Political Party Trajectories in the United States

Political PartyThe trajectory of each political party in the United States depends on a variety of factors. Some involve factors outside their control, but others involve decisions and strategies made over long periods of time. E.E. Schattschneider offered an important analysis of American politics in 1960 in his classic work The Semi-Sovereign People. Justin Kempf reflects on this analysis to consider the current trajectories of the Republican and Democratic Parties of today.

Political Party Stability and Equilibrium

American politics has developed a sophisticated equilibrium over the past thirty years. Presidential elections are close in the popular vote and electoral college. The last real landslide was 1984 when Reagan won 58.8% of the vote and carried every state except Minnesota. Moreover, the House and the Senate are within range of either political party every two years. 

The peculiarities of the American political system disguise an imbalance in the political environment. The Republicans have won the popular vote for the Presidency just once in the past thirty years. Moreover, Republicans hold electoral advantages in the House and the Senate. Some of the imbalance in the House is from gerrymandered districts, but the disproportionate concentration of Democrats in urban areas has given them a disadvantage even when districts are fairly drawn. The Senate map is designed to give an advantage to rural voters so Republicans have a natural advantage so long as the urban-rural divide is the primary cleavage in the American electorate. 

Many pundits and analysts predict demographics give Democrats a growing advantage as the country transitions to a minority majority electorate. But these predictions assume a fixed divide in the racial composition of the parties. They fail to consider how the political attitudes of Latinos or African Americans may evolve over time. Moreover, they fail to consider how subgroups within these communities may consider their own sense of identity. The past election surprised many analysts as Republicans won an increasing share of both groups despite racially divisive language. 

Sources of Change for Either Political Party

Demographics offer a pathway to consider political change, but it largely assumes fixed forms of political identities. It ignores how the electoral maps have changed over American history. Some change certainly comes from demographics, but the greatest changes have come from transformations in political identity. African Americans, for example, largely identified as Republicans in the nineteenth century. But after the abolition of slavery, the Republican Party lost interest in the plight of African Americans. Still the Democrats were not a viable option because they were the political party of the former slaveholding class. Nonetheless, Frederick Douglass notes how some African Americans had already begun to drift away from the Republican Party not long after the Civil War. 

African Americans made a significant shift in their political allegiances during Roosevelt’s New Deal based on an appealing economic agenda. The Great Migration also gave African Americans a different view of Democrats and Republicans in the North. Nonetheless, the Republican Party continued to hold about a 30% share of the African American vote and was even as high as 39% as late as 1956. But after the Democrats embraced a Civil Rights agenda in the 1960s and the Republicans began an explicit Southern Strategy, Republican support from African Americans fell below 20% and has never recovered. 

Partisan Realignment in the South

The transformation of the Solid South from a key constituency of the Democrats to the Republicans took just as long. Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson is said to have whispered that the Democrats had lost the South for a generation. Yet between 1968 and 2008, the only Democrats to win the Presidency came from Southern states. Indeed, Humphrey carried Texas in the 1968 Presidential election and Jimmy Carter won every Southern state except Virginia in 1976. As late as 1996, Bill Clinton won both Louisiana and Arkansas. 

Today the South is considered an impenetrable Republican stronghold. The few Southern states where Democrats win are part of “The New South.” Northern Virginia has more in common with Washington, D.C. than its traditional southern neighbors, Georgia has been transformed by the dramatic growth of Atlanta and North Carolina’s many mid-sized cities give it the potential to become a swing state, but it still leans Republican. The rest of the South changed its partisan identity over a period lasting more than a quarter of a century. 

It is important to note the length of time it takes for partisan identity to change. Some elections represent watersheds. The 1964 Presidential election marked a shift of support for African Americans, but the change had begun over thirty years earlier. Moreover, the 1972 election may have represented a realignment in Southern politics at the Presidential level, but the process opened up as early as Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 and was not close to complete until Republicans won the House in 1994. 

A New Realignment

The 2016 Presidential election marked the culmination of the previous political realignment and the birth of a new one. Republicans and Democrats have worked the current political alignment to a draw. Any given election offers the possibility for either political party to take the Presidency, the House, or even the Senate. It represents a political era distinct from the past when either Republicans or Democrats dominated the political scene. Republicans dominated Presidential elections from 1860 until 1932 until the New Deal coalition shifted the tide toward the Democrats who controlled the House from 1955 until 1994. In fact, Republicans controlled the House just twice between 1932 and 1994. 

