How Nevadans Historically Blur the Party Lines

steve_wynn_illustration_krystal_ramirez_WEBSteven Wynn illustration by Krystal Ramirez

The two major political parties appear to be disaster areas, nationally and in Nevada. So what else is new?

Nationally, Democrats are gnashing their teeth about primaries, caucuses and superdelegates; what aspects of these upset them depend on whether they support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The Republican problem is the party’s options appear to be what Esquire blogger Charles P. Pierce calls “the vulgar talking yam” or a senator who is one of the few subjects on which his colleagues seem to agree: They almost universally despise him. Meanwhile, the nonexistent Republican establishment has been seeking alternatives.

Within Nevada, the situation seems no better. The presidential caucuses and state conventions proved we need a primary and neither party could organize a one-horse race. Democrats fought over credentials and notifications, and some of them reported feeling physically afraid of those who disagreed with them—in other words, as though they were at a Donald Trump rally. The Clark County Republican chairman resigned, and the Washoe County Republican platform essentially called for turning Nevada into Mississippi—not that we have far to go.

Granted, times have changed. Sanders and Trump have done well running outside and even against the party structure. They can do this because of more sources of money and media outlets than previous professed outsiders had access to—which weakens the power of political parties.

Naturally and understandably, these developments prompt suggestions that the two-party system has failed, that one or both of the current parties won’t survive, and that life as we know it is about to end. This is overstated on a few levels, understated on others.

The overstatement involves intraparty divisions, especially among Republicans, being great, but there being no reason to think one or both parties will disappear. Actually, there’s good reason to think it. Look at it this way: In Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime, he belonged to one political party that died (Whigs), and never joined these others that went away—Federalists, National Republicans, Anti-Masons, Liberty, Free-Soil and Know-Nothings. Even then, the U.S. generally had a two-party system, but that doesn’t mean it has to consist of these two parties in particular.

Nor have Nevadans always been party animals. In the late 19th century, when Democrats and then Republicans ignored pleas to make silver part of the currency, Nevadans had their own Silver Party and worked with whichever national organization sympathized with them. From the 1940s to the 1970s, Nevada’s most powerful politician, Pat McCarran, and most popular politician, Walter Baring Jr., belonged to the Democratic Party, but often bailed on it to support Republicans—and Nevadans kept them in office in spite of that, and perhaps even because of that, appreciating that they were their own men.

The understatement is much the same: that divisions are new. Each of the machines that has run Nevada—mining and railroads in the late 19th century, then mining and banking magnate George Wingfield, McCarran, and the gaming industry in the 20th—has split at times or encountered critics or independent cusses who were not easily eliminated or needed to be accommodated. Consider: Even as they blister Barack Obama and his supporters, Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson haven’t exactly said the same things about a certain Senate Democratic leader who has wrangled some of the president’s agenda through Congress.

Among Democrats, sometimes it has been personal or rooted in a desire for influence. McCarran kept the party in a whirl in the 1940s and 1950s because he wanted total control. As governor in the 1960s, Grant Sawyer believed party power should be concentrated in Carson City; Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon wanted it with them on Capitol Hill. Later, Sawyer as a former governor and Mike O’Callaghan as sitting governor liked and respected each other, but didn’t always come down on the same side on party matters.

The old political saying is that Democrats fall in love, but Republicans fall in line. In Nevada, they often have, but when retiring Senator Paul Laxalt pushed former Democratic Congressman Jim Santini to succeed him instead of more conservative congresswoman and longtime loyalist Barbara Vucanovich, many Republicans were unhappy. Nor were right-wing Republicans ever thrilled with Governor Kenny Guinn—they were happy he won two terms, but he never was medieval enough for their taste.

The question now is whether the differences within the two parties are ideological, personal or over incompetence. The answer to that is simple: Yes.