Uh-oh…

So former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, currently running to be the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee (where he is in single digits in the polls), is set to announce that he will explore an independent run for the Presidency.

(UPDATE: Webb has now officially announced he is dropping out of the race for the Democratic nomination and exploring the possibility of running as an independent.)

Why is this important? Well, let’s see if I can explain…

Webb is one of the last nationally prominent examples of a political group that once played a dominant role in American politics: Conservative Southern Democrats. (West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is another.) Thing is, just because this group no longer has any real national spokespeople, that doesn’t mean that the voters who fall into this group simply disappeared.

A large chunk of these voters defected to the Republican Party in the 1960s, mainly over their objections to Civil Rights. According to the traditional left-wing account, that’s all there is to it: All those racist Jim Crow Democrats magically became Republicans sometime around 1968, thus completely cleansing the Democratic Party of its past association with slavery.

In fact, it’s more complicated than that. Following the muscular populist trail blazed by LBJ, a lot of Southern conservatives made peace with the Civil Rights movement and remained loyal Democrats, voting for Republicans only at the presidential level. The 1960s-era defectors merely represented the hardest of hard-core segregationists. Most conservative Southerners were quite happy to moderate their racial views and stay within the Democratic Party for another few decades. (I grew up in Alabama and I am old enough to remember heated debates between serious Republicans and Democrats about who was *really* more conservative.)

In 1994, the controversy over President Bill Clinton’s first two years caused many of these remaining “yellow dog” conservative Southern Democrats to be thrown out of office and replaced with Republicans — and yet even at this point, when the handwriting was pretty much on the wall, there were still some holdouts. Over the ensuing years, these stragglers were eventually culled from the Democratic Party — some finally surrendered to the rising tide and became (uneasy) Republicans; others just stopped voting altogether.

These Southern conservatives have never been a great fit within the Republican Party, where their native inclination towards economic populism clashes with the party’s traditional deference to business interests. However, most were content to keep their views to themselves as long as the party’s go-go business wing was managing to deliver respectable economic growth. But the economy’s anemic recovery since the Great Recession in 2007 has upset a lot of traditional political calculations.

Anyhow, as I noted before, Webb is currently doing abysmally in the polls. And it’s no surprise: Ever since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Democratic Party has become almost entirely a creature of a narrow segment of the left — and to be fair, over the same period of time, the Republican Party has become a creature of an increasingly narrow segment of the right.

All of this has left millions of Americans stewing in anger over the lack of a political movement that adequately represents them.

This has fueled the rise of two improbable candidates in the current election cycle: Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Both were initially dismissed as flash-in-the-pan stunt candidates, but their impressive staying power has managed to flummox a lot of astute political observers. Both have been popular because they’ve given voice to extremely angry constituencies within their respective parties who feel the party establishments are completely ignoring their concerns.

Up until now, though, the process has unfolded along fairly predictable lines — though it’s gone much farther than the smart folks in both parties originally expected. The establishment Democratic candidate, as expected, was facing a challenge from the far left. The establishment right hasn’t yet managed to settle on a candidate, but again, as expected, the establishment was facing a challenge from the populist right. Both of these scenarios had been contemplated by the governing class.

If Webb announces as an independent candidate, it could conceivably throw a monkey wrench into everything. Despite his reliable left-wing voting record in the Senate, Webb is probably the closest thing to a dream candidate for the old conservative Southern Democratic coalition. Twenty years ago, if this former Navy Secretary under Reagan had announced his candidacy for the presidency as a Democrat, he would have immediately been regarded as a major candidate by the media.

Webb is a real-live damn Vietnam War hero and a distinguished novelist who wrote what many vets consider the greatest novel ever written about the Vietnam War. He’s a Southerner who is defiantly proud of his Scots-Irish heritage. He is a legendary figure in the U.S. Marine Corps, because as Navy Secretary, he appointed the much-beloved (within the Corps) Al Gray Jr. as Corps Commandant. If a man with this resume had declared his candidacy for president — as a Democrat — in 1996, Bill Clinton might have pulled an LBJ and retired after a single term. In 1992, a Democrat with that background would have swept the nomination and the election. Heck, as recently as 2000, he could have posed a serious threat to Al Gore.

It says a lot that a guy like that can’t get a hearing in the 2016 Democratic Party primary. Given enough money and publicity, a Webb candidacy could attract a lot of votes — enough to swing the election.