Partisan politics in the United States has come to an uneasy equilibrium that has cemented a fixed sense of political identities. Race plays a central role in American politics, but the rural-urban divide answers some central questions about political interests. Throughout most of American history, the Democrats were the political party of farmers. Today few farmers can imagine giving their vote to a Democrat. A lot more than racial or cultural issues are at play in this dramatic realignment of political interests. The difference between Democrats and Republicans revolves around central questions about the role, size, and scope of government. Urban communities naturally need greater investments from the government. Moreover, investments in public goods have greater impacts in communities with higher population densities. For example, a new road is travelled more often in a dense urban community than a remote rural area even though they may cost the same. 

Big Government and the Rural Voter

As Democrats became branded as the political party of big government, rural Americans saw their interests diverge from the Democrats and align with the Republican political agenda. Rural voters naturally perceive government programs disproportionately benefit city dwellers, but everyone is taxed the same on their income albeit at different rates. So rural Americans are leery of government programs because there is a natural assumption they represent a shift of resources out of their communities.

It is natural to believe Democrats can win these voters if they can design government programs to benefit rural communities. The New Deal programs of the 1930s saw the need to deliver public goods for rural communities. Electrification, for example, was a major issue in the South and the West. The Tennessee Valley Authority was an effort to create electrification for communities where the market was hesitant to provide it. Moreover, Lyndon Johnson worked with the Roosevelt administration to provide electrification for the Texas Hill Country. 

Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine Democrats shifting their economic agenda in a manner to disproportionately benefit rural America. It is more likely Republicans will reshape their own agendas to deliver public goods like health care and high speed internet for communities traditionally left behind. While it is hard to imagine Republicans supporting any government programs today, its increasing focus on rural communities may make this evolution inevitable. The current alliance between rural and business interests is fundamentally unstable especially as economic and political dynamics continue to evolve and change. 

Why Cities Lose

Johnathan Rodden has emphasized the challenge for left-wing political parties in single member district constituencies. Alongside Lee Drutman, they believe it is necessary to move toward a proportional representation system to break the polarized political environment. However, Rodden’s analysis assumes a natural alliance between the suburbia and the countryside. Recent elections have shown the suburbs have begun a long transition towards an alliance with urban interests. 

The suburbs represent a middle class between urban and rural voters. They desire the services and amenities cities provide, but want low taxes at the same time. In this manner, they behave as swing voters that can determine electoral outcomes. But because cities have long been considered the source of radical politics, the suburbs have typically leaned Republican. Cities represent a different sense of cultural values and norms that are closer to cosmopolitan attitudes than the traditional or parochial attitudes in the countryside. The suburbs are a bridge between these two worlds. Its residents are more cosmopolitan, but are weary of the more radical solutions city dwellers propose. Part of the difference is, of course, due to differences in class and race. Nonetheless, suburbanites consider themselves moderates in both social and economic policy. 

Limits of Neoliberalism

The radicalization of rural interests has changed the political calculus for both parties. My focus here is on the American political climate, but the radicalization of rural interests is also apparent in the Brexit outcome in the UK and the Gllet Jaunes movement in France. Rural interests have become increasingly radicalized as the divide between cosmopolitan and parochial values and priorities have grown. Moreover, the neoliberal political vision has reached its limits as governments find the easy reforms through privatization and deregulation have been achieved. In addition, greater demands for government solutions due to environmental change and globalization have exposed weaknesses in existing state capacity. 

Reagan and Thatcher brought about a reexamination of government programs. They offered an opportunity to abandon ineffective government solutions, but there was always a limit to how far their movement could progress. Once taxes are cut, regulations are repealed, and every government service is privatized, nothing is left to accomplish. Obviously conservatives fell far short of dismantling the entire apparatus of government, but they pushed past the point of diminishing returns long ago. 

The suburbs now face the uncomfortable realization that the time has come to reconstruct a greater role for government once again. Indeed, the interests of the affluent have always relied to some degree on a role for government. The development of greater infrastructure now seems less radical than the creative destruction Republicans continue to demand. Moreover, the interests of the suburbs have become increasingly aligned with the health and prosperity of cities over time. This realignment in interests have opened the possibility for a gradual shift in support from the suburbs away from Republicans and toward the Democrats. 

A New Political Dimension

Schattschneider offers an interesting analysis as the American electorate faces another long period of realignment of its politics. He viewed the realm of politics as a sphere where an infinite number of cleavages were possible. Some divide the political community equally, but others are unequal. Political strategists look to redefine the public sphere along political dimensions favorable to their constituency. Politics naturally converges along dimensions where both sides are divided equally, but a shift in the cleavage can allow one political party to obtain an advantage. Reagan seized an advantage through a redefinition of the political dimension towards areas where government performed poorly and liberalization had tangible benefits. But this dimensions has been largely played out. The shift in political support toward the Democrats is more than a change in demographics. It reflects a shift in attitudes in identity and economic policy. 

