Case Blue within a couple of election cycles.

    Republicans aren’t going to desert the GOP as long as there’s a potentially-viable Democratic party to scare them into a continuing siege mindset, and no amount of good or bad propagandizing from the LP is going to change that. A mass defection of small-government quasi-libertarian voters isn’t going to happen until the Democrats have been so massively destroyed that nobody sane has any belief left that they’ll ever come back. On the other hand, once that circumstance does come to pass, I suspect the tension between the two wings of the Republicans, already exacerbated by the infusion of centrist ex-Democrats, will rupture fairly quickly.

  11. Although I have my fingers crossed for ring-side seats to the Democratic party’s collapse (a major party hasn’t collapsed in the US for a while — the Federalists collapsed in 1814), I recognize it is *possible* for the party to learn from its successive mistakes (http://www.professorbainbridge.com/2004/11/watching_an_old.html ).

    Even so, with gerrymandering (which is a true travesty — http://linuxtoday.com/news_story.php3?ltsn=2000-05-26-004-04-OP-LF&tbovrmode=3 ), the Republicans likely will hold the House of Representatives for the forseeable future (provided they don’t hand the reigns over — http://www.professorbainbridge.com/2004/11/more_reader_rea.html ). Without a party collapse, future elections will be a question of having a right-wing state (Republicna President) or gridlock (non-Republican President).

  12. Re “case rainbow”: it’s impossible. Winner-take-all elections wrt the Presidency, and more importantly, Congress, make a two-party system inevitable. IMHO, this is a *good* thing: proportional representation produces Italy far more often than it produces Britain.

    Dig around in den Beste’s archives for some essays on how plurality elections guarantee a two-party dynamic and why this is good.

  13. Aaron: A two party system is not inevitable in Congress unless people really believe that and that third parties are wasted votes. I’m not saying having two or multiple parties would be a good or bad thing. It depends upon your outlook as both have advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, two strong parties are more likely to get things done, rather than get bogged down. On the flip side, they may get extreme things done.

    Russ: Firstly, your idea that the two main parties aim for the middle is a bit strange. What they, and all politicians anywhere, are aiming for is the most votes. If, tomorrow, a whole lot of votes lay to the extreme right, they’d shift in that direction. If, the day after, a whole lot of votes lay to the extreme left, they’d shift in that direction. At the end of the day, politicians may talk a lot, but they’re basically whores for power. They’re also whores for money, which is why both parties are so intertwined with big business. The idea of a left and right party in the US is a bit of a joke to anyone outside the US. Not that I like the left much, but the Democrat party would not be considered left anywhere else in the world. On some issues, yes, it’s quite left. However, compared to virtually any other western democracy, the middle point between the Republicans and Democrats is not anywhere near the middle. I’m not saying that’s good or bad.

    Secondly, regarding why there aren’t more libertarians, there are more reasons than you listed. Some libertarians who won’t join the party because a) they don’t believe in the electoral process to begin with, b) they think the party is too weak and not hard enough in its position because it wants to appear less extreme than it is. Really, at least by current definitions of left and right, libertarianism is not centrist on anything and it’s quite extreme. As libertarians often say of small government, it’s like saying you’re a little bit pregnant.

    Finally, the idea of turning all libertarian issues into small government issues in the eyes of prospective members who are currently in the Republican Party, again, I ask “wouldn’t they already be libertarian?” The libertarian position is not a difficult one to grasp. It’s pretty simple actually. It’s all about minimal or non-existant government and individual freedom. The fact that the supposedly “small government” faction is willing to lay down with strange bedfellows would seem to be evidence of great hypocrisy. Obviously, they’re more concerned with winning elections than small government and individual freedom, or they just don’t care about small government in essence. Also, whilst it might hold that all libertarians are pro-guns, the opposite is not true. To think that gun owners are perfectly aligned with the Libertarian Party simply isn’t true because many are vehemently anti-individual freedom on most other issues. If anything, their pro-gun stance is the anomoly in their political view.

  14. I think what is most likely is even if a party collaspes, that eventually you would end up with two parties again that roughly had the same ideological divide. I believe this is because most Americans naturally divide on these political lines.

  15. It’s interesting to compare Eric’s forecast of the Democrats’ terminal decline with the state of Britain’s Labour Party during their last spell in opposition – the Labour Party has been in power now for two terms (their first two consecutive terms ever), under the leadership of Tony Blair, and is currently beginning preparations for the next election.

    However, before this they were in opposition for 17 years, and suffered terrible times (one landslide defeat, one major defeat, two minor defeats); there were various reasons for this, but some of the main ones were probably the leadership (not to mention popularity) of Margaret Thatcher (then Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, often referred to as “The Iron Lady”), the memory of Labour’s previous term in office (which included the ‘Winter of Discontent’) and the impression of Labour being comprised of the ‘Loony Left’.

    Despite these setbacks (and some were major – like tremendous infighting and idealogical splits), Labour did eventually come to power (thanks in no small part to Thatcher’s introduction of the Poll Tax; of course, despite campaigning against this, Labour has never actually abolished this – they just renamed it!), and the Conservative Party is still having trouble fighting back.