Ace over at Ace of Spades thinks Webb’s musings about a third-party run are just a ploy to get Hillary Clinton elected in 2016, but I’m a bit more paranoid. When I first read about this, the parallel that immediately leapt to mind was the U.S. Presidential election of 1860.

The election of 1860 — quite likely the most pivotal election in American history — featured no less than four different major candidates. The American political order had completely broken down over the issue of slavery, and the result was absolute chaos. The eventual victor in that contest was, of course, Abraham Lincoln — a result which led directly to the American Civil War.

I don’t think that American politics is at the boiling point it was at the dawn of the Civil War — but that doesn’t mean we’re not on the cusp of a gigantic upheaval. This book, which I haven’t yet read, but intend to, argues that American politics is due for a major shake-up. This is a theme I’ve visited before.

So to keep you folks up at night, here’s a nightmare scenario: Marco Rubio (or some other bland establishment figure) secures the 2016 presidential nomination for the Republican Party. In response, Donald Trump announces a independent bid for the presidency. Then, a week later, the Democratic Party nominates Hillary Clinton as their standard bearer for 2016. In response, Bernie Sanders mounts an independent bid. (Sanders wouldn’t even have to change his affiliation, as he’s not even a member of the Democratic Party: As a Senator, he’s an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and describes himself as a “democratic socialist.”)

Add to that a Webb candidacy, and you’ve got viable candidates for the mainstream right (Rubio), the populist right (Trump), the mainstream left (Clinton), the populist left (Sanders) and the populist center (Webb).

And here’s an additional twist: If none of these announced candidates can manage to build up a significant lead in the polls, it increases the odds that other longshot candidates might reach for the brass ring. If victory looks like it would only require a plurality — like the one that elected Lincoln — instead of a majority, why not go for it? Maybe Ron or Rand Paul will make a Libertarian bid. Maybe Ralph Nader will go for another Green Party run. Maybe Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum will launch independent bids targeting religious conservatives. And as the number of plausible candidates appearing on the ballot rises, then like the election of 1860, the less incentive there is for voters to coalesce around two “mainstream” candidates.

The upshot: You could have a president elected in 2016 with no more than 40 percent, even 30 percent of the popular vote. The last time America faced such a presidential free-for-all was more than a hundred years ago. And the last time before that, it resulted in the worst war in this nation’s history.

That book I referenced earlier, “Shattered Consensus,” posits that there have been three major political realignments in American history: The first, around 1800, essentially consolidated the form of the American nation that had emerged from the American Revolution; the second, which emerged from the ashes of the Civil War, led to the united American entrance into the Industrial Revolution; the third, which was cobbled together after the Great Depression and World War II, has lasted up until the present day. The author believes we are on the brink of a fourth such realignment.

As I said, I haven’t read the book, but the sense I get from reviews such as this one is that the author envisions a reborn America that will be fairly recognizable to us. I do not share his optimism. I have lived for long stretches in wildly-divergent parts of this nation, and it’s hard for me to believe it’s possible at this point to establish a stable political consensus that could reasonably govern all of our 300+ million citizens. We have a lot of people, including so-called political leaders, who quite frankly appear to harbor an enormous amount of hatred towards large portions of their fellow citizens — even the citizens they ostensibly represent. It’s hard for me to see how a coherent nation based in Anglo-Saxon political norms can grow out of that.

Instead, I tend to agree with blogger Z Man, who ponders a North America with a radically-redrawn set of borders. I don’t think we’ll have to go through another Civil War to get there — it’s just very hard for me to believe that either side of America’s “cold civil war” could supply enough to angry young men willing to serve as cannon fodder — but even so, getting from here to there is likely going to involve a great deal of misery, economic upheaval, and more than a little bloodshed. Nothing close to the scale of Antietam, naturally, but I daresay we could expect a bit more than — well, Kent State, for example.

Naturally, my more-sensible side says this is all nonsense. Predictions of impending calamity and upheaval have been wildly popular throughout history — probably as long as there have been prophets, the bloody eschaton has been at hand. There is probably something deep within the human psyche that impels us towards pessimism about the future; in reality, things rarely turn out as bad as the Cassandras foresee — well, in the modern era, at least. Right?

That’s the safe bet. It’s the probable bet. At least based on the most recent data.

Well. Maybe. But remember, in the casino, the house always — always — wins, no matter how long your lucky streak lasts.

Something to think about. Sweet dreams! 🙂

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