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Thursday, June 23, 2005

An End to Party Politics?

Politicalparties1_2Are we about to enter into a brave new world beyond political parties as we know them?  According to Gary Hart, that’s where we’re headed.  He writes:

Out of power, the watchword among Democrats, and many independents, is: "I don't know what the Democrats stands for." That's because the Party's old coalition -- traditional liberals, labor, minorities, women, environmentalists, and internationalists -- is in the process of disappearing and a new one has yet to be formed. . . .

But many traditional Republicans don't know what their Party stands for either. It used to stand for balanced budgets, resistance to foreign entanglement, laissez faire economics, smaller government, and individual freedom. Not any more. That old coalition has disappeared as well. The new Republican Party stands for big government, huge deficits, pre-emptive warfare, massive nation-building, neo-imperialism in the Middle East, intrusion on your privacy, and a semi-official state religion dictated by fundamentalist ministers. . . .

Over and beyond this traditional party-based struggle for power is the greater tsunami overtaking the very nature of partisan politics itself. The old party structures are becoming obsolete. The prize of future power will go to the next Machiavelli, the next Montesquieu, the next Bismarck, the next Jefferson who both appreciates, before all others, that we are in a totally new political age, an age beyond traditional political parties, and then creates the next political paradigm.

Hart is right, I think, that the political parties are increasingly a fusion of different coalitions that are becoming increasingly difficult to hold together in a cohesive way.  But I doubt that we’re about to enter into “an age beyond traditional political parties.”  My guess is that the parties will simply realign, as has happened throughout history. 

I am much more persuaded by a Washington Post Magazine (July 25, 2004) article by David Von Drehle:

Once upon a time in America, there was a political party that believed in a strong central government, high taxes and bold public works projects. This party was popular on the college campuses of New England and was the overwhelming choice of African American voters.

It was the Republican Party.

The Republicans got started as a counterweight to the other party: the party of low taxes and limited government, the party suspicious of Eastern elites, the party that thought Washington should butt out of the affairs of private property owners.

The Democrats. . . .

Von Drehle surmises that political parties tend to fall apart when they reach the pinnacle of their power:

From the very beginning, whenever one party has gotten strong enough to start passing horrible laws such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, it has crumbled soon thereafter. Empowered, the parties overreach. Or members let some element of the party push its dogmas to the extreme, thus driving away moderate supporters. Or they calcify and then find themselves unable to deal with emerging problems. Something happens, and the pendulum swings. This happened to the Federalists. Years later, outrage at the tyrannical airs of the populist strongman Andrew Jackson split Jefferson's party into two camps -- the Jackson Democrats vs. the Whigs of Henry Clay -- and left it unable to cope with the issue of slavery. Then the Republicans had a heyday after winning the Civil War, but they, too, soon got to infighting. More recently, the Democrats deflated like a leaking dirigible after Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In other words, there is something about our parties, some power-sensitive self-destruct button lodged deep in the machinery, that keeps them from getting too big. . . .

But rarely do the parties just evaporate; they realign and reinvent themselves like Madonna.  This part of the article is worth quoting in depth:

LINCOLN'S REPUBLICANS were just six years old, having formed in 1854 from the husk of the Whig Party. . . .

The Republicans married Hamiltonism to abolitionism for a 100 percent big-government platform. They believed in the national union over states' rights. They believed in government programs to organize and develop the conquered frontier. Even as Lincoln waged war on the rebellious Confederacy, he signed some of the most important public works and infrastructure legislation in U.S. history, all passed by the Republican Congress -- laws authorizing the transcontinental railroad and granting the right of way; the Homestead Act to encourage settlement of the empty prairies; a program to educate those settlers at land-grant colleges; and so on.

This new party supported high taxes to pay for its ambitious agenda. The GOP passed the first federal income tax, a temporary levy to pay for the Civil War. And it supported high tariffs on imported goods. The agenda made sense in the context of Hamilton's vision of the United States as a great industrial and financial power. From the beginning, U.S. economic potential was awesome, but for its first century, that potential was still taking shape. U.S. businesses needed government aid and protection from the stronger economies of Britain and Europe. They needed a national banking system. They needed a transportation network. They needed protective tariffs to keep domestic markets from being flooded with low-cost, high-quality foreign goods.

At first, the Republican coalition produced success upon success. The Union was preserved, the slaves were freed, the oceans were linked by the iron rails of progress. The United States enjoyed a burst of economic activity unmatched anywhere in the world, personified not just by Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan, but also by Post and Kellogg, Borden and Hershey, Heinz and Campbell, Sears and Woolworth. The consumer economy was born.

But just as the Jeffersonian westward expansion sharpened the slave question, this Hamiltonian burst of government-sponsored development changed the American agenda, and with it the balance of interests in the Republican Party. For example, the bloody toll of the Civil War and the chaotic muddle of Reconstruction revived anti-government, states-rights sentiments in the North, thus strengthening the Democrats.