The need to deliver greater services in areas like health care, infrastructure, and a broader social safety net have gained broader support with each subsequent election. Republicans have remained competitive through repeated challenges to specific proposals, an emphasis on racial and cultural issues, and a willingness to accept greater government involvement in areas like trade and immigration. Nonetheless, the Democrats have been the winners in this political realignment. Despite the ability of Republicans to compete in Presidential politics, Democrats have consolidated their hold on the popular vote.

Republicans Abandon Democracy

Nonetheless, Republicans have found little reason to readjust despite dwindling political support. Instead, the radicalization of rural interests have isolated their electorate into strongholds where they are guaranteed to win. Republicans can retain a grip on power so long as their support is efficiently allocated across states. But this strategy risks setting Republicans back a generation. The majority coalition of the Democrats will likely overtake new states unless Republicans recalibrate their message and strategy. A shift of a state like Texas could keep the Presidency out of reach from Republicans for a generation. 

Republicans seem aware of the dangers in their strategy, because they have looked to lock in their electoral advantages in states through changes in voting and districting. Gerrymandered congressional districts reflect an explicit strategy to remain competitive despite a dwindling vote share. Indeed, it allows them to deliver wins despite their focus on an even smaller part of the population. Changes in voting laws are another avenue to cement Republican victories and policies despite a growing dissatisfaction of the American people. Trump’s effort to overturn the election is just another anti-democratic turn from the Republican Party that culminated in the storming of the capital on January 6th. 

Lessons from the 1890s for a Political Party

The tumultuous politics of the 1890s offers a haunting parallel to the politics of today. In 1898 white supremacists seized power in Wilmington, North Carolina from legitimately elected officeholders and forced the Republican governor to implement voting restrictions and policies of racial segregation. Despite the end of reconstruction in 1876, the era of Jim Crowe did not take full effect until the 1890s. Schattschneider recognizes this undemocratic turn was broader than an effort to disenfranchise African Americans. The South disenfranchised many white voters alongside nearly all African Americans. The total vote in Southern states was cut in half from the election in 1884 to 1904.

The 1890s marked the reemergence of the solid South. It had largely voted Democratic at the Presidential level, but it now consolidated formal one party rule. And yet, the dominance of Democrats in the South undermined its influence on the national level. Republicans largely controlled Congress from 1895 until the New Deal era. Indeed, Democrats made gains only when the more liberal wing of its party predominated. The conservatism of the South was toxic in national politics. Schattschneider even goes so far to argue the South chose regional hegemony over national competitiveness. 

A Devil’s Bargain

The Republican Party today is making a similar choice. They have adapted their appeal to win an efficient sliver of the American electorate where they can thread the needle to victory. The electoral strategy in 2020 abandoned any effort to appeal to an outright majority. Moreover, efforts to curtail voting rights and gerrymander districts are designed to ensure their competitiveness without a realistic claim to a majority of the electorate. Democrats, on the other hand, have worked to broaden the electorate. And they have shifted the responsibility of designing electoral maps to nonpartisan commissions. They continue to expose their party to electoral competition. It has opened opportunities for Republicans to win Governorships in blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont. But it will also keeps Democrats competitive through regular elections. 

Yet Schattschneider’s analysis implies the Republican Party risks harming its electoral chances the more it departs from majoritarian politics. The electoral dominance of the Republican Party in the early twentieth century came from its willingness to expose itself to competitive elections. The Democrats, by contrast, struggled to compete because it relied on the one-party system in the South to remain relevant. It reestablished itself through the ostracization of Southern Democrats at the national level. 

Political Party Competition

American political parties may face a similar realignment where the Democratic Party dominates national politics for the foreseeable future. The more Republicans embrace undemocratic norms and laws, the less competitive it will become. Its policies will cater to a smaller and smaller part of the electorate. It is ironic how the political party of economic competition has abandoned its faith in electoral competition. 

The fate of American democracy is likely in the hands of the current generation. The decisions over the next twenty years will determine the direction of American politics. Democrats look poised to win the support of larger majorities. Republicans, on the other hand, look to retain their influence through technicalities and institutions which preserve minoritarian governance. History has shown which is the better electoral strategy. 

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