In a tucked-away room in the Visitor Center on the grounds of the United States Capitol next week, a vital element of the character of the American political system will have its most severe contemporary test.
On the surface, the session of 212 lawmakers will be merely a vote by the House Republican Conference on whether to permit a daughter of one of the country’s signature conservative couples to retain a position that is almost meaningless in today’s Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. But the struggle over whether Trump critic Liz Cheney is permitted to continue as chair of the GOP caucus – the number-three leadership position for the House GOP – will signal whether American political parties finally have reached the rigidity and discipline that they have resisted for more than two centuries.
For decades the Democrats had a liberal and a conservative wing, with northern urban lawmakers tolerating the presence of southern conservatives and segregationists within their ranks. At the same time, Republicans had a liberal wing and a conservative wing, with northeastern and big-city midwestern party members who favoured civil rights and social-welfare programs living almost peaceably with farm-state and small-town conservatives.
Indeed, American politics was a theatre that in many ways was the manifestation of the notion that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II presented in their 1943 Broadway musical, Oklahoma!, when one of their rollicking songs proclaimed that the disputing “farmer and the cowman” could “be friends.” In that conception, the conservative, segregationist Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama and the liberal, integrationist Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota both were Democrats, while the liberal Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York and the conservative Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona both were Republicans.
But today the Democratic Party is resolutely liberal, the Republican Party firmly conservative, and the vote on whether Ms. Cheney continues at her post will determine whether America’s political parties will countenance dissent on major issues. It was, after all, Ronald Reagan – until Donald Trump, the defining Republican president of the modern age – who conceived of the GOP as a “big tent,” open to Americans with diverging and, sometimes, clashing views.
The issue that divides Ms. Cheney from her fellow Republicans is her vote to impeach former president Trump and her insistence on describing him as a contemptible figure. “The issue is that she is continuing her war against Trump instead of leaving it alone,” Alice Stewart, who was a communications director for four GOP presidential campaigns, said in an interview. “She just won’t let it go.”
As a result, many House Republicans are coalescing behind Representative Elise Stefanik of New York to replace Ms. Cheney, the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney and conservative author and commentator Lynne Cheney. Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican, openly favours Ms. Stefanik, and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California was caught saying “I’ve had it with her’' on a microphone he didn’t know was live. Mr. Trump also has weighed in, repeatedly and fervently, to support Ms. Stefanik.
The struggle over whether American political parties should have the sort of broad ideological discipline that Canadian parties possess has been brewing for years; until a few decades ago, commentators outside the United States considered the country’s parties incomprehensible, meaningless amalgams of family and regional attachments. The children of Republicans voted Republican, residents of the South voted Democratic. It was as simple as that.
America’s parties were more sentimental than ideological – and in 1938 Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to purge conservatives from the Democratic Party and transform it into a progressive vanguard. “We ought to have two real parties – one liberal and the other conservative,’' he said. (His 1940 presidential opponent, the Republican businessman Wendell Willkie, agreed.)
Roosevelt undertook to purge conservatives from the party much the way Ms. Cheney’s opponents are attempting to purge her from the leadership. His effort was a disaster. He sought, and failed, to defeat Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland and to eliminate two Southern senators, Walter George of Georgia and Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina. “But the Southern Democrats believed the Democratic Party was their party,” said Susan Dunn, an FDR expert at Williams College in Massachusetts, “and they didn’t want to leave it.”
Ultimately Roosevelt was fortunate that his purge fizzled. The Southern Democrats he deplored helped him win aid for Great Britain when he turned from pushing the New Deal to positioning the United States to oppose Nazi Germany. Even so, in 1950 the American Political Science Review published the highly controversial essay “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” arguing that the United States would profit by having a “degree of unity within the parties.”
Now, with the most conservative Democrat in Congress more liberal than the most liberal Republican, the fate of Ms. Cheney is in some ways the fate of the American party system.
“Reagan formed a broad coalition from across the political spectrum to return America to sanity,” she wrote in the Washington Post on Thursday, “and we need to do the same now.”
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