Our Two-Party System Isn’t Going Anywhere

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Is the Republican party dead? Has it changed irrevocably, for better or for worse, into something completely unrecognizable? Is it destined to defeat at the hands of a permanent Democratic majority? Michael Barone is here to tell you that we’ve heard this all before, and we should not be so hasty in projecting present trends to continue indefinitely. The seesaw rivalry of our two-party system probably isn’t going away. Observers half a century from now will probably still see Republican and Democratic parties that bear many of the same characteristics that have defined each party since the middle of the 19th century.

In How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t), a slim 118-page volume adapted from a series of lectures, Barone draws on his decades of analysis of the American political scene, his nearly bottomless well of granular knowledge of American political geography, and the more detailed analyses laid out in his multiple previous books. The result is a long-term narrative portrait of our two major parties, now both over 150 years old. The Democrats and the Republicans are, in Barone’s estimation, respectively the oldest and third-oldest political parties in the world (assuming you credit his tracing of the birth of the Democrats to their 1832 convention and the birth of the British Conservative party to the 1846 rebellion against the repeal of the Corn Laws).

In Barone’s telling, “America’s two political parties have maintained, over their astonishingly long lifespans, their basic character, their political DNA.” As he defines the central divide:

The Republican Party has always been formed around a core of people who are considered, by themselves and others, to be typical Americans, although they are never by themselves a majority: northern Protestants in the nineteenth century, married white people in the twenty-first. The Democratic Party has always been a combination, a coalition, of people who are not thought of, by themselves or others, as typical Americans, but who together often form a majority: Southern slaveholders and big–city Catholics in the nineteenth century, churchgoing and urban blacks and affluent urban and suburban liberals in the twenty-first.

The result is that Republicans, having more in common with each other, have a more cohesive identity but face a persistent struggle to broaden their appeal, while Democratic coalitions tend to be more unstable. Republican coalitions, during any period of the party’s success, have always included some groups that were plainly outsiders: black freedmen in the 1870s, Mormons in the Progressive era, Cuban refugees in the 1980s. Democratic fissures, of course, have often included fights over race, but Barone also notes the party’s historical divisions over foreign wars, Prohibition, labor unions, and big government.

Shifts in demographics, changes in the issue environment, and major events (wars, depressions) have forced each party to adapt and adapt again to hold coalitions together when in power and claw their way back to equilibrium when out of it. One product of these continual adaptations, reinforced by winner-take-all elections, is that American third parties only rarely break through at any level and are never able to establish themselves as long-term viable alternatives. Barone notes the rise to power of the Labour party in Britain, and other socialist-leaning workers’ parties across the Western world, in the early decades of the 20th century, but in the U.S., even the shattering impact of the Great Depression only increased the Socialist party’s vote from 0.7 percent in 1928 to 2.2 percent in 1932.

Looking at politics persistently from the bottom-up perspective of the voters, Barone gives relatively short shrift to ideology, as opposed to broad tendencies. He notes, as one example of adaptation, that the Republicans were the national-oriented party of a more active federal government from the 1850s into the 20th century but have shifted to the party we know today, a supporter of states’ rights and an opponent of federal overreach. But there is more ideological continuity than change in Republican history; what looks like a shift is more a reflection of the Democrats’ veering wildly from the Jacksonian extreme of localism and strict limitation of federal power to the modern Wilsonian administrative and judicial Leviathan. Few even among today’s most conservative Republicans actually oppose many of the federal powers championed and exercised by the party of Lincoln and Grant. The party’s Lockean core ideology, built around economic self-reliance and the right of every man to keep the fruits of what he earns, runs through every generation of Republican rhetoric, agendas, and platforms. But so does a persistent tendency toward American nationalism and Christian moralism.

In narrating the long realignment of the two parties into more ideologically sorted parties of conservatives and liberals — a realignment that, he notes, was long wished for by political scientists and reformers, and horrifies them now that it has arrived — Barone notes the role of negative partisanship. Liberal Republicans joined the Democrats as they witnessed the declining influence of people those liberals disliked: Southern segregationists, old-style urban machines, union bosses. Conservative Democrats joined the Republicans as memories of the Civil War faded, but most slowly along the line of Sherman’s march. The question Barone does not attempt to forecast is whether, having sorted themselves in this way, the two parties will lose some of the fluid adaptability of their past. But his reading of the 2016 election as a Republican adaptation to the trade and foreign-policy traditions of the Midwest suggests that they have not.

Barone pushes back on two popular liberal narratives. The first is the New Deal–era view of liberal Democrats as the natural majority party. He lays out the argument that the Republican dominance of the 1920s was every bit as thoroughgoing as the Democratic dominance of the 1930s and illustrates the extent to which conservative Southern Democrats were already leaving their party’s governing coalition (though not the party itself) from the late 1930s on. The resilience of the Democrats after the disasters of the 1920s and of the Republicans after the disasters of the 1930s both illustrate his thesis that the two parties are not so easily finished off.

The second is the modern progressive tendency to retell all of America’s nationwide partisan history solely through the lens of race relations in the South. Barone emphasizes the long timeline of Republican inroads into the South, such as Dwight Eisenhower’s drawing more popular support in the region than Goldwater, as well as the deep ancestral roots of Republican support in some parts of the upper South. While not overlooking the role of race, Barone emphasizes in particular the shift of the Democrats — the more hawkish of the two parties between 1917 and 1967 — in a dovish direction on foreign policy, which helped them in the Upper Midwest (which provided most of the votes against American entry into World War I) but put the party severely out of step with the South. The primacy of foreign policy in partisan realignment goes a ways to explain why the South leaned Republican at the presidential level for decades before it shifted at the local level. He also details the long pedigree of Republican support for the rural side of intrastate rural–urban fights over drawing legislative districts in the North.

The freshest and most interesting part of the book is the concluding chapter, with its overview of the Midwest’s distinctive political history, from the Northwest Ordinance to its “blue wall” support for Barack Obama and its abrupt shift in 2016 to Donald Trump. That discussion suggests one of the major tensions within Trump’s coalition, between the traditionally hawkish South and the traditionally anti-interventionist Midwest. The tension was on full display last week. On the one hand, Trump has risen in the polls in Wisconsin while he seeks to frame the House impeachment inquiry as a confrontation with the internationalist foreign-policy establishment’s diplomats and national-security professionals. At the same time, the military brass is visibly uneasy at Trump’s issuing pardons to soldiers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whether Trump can square the circle of presenting himself as simultaneously a take-no-prisoners hawk and an anti-“neocon” dove is exactly the sort of question that Barone asks us to consider through the lens of America’s regional and partisan history.

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