    One of the primary reasons for this is the way Labour handled its rise to power, and is, I think, instructive when considering the Democrats current position – it formed a special group dedicated to PR (or spin if you’re more cynical), especially keeping a strong grip on the press to control how they were portrayed in the media, and keeping everyone in the party ‘on message’. The party wasn’t afraid to step back from its more radical policies and go for the more populist ones (for which they were often, and to some extent still are, satirised over – e.g. Q. What does Tony Blair think? A. We’ll have an opinion poll and find out). They renamed themselves ‘New Labour’ (though they now appear to be dropping this, and have reverted back to just ‘Labour’), and strove to make friends with business and the City (previously anethema to the Labour Party’s traditional values, but a serious problem to getting elected).

    In addition, and this is what gave the Conservatives a huge amount of trouble for a while (and is arguably still doing so to an extent), and also gained the Labour Party popular support, New Labour adopted many of the Conservative Party’s policies, but called them by other names or otherwise differentiated them from the Conservatives – which has made the opposition’s job rather difficult!

    I think that when considering the Democrats possible decline, the trials of the Labour Party in opposition are worth considering. (Though I personally don’t think the Democrats are in decline at all – they only lost by a small amount after all, and Bush is the C-in-C during a ‘war’ (on terror) – indeed, in the longer term, Bush’s economic and social policies, not to mention the Iraq situation, may well prove to be liabilities to the Republicans in future elections).

  16. Very thoughtful posts. I do disagree with this statement:
    “Though I personally don’t think the Democrats are in decline at all – they only lost by a small amount after all, and Bush is the C-in-C during a ‘war'”

    The GOP only controlled the house twice from 1936ish to 1996ish, the 80th and 84th congresses IIRC. They’ve had the majority in the last 5 now (that’s 10 years at completion and precedes Bush).

    There is definately a trend that the GOP is on the rise. Their taking ownership of the South has been an interesting study.

  17. Might the Republican party’s growing margin be an effect of growing lifespans? Young voters invariably break Democratic, and this latest election was no different. It’s the same for, for instance, gay marriage. Wait thirty years and the issue will be overwhelmingly resolved in the public eye.

    I still think people’re making too much out of what really is the tipping of a knife-edge.

  18. I think both the two big parties are very robust atm, although Perot showed the potential instability. I’m going to define a party as robust if it can elect a statewide candidate at least once in 4 years. Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, all elected D’s to office this cycle (KY was 2003.) I don’t have the stats in front of me, but even hawaii, arkansas and mass. manage to elect repbublicans now and then, and most of the other states are more evenly split.
    I suspect the optimal strategy for libertarians, greens, or other factions is to coopt the other parties from within, running in primaries in districts that have been gerrymandered into one party zones.

  19. Another scenario is what has been happening in Utah.

    Dems see that if they want the power to be had in government they have to be (R) and sign up as (R). (R) party becomes functionally indistinguishable from (D) party… a mushy mess of “guess my real position.” Left/right can only be distinguished by voting records. Dems learn to say the right words at election time, then return to their leftist ways. “Compromise” becomes the word of the day and the worst combination of left/right pro-government policies start to gel.

    (R) political machinery becomes so powerful and self-serving that left/right give way to “support the machine (Y/N),” marginalizing and actually expelling the rightist, the constitutionalists, and the libertarians. Hard leftists stay in the marginal (D) party. Government employee unions capitalize on the machinery and winnow out non-pro-government persons at the caucus level.

    Not sure where this is heading, but freedom is not faring well. Utah has an effective one-party system, but its policies are neither (R) or (D), just a mushy kind of fascosocialism. If the DNC continues on its present course, we may end up with a similar type of musy national fascosocialism that warns us that “we can’t be too concerned with individual liberty” (WJ Clinton).

    The only exception is the urban centre of Salt Lake City, which is pretty solidly (D), but there’s enough resistance that they can’t go whole-hog radical left. As long as they stay mushy (D) they stay in power.

    My obeservation is that those who say this is an theocratic state tend to not be objective enough to see the picture. Righties willing to use government power to have their way end up being no different than lefties willing to use government power to have their way. In the end nobody is free.

  20. A few months ago, a handful of us non-isolationist (and non-LP) libertarians took on the name “Imperialist Libertarians” to poke fun at the isolationists who accuse us of being warmongering statists; we have a site at imperialistlibertarians.info if anyone’s interested. Perhaps this is the beginning of “case blue”? (FYI, we all met on the protestwarrior.com forums originally, and still hang out there, so if you see references to “PW” on the IL forums, that’s what it means.)

    De Oppreso Libre,

  21. >this is pretty funny to re-read now (date of post).

    Don’t laugh too hard. Electoral trends are still against the Democrats – population shifting to the south and west, average age rising, union membership dropping, percentages of households with stock holdings rising. Barack Obama’s popularity masks this just as Clinton’s did in the 1980s, but public reaction to his proposals suggests the Democrats can’t sustain this advantage without him,

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.