More important, U.S. business had become a colossus. In fact, it was so powerful that some of the same people who had supported government protection of American business now started to believe that the government should protect people from American business. One of them, Theodore Roosevelt, became president in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley, and over the next 11 years, Roosevelt split the Republican Party. He continued to see big government as a force for national progress, thus alienating those in the GOP coalition whose main commitment was to big business.

In 1908, after his trust-busting, canal-building, federal-land-conserving presidency, Roosevelt turned the White House over to his friend William H. Taft. But T.R. came to feel that Taft was returning the party to the plutocrats, and after four years of uneasy retirement, he returned to challenge Taft in 1912. Forced to choose between them, the Republicans took the more conservative path. They nominated Taft.

"In its essence, 1912 introduced a conflict between progressive idealism . . . and conservative values," wrote James Chace in his recent history of that election. "The broken friendship between Taft and Roosevelt inflicted wounds on the Republican Party that have never been healed."

This rift paved the way for Democrats to grab the mantle of progressivism. It was, after all, high time for the Democrats to reinvent themselves. The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer was vanishing in the din and bustle of the urban and industrial future. So the party found a new future in the cities, among the working people. . . .

When the Great Depression hit, the Republicans were a disaster, and Democrats regained the upper hand in U.S. politics. Now the parties had crumbled and reformed themselves to such an extent that they had almost entirely swapped coalitions.

The New Deal Democrats of 1932 chose from the menu of enduring American either/ors: big government, high taxes, populist, frisky and French. But the trauma of the Depression was so intense that Franklin Roosevelt was to able to bring both Northern and Southern voters into the same coalition -- under an anti-big business banner. He was able to hold progressives and fundamentalists in a single uneasy alliance by delivering the balm of government assistance. FDR gave working people the right to unionize and to have unemployment insurance and worker's compensation. But he also managed to hold on to moderate business leaders by saying he was saving them from the far worse fate of socialism. No president ever enjoyed more or stranger bedfellows. . . .

. . . [O]nce the crises of the 1930s and 1940s were past, the country found itself face-to-face with the long-festering issue of racial discrimination. Without the Depression or war to hold the Democrats together, it was no longer possible to accommodate both segregationists and liberals. In 1948, the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, grabbed the Democratic convention and tugged it to embrace civil rights. When that happened, an angry group of Southern Democrats bolted from the party and nominated South Carolina's governor, Strom Thurmond, to run for president as a protest.

The complete breakup of the New Deal coalition took time, but by 1964, Thurmond had left the Democratic Party altogether, and over the next 20 years, millions of Southerners followed him. Segregation died, thankfully, as a legitimate issue, but resentment of Washington, D.C., endured. When Republican Ronald Reagan came along in the 1980s, preaching that "government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem," he achieved an electoral college landslide to match FDR's victory in 1936. Old Dixie was transformed into a stronghold for the party of Lincoln. . . .

AFTER TWO CENTURIES of assembling coalitions, watching them split, then scrambling after the pieces like children under a pinata, our parties have arrived at this moment topsy-turvy. The Republicans have morphed into the party of low taxes and limited government, the party of Reagan, pushing an agenda that is conservative both fiscally and morally -- low tax and very prim -- but more assertive internationally than at many times in its past. . . .

Will we, according to Von Drehle, have multiple parties or an age beyond political parties as Hart suggests?  His answer:

When our two major parties engage in their periodic undoing, why don't they disperse their constituencies like dandelion seeds? . . . .

. . . . Because we are Americans. Charles de Gaulle once asked why anyone could think France would unite behind a single party when the country has 200 varieties of cheese. In the United States, things are simpler. We've given the world just two varieties of cheese: the kind with individually wrapped slices and the kind where the slices stick together. We're binary people: Coke vs. Pepsi, boxers vs. briefs, Ruben Studdard vs. Clay Aiken.

This either/or outlook has significantly shaped our politics. The most obvious example is North vs. South. We fought our bloodiest war over this one, and it is still with us, in important ways. But there are others: big government vs. small government, high taxes vs. low taxes, city vs. country, big business vs. populist. . . .

I wonder what the future holds and whether we're in for a major shake-up with our political parties.  I wonder if that time is near.  Both Hart and Von Drehle seem to think it is. 

Posted by Daniel Solove on June 23, 2005 at 03:04 AM in Daniel Solove, Law and Politics | Permalink


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CT --

It's not a game theory analysis (though there is some game theory in the paper) but my forthcoming paper, "'Politics as Markets' Reconsidered: Natural Monopolies, Competitive Democratic Philosophy and Primary Ballot Access in American Elections" (Supreme Court Economic Review) makes the argument you mention in your 3rd point. It argues that having two parties is the not only the most likely result of using a first-past-the-post/single-member district election system, but it also the most efficient. It then uses ideas of natural monopoly regulation to analyze several Supreme Court cases on primary ballot access laws.

