Idaho's one-party peril

By Robert Herold

These days, we have to look mighty hard to find Democrats in Idaho. George W. Bush got upwards of 70 percent of the vote, and even in the 1996 GOP national debacle, Bob Dole made off with nearly 60 percent -- and that was with Ross Perot in the race. Nor have the Democrats fared any better in statewide congressional races, nor, since the retirement of Cecil Andrus, in the gubernatorial elections. State legislative races mirror the situation facing the Democrats. Republicans, to no surprise, think all this is just fine.

Will the last Democrat to leave Idaho... well, just leave. That's how the Republicans feel, as they do a bit of chest pounding. It's a long way from Frank Church, that's for sure.

But what, I ask, if it is the GOP, not the Democrats, that finds itself at risk? I don't mean to say that Democrats should think for a moment that they have the Republicans right where they want them. Nor is complacency the question. Republicans may well have become more complacent, but that alone will not save the Democrats. Rather the Republicans risk self-destructing from the inside out should they get their fondest wish -- that is to turn Idaho into a one-party state.

Idaho Republicans, let me boldly suggest, are best served not by a one-party state, but by a competitive two-party political process, something they presently don't have.

A half-century ago, the political scientist V.O. Key wrote what is a now very out-of-date book, but it remains a classic: Southern Politics in State and Nation. At the time, you will recall, the entire South was a one-party region, Democrats all. Memories of the Civil War and, even more so, memories of the Republican-led Reconstruction pushed the region firmly into the D column for decades. The effect of this one-party region was that the South exercised far greater power in the Congress that its population or economic importance would warrant.

The single issue that rallied the South was, as Key termed it, "black belt politics." The question of segregation and the related issues of states' rights cast the unifying shadow. But beneath this seeming political solidarity, Key discovered there were burning and even festering issues that simply weren't being addressed. The reason? Years of one-party rule left the region lacking in the political institutions necessary to address anything that fell outside the mainstream political orthodoxy.

What emerged were various political pathologies all masked as evidence of solidarity. Virginia, for example, found itself under the heavy hand of a statewide political organization that made Alabama, as Key put it, look like a hotbed of democracy. I refer to the Harry Byrd oligarchy headquartered in Winchester out in the Blue Ridge part of the state. D.C. area folks used to mutter that they paid all the taxes and rural Virginia got all the roads. The organization was tighter and more disciplined than anything ever seen in Chicago. It was also far less diversified than any big city machine, and as a result not nearly as responsive -- or socially responsible.

But in another of these one-party states, Key found the other end of the spectrum, what he called "every man for himself" politics. Emerging from this form of political theater came, to no surprise, various forms of demagoguery played out as populism. Meanwhile, the South became a political landscape that time forgot. Obvious problems never got solved; the ruling class was happily untouchable, but the people suffered for this lack of social progress.

Back to Idaho: Beneath the surface solidarity evidenced by the recent election results, there is reason to believe that many cleavages and issues exist, none of which can effectively be translated into mediated public policy under the current circumstances. The list of issues is actually rather long.

Consider something so obvious as the tension between environmental concerns and energy development. Or take the lingering problem of dams and salmon. Then we have places such as Boise that are beginning to experience the more usual range of urban problems. I note that recently the individualists and property rights folks in this emerging urban center declared off limits for development the foothills surrounding the city and did so by taxing themselves. Certainly doesn't sound like Bush-Cheney supply-side, property rights stuff to me.

What is needed to attack these and other issues is a healthy two-party system, for it is through such competition that the serious questions attendant to governing can be associated with winning and losing elections.

America has always had a love-hate relationship with party politics. Over the past century, the Progressives and their spiritual offspring have managed to hold governance hostage to retail politics, inflamed by media-driven huckstering. They have sold us on the terrible idea that we should vote for issues and candidates, but not parties. "I vote for the man (or woman)" has become our self-destructive mantra.

As a result, the health and performance of our parties has slipped. That said, these much-maligned mediating institutions continue to offer us the best hope of drawing that necessary linkage between election results and governance, and through this, they continue to offer our only hope of responsible and effective government. Governance is about organization more than the candidate and always will be.

But like the conservatives in the South of a half century ago, the perennial losers might just figure out that success can come more easily from within an ever-more amorphous Republican party than it can if they remain labeled as Democrats. Eventually, and in Idaho's case this may already be happening, everybody in a one-party state joins that party. But when that happens, you land in that twilight zone of everybody being a Republican but nobody being a Republican at the same time. Without an opposition party, being a Republican loses all definition.

To get the best that a strong two-party system has to offer, parties need competition. Otherwise, the important issues and cleavages of the day, as in the South, are pushed underground or into those smoke-filled back rooms where really bad things happen.

Such is the threat to politics and governance in Idaho unless the Democrats can somehow stage a comeback. How to do this will be a trick, but it can be done. After all, Idaho was once a strong Democratic state, and the South is now Republican country. Times -- and political fortunes -- change.

The transformation of the South into a two-party region came about for many reasons, many of them as a result of the one-party system ignoring problems for years. Racism is the most obvious example. Lyndon Johnson's civil rights initiatives of the early '60s contributed most directly to the rise of the Republican Party. It was the election of 1964 that saw, for the first time in almost a century, the South vote for the Republican candidate.

Still, none of this would have happened if the GOP had failed to more effectively organize so as to compete at the polls when the old one-party system started to crack. Unlike in the South during those tumultuous times, Democrats in Idaho do not have any single galvanizing issue around which to rally. Nor are they demonstrating much ability at organization. But no one should cheer their losses at the polls, for in the end it will be the citizens of the state who will be the real losers.

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