MSNBC has breaking news, just five minutes old as I write, that Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is going to switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic.The significance of this is that Specter's defection, once confirmed, combined with the eventual seating of Al Franken as Minnesota's second Senator will give the Democrats the sixty votes (including the independents Lieberman and Sanders) to block any Republican filibusters against liberal legislation.
Specter's move, if correctly reported, is a calculated risk. It's well known that Bushites and movement conservatives intended to mount a major primary challenge to his renomination next year. Specter may now expect Pennsylvania Democrats to repay him by not challenging him when he seeks that party's nomination. But it wouldn't surprise me that such grateful deference would provoke a third-party challenge from the left. That, too, could play into Specter's hands if, like Lieberman, he wants to position himself as an arch-centrist against extremism from both right and left.
The American Bipolarchy gives people at the top like Specter considerable freedom of action, as do the rules of Congress that make his apparent move so significant. His freedom and willingness to spite the GOP might further convince people that individuals matter more than parties, since Specter can claim to be following his conscience rather than any party's dictates, and that the Bipolarchy isn't really anything to worry about. But the Bipolarchy isn't about maintaining ideological consistency or even an illusion of eternal enmity that could be dispelled by Specter's defection. However individuals may feel, institutionally speaking neither party wants to destroy the other. Part of convincing the public that the two parties are the only real choices is maintaining the existence of two major parties for people to choose from. The Bipolarchy can tolerate incidents like Specter's reported switch because it's still happening within a bipolarchical framework. Specter isn't raising the standard of a new national party, after all, and neither did Sanders or Lieberman. He'll annoy current Republican leaders and infuriate simpleminded radio talkers, but he hasn't really challenged the system. He's trying to work the Bipolarchy to save his political career. Time will tell whether he can succeed.