The Strange History of the ‘Uniparty’

Depending on what corners of political journalism you read, it looks like a new party has shown up in American politics. This week, after the Washington Post published allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had a history of sexual misconduct with teenage girls, Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon lashed out against a nebulous foe: “the Uniparty.”

“This is an orchestrated hit from the Uniparty,” Bannon said on Monday in an interview with Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow on the satellite radio show Breitbart News Daily.

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In calling out “the Uniparty,” Bannon was just agreeing with Marlow, who had led off the broadcast by saying, “The more I think about this Roy Moore story, the more this does feel like a political witch hunt, the more this does feel like a total orchestrated, colluded hit between the Republican establishment, the establishment press, the Democratic Party, the Washington swamp Uniparty.”

“The Uniparty” is the latest populist buzzword to seize the imagination of the drain-the-swamp crowd, those who see grand conspiracies in the machinations of the “deep state” and globalist-corporate forces. It has a crisp clarity, instantly conveying the idea of an establishment cabal, Democrat and Republican alike, arrayed against their outsider hero, Donald Trump.

But while “the Uniparty” may be trendy among the Breitbart set, it wasn’t born there. In fact, if you go back to the contentious presidential race of 2000, you’ll find it arose as a political barb among supporters of Ralph Nader, running as the nominee of the Green Party.

Numerous posts on the Usenet newsgroup alt.politics.green from that year railed against “the two-headed UniParty,” “the money-driven media/political uniparty environment,” “the corporate Uniparty grip on the civic polity,” and so forth.

Nader himself used the expression in his book “Crashing the Party,” reflecting on his experience running in 2000. “We gave heart to many committed Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds that there is a springtime party ready for them to grow at the local, state, and national levels in future elections and ready soon to be a watchdog party over the corporate uniparty,” he wrote.

Even before Nader, the word “uniparty” occasionally reared its head in American politics to suggest unsavory collusion between Republicans and Democrats. In 1944, a letter surfaced purporting to show that Wendell Willkie, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican rival in the 1940 election, was in fact selected by Roosevelt’s close adviser Harry Hopkins. An editorial in a Pennsylvania newspaper warned that the letter (which proved to be a forgery) could “indicate an attempt to create a uni-party government—totalitarianism—in the United States.”

But it took Nader and his followers to elevate “the Uniparty” into a proper noun—a nefarious entity representing the Washington establishment. It fit in with various other Naderite buzzwords: One Green Party loyalist in 2000 excoriated “the status-quo Corporate Republicrat Uniparty Duopoly that has taken our votes for granted.”

“Republicrat” and its twin “Demican” have an even longer history in American politics. Way back in the summer of 1872, at a reception for visiting Japanese diplomats in Boston, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (the poet and father of the Supreme Court Justice) presented some light verse intended to explain the country’s muddled political situation to the visitors:

For things are so mixed, how’s a fellow to know
What party he’s of, and what vote he shall throw?
White is getting so black and black’s getting white.
Republic-rat, Dem-ican—can’t get ’em right!

At the time, the parties truly were hard to tell apart, as the Democrats decided to support Horace Greeley as their candidate to oppose the incumbent Republican Ulysses Grant, even though Greeley represented the Liberal Republican faction that had split off from the GOP. (Holmes’ “black” and “white” imagery evidently betrayed his anxieties about race-mixing in the Reconstruction era.)

The major parties in Great Britain have been subject to similar ribbing over the years. A 1960 cartoon in the Evening Standard portrayed politicians at a LIB-LAB-CON-ference, blending the Liberal, Labour, and Conservative parties into one. The cartoon features a Mr. Butskell, whom British readers would have recognized as an amalgamation of the Tory politician Rab Butler and his Labour counterpart Hugh Gaitskell. The Economist had introduced Mr. Butskell as a comic figure in 1954 and was soon decrying “Butskellism,” as the policies of party leaders seemed to converge.

Americans have engaged in their own political name-blending, particularly in 2012, when the candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney morphed into “Robama” and “Obamney.” Criticism was especially fierce from Romney’s Republican rivals from further on the right, who painted the Massachusetts health care plan, “Romneycare” as no different from the much-reviled Obamacare. In the GOP primaries, Tim Pawlenty tried out both “Robamacare” and “Obamneycare” as epithets against his opponent, to no avail.

The 2012 campaign season was when the “Uniparty” slam moved away from its Green Party roots and began to be embraced by right-wing Republicans unhappy with a moderate bureaucrat like Romney as the party torchbearer. Libertarians especially took to the term: In an editorial for Reason, Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation wrote, “The two parties—actually the two divisions of the uniparty that represents the permanent regime—agree on all fundamentals.” The following year, Angelo M. Codevilla argued on the Law and Liberty site that “the Republican Party’s leaders have functioned as junior members of America’s single ruling party, the UniParty.”

In 2016, progressives in the Nader tradition still occasionally returned to the “Uniparty” theme, as when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein tweeted ominously, “We’re now seeing many Republican leaders join Hillary Clinton in a neoliberal uni-party that will fuel right-wing extremism.” But for the most part, “the Uniparty” became the province of the Bannon-Breitbart wing of Trump supporters, attacking mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike.

Marlow, the Breitbart editor, has been particularly enamored of the expression. In an August 2016 interview with Ann Coulter, he said, “I’m becoming more obsessed with this Uniparty in Washington, where the Republicans and Democrats seem to be fusing together.” Coulter agreed with Marlow’s assessment and started using “the Uniparty” herself, including on Politico’s “Off Message” podcast a few weeks later. Lately, Coulter has fretted that Trump’s agenda “has been drowned out by the agenda of Washington’s Uni-Party.” Meanwhile, references to “the Uniparty” have spread like wildfire among Trump loyalists on social media and Reddit, particularly the Trump-loving subreddit, r/The_Donald.

So when Bannon uses the term, denizens of Trumplandia knows exactly what he’s talking about—but they might be nonplussed to learn that it was Ralph Nader who paved the rhetorical road for them.

Ben Zimmer is the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

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