If you're interested, you can find it at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=740304.

Posted by: David Schleicher | Jun 24, 2005 10:36:10 AM

With apologies to Mr. Leiter for pseudonymous commenting:

Three observations. First, the trivial:

(1) Hart's arguments give the lie to his "end of (bipolar partisan political) history" rhetoric. He may be criticizing Democrats obliquely for what he sees as their current aimlessness and special-interest pandering, but he's still playing a zero-sum, two-party game: There are Democrats and there are Republicans -- let's have more of the former and fewer of the latter, please.

Look at his prose. Former Democrats (traditional liberals, labor, minorities, women, environmentalists, and internationalists) are nobly confused, waiting expectantly while a now-amorphous party again coalesces around their purity. By contrast, today's Republican Party is well-defined, if only in gross caricature. Its nobility clearly a thing of the past, Hart's current GOP is now characterized by, well, four paragraphs of, umm, less than complimentary description.

Being neither Democrat nor Republican, I don't have dog in this fight, but I saw Hart's piece as a sermon directed half at "fixing" the Democrats, and half at recruiting the disaffected "old Republicans" to a reinvented Democratic Party. He makes a few interesting points here and there, and he's right about some of the massive structural changes we're undergoing, but he's just trolling for converts, more or less. It's a roadmap for Democrats, not a genuine suggestion that everyone will someday be their own political party.

(2) Isn't Hart's lionization of the Founders just a little bit of a whitewash? No real political parties until the 1890s? Change the "8" to the "7" and maybe I'd go along with him.

More importantly, as to the Von Drehle piece and your comments:

(3) While the "binary people" thing is overblown, I think Von Drehle is right in that we are fundamentally a two-party society. I'm less convinced that it's a "national character" issue, though, except on the path-dependence/"we've always done it that way" margins. The bipolar/multipolar difference between the U.S. and most of Europe, for example, may be the inevitable result of plugging similar (but by no means identical) underlying values into different forms of representative government. In particular, I think a good public choice economist could show (or has shown -- I certainly haven't read everything out there) that a two-party power structure is at least a Nash equilibrium state (and may be a dominant equilibrium) in a system set up like ours. The tenuous link between control of the legislative and executive branches may well produce incentives toward a two-party world, with intra-party compromise pareto-superior to multiparty factionalization for most constituencies. Cf. parliamentary systems, where the executive is determined by legislative majority choice. There also may be some path-dependence at work here, but either way, I think we're sticking with the two-party system for a while longer.

As for realignment, I think it's probably coming, too. Some of it is probably just wishful thinking on my part -- can't we have a party that looks more or less like ME? -- but Von Drehle's arguments are pretty compelling, and the unravelling may already have begun in both major parties.

One interesting issue that is somewhat buried in Von Drehle's article but that bears direct mention: To some extent, context drives viewpoint. In other words, it's a mistake to look at our history of occasional seismic shifts as nothing more than periodic and pragmatic realignments of existing constituencies -- the simple reassembly of the same component parts into different two-element combinations over time. Instead, people's attitudes and priorities shift over time and are context-dependent (Von Drehle's Teddy Roosevelt, for example). Reorderings may be at least in part attributable to internal changes within individuals.


Posted by: Chinaberry Tree | Jun 23, 2005 5:58:19 PM

There is one possible re-alignment: the merger of the Democratic party with religious voters. The Dems wouldn't have to take all of the religious right, but if it could pick off moderate social conservatives and religious liberals, it could form a giant anti-business, anti-consumerism coalition.

Dems don't realize that the religious agenda is actually mostly compatible with Democratic ideals. The Bible is very supportive of efforts to end poverty; Jesus was somewhat of a socialist. Christian gruops are heavily involved in human rights activism. Christians are even coming around to combat climate change (they call it, somewhat weirdly, "creation care") and other environmental problems.

Dems would have to stomach some stuff that they don't like, including some element of intolerance for gays, a weakened or reversed position on abortion, and perhaps some kind of support for a version of school prayer.

But think about it this way. The forces of economic conservatism in America are always stronger than those of economic progressivism. The only victories that economic progressivism has had have come during periods, like the Great Depression, in which the Democratic party has been able to muster overwhelming popular support. This support is necessary because of the sheer power than organized money can bear on the U.S. political system. Because of this power, the Dems can't just have a numerical advantage, as they do today, when numerical majorities actually support more Democratic than Republican positions. The support must also have a large degree of intensity. Dems need highly devoted people that will go out and bring the party its populist support. In the past, labor unions filled this roll. Today, however, the religious right (especially right-to-lifers) has become the most intense, politically devoted group in American politics today. Dems need to figure out a way to co-opt it.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Jun 23, 2005 5:35:29 PM

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