Outline of the Chapter
- The Constitution and American Elections: The Separation of Powers
- American Political Parties and Party Systems: Ideas, Organization, Context
- The First Party System? Federalists versus Jeffersonian Democrats, from the Founding to the Era of Good Feelings (1790-1824)
- The Second Party System: Whigs vs. Democrats (1828-1854)
- Interlude: The Spatial Theory of Party Competition, Duverger’s Law, and the Role of Third Parties in American Political Development
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, The Gilded Age, and The Third Party System (1860-1894)
- The Fourth Party System: The Progressive/”Industrial Republican” Era (1896-1932)
- The Fifth Party System and The New Deal Coalition; From the Great Depression to the Great Society: 1932-1968
- The Sixth Party System? Political Parties, Elections, and the Era of Polarization 1968-2016
I. The Constitution, American Elections, and The Separation of Powers↑
Political parties are a type of organization. Organizations are groups of individuals united by shared goals or tasks; while some organizations have relatively straightforward goals, the various goals of political parties are often in tension with one another. The central goal of most political parties in democratic societies is to achieve political power by winning elections. If your organization has no interest in running in elections at all, it might be an interest group, a club, or a revolutionary cult; but it is not a political party. In addition to the desire for political power, parties are motivated by ideas about the common good, and the various policies that will advance the common good. Party activists and leaders usually think these policy goals will serve the public interest, though it would not be excessively cynical to note that human beings have a tendency to conflate “the common good” with their own self-interest. Any given political party will contain a complex, ever-shifting balance between the desire for power and the desire to implement or defend certain policies. For instance, both the Canadian federal Conservative Party and the federal Liberal Party regard power as the ultimate desideratum, and thus the political ideologies and policy priorities of these parties tend to shift over time; the Green Party, in contrast, hopes to shift the public conversation about environmental policy—the Greens would like to win seats in Parliament, but they are not focussed on winning a parliamentary majority, or even on maximizing their own seats, but are instead motivated by the ideology of environmentalism. Thus, while all parties differ in how they balance the two competing considerations, they all face a tension between the connected but competing goals of power and policy. Stated differently, all parties are motivated by a mixture of interests and ideas.
The tension between the goals of “achieving power” and “implementing policy” has always been part of American political life, but it is particularly prominent in the contemporary political era. This is for a simple reason: party elites, defined broadly to include not only office holders, but also the most politically active elements of the public, are in some ways more divided by ideology than at any other period in American history. Yet in order to win elections, parties must still find ways to appeal to voters who may not share the same ideological priorities.
If we think about the increasing ideological divergence between party elites in the United States and elsewhere, we might be more sympathetic to those Framers who hoped that the power of parties could be limited by the structure of the Constitution. Obviously, whatever the hopes of the founding generation, the Constitution did not prevent political parties from becoming a crucial element of American politics. Yet even though the Constitution did not prevent parties from emerging, the Constitutional structure would shape how parties operate.
The Constitution influences how American political parties function in numerous ways, but no influence is more significant than the separate election of the President and the Congress. In the Canadian parliamentary system of government, citizens vote for members of the House of Commons— the Prime Minister is not elected by the votes of Canadian citizens in general, but is instead “chosen” by whichever party (or group of parties) is able to command a majority after a general election. Under most circumstances, the Prime Minister and his or her government can only maintain power if they are able to command the support of a majority of the House of Commons. This institutional feature of the Parliamentary system makes party discipline particularly significant in Canadian politics, as in all other parliamentary regimes.1 It is important to keep this simple fact in mind, in order to understand how institutions shape the character of political parties. While the power of the Prime Minister is based upon their ability to command majorities in the legislature, the American President’s tenure of office does not depend upon the support of the legislature2. Instead, the President is selected, for a defined term of office, through the votes of the “electoral college.” Under this system, every state in the Union is given a number of votes in the electoral college equal to its total number of Representatives and Senators in Congress. Whoever wins the largest number of votes3 in the electoral college becomes the President—and that person remains President until the next election, as long as they avoid being removed by Congress through the impeachment process, and as long as they avoid illness, death, and assassination.
This system of Presidential selection would have an enormous impact of on the organization of political parties. The American constitutional system, because it makes the chief executive independent of the legislative branch, makes party discipline far less significant in the American political order than in parliamentary systems. In particular, the institutional structure that separates the executive branch from the legislative branch makes American political parties, as organizations, more susceptible to public influence. Political parties in Canada are like private clubs and American political parties are more like public utilities, because in comparison with the Canadian public, the American public plays a far greater role in choosing candidates for political office. This has an important additional consequence: because the party system in the United States is relatively “open,” insurgent social forces have an incentive to channel ideological discontent into the existing party structures, as opposed to creating new political parties. As a result, American political parties have had a tendency, over time, to be more faction-ridden (or, if you prefer, they harbor more ideological diversity), whereas Canadian parties, relatively immune to direct popular control, have caused the discontented to form their own, alternative political organizations. Thus, while the “first past the post” electoral system that both countries share has the effect of reducing the number of viable parties, the Canadian system has had a three party (and even a “multi-party”) system for most of its existence. In contrast, the USA has had a mostly stable two party system for most of its political history. While some might claim that these differences are caused by sociological factors, the differences between Canadian and American institutions seems a far more likely explanation.
Let us consider the electoral college in more detail. Under the original Constitutional system of Presidential selection, the states were free to determine their “electors” in whatever manner they saw fit. Today most states assign electoral college votes based upon a “winner take all” popular election in the state as a whole; Maine and Nebraska assign electoral college votes based upon a district system. We should note that the electors in the electoral college were intended to be independent of the state governments, and even independent of state voters. Under the original system, states chose how the electors are selected, yet neither the states nor the people can legally constrain how the electors vote.4 From the Framers’ perspective, the general public lacked the kind of knowledge necessary to choose a suitable chief executive.5 But just as importantly, the Framers hoped that the President, by virtue of being selected by an independent group of (hopefully) respected and intelligent individuals, would be able to transcend the economic, regional, and cultural conflicts that would, of necessity, characterize Congressional politics. In other words, the President was to be both separate from and independent of “normal” politics; the Framers hoped the President would embody the common political interests of the nation as a whole, and that the President would regard his duty to the country and the Constitution to be more important that any attachment to a party or faction.
How do we know that the Framers of the Constitution expected the President to transcend ordinary political conflicts? Consider the original mode of selection for the Vice President: Article II, Section I, Paragraph 3: “The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed… after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice-President.” In other words, they did not think the contest for the Presidency would be partisan! The “loser” should be number 2 in line to the Presidency; had this practice been maintained, we would now have President Trump and Vice President Clinton.
The founders may have hoped that Presidents would rise above the disputes of politics in order to implement the law, unify the nation, and defend the Constitutional order, in a manner that would make the President more like a monarch or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court than a typical political operative. This proved to be impossible —the powers given to the President, particularly in the legislative process, made it very difficult for the President to transcend partisan political conflict. Furthermore, ideological differences emerged that could not be easily ameliorated through calm discussion and calculated bargaining. The hatred and heated passion that we associate with contemporary partisan politics was present from the beginning of the American Constitutional order, though we should also note that the strength of partisanship, or the “degree of political polarization” amongst elites and the public does wax and wane. The contentious period of the 1790s was followed by close to three decades of one-party dominance in American national politics. Though the nature of partisanship would change, the Presidency always remained politicized, contrary to the expectations of the Framers.
The notion that the Presidency and the Executive branch could transcend partisan squabbles was evident in the administration of President George Washington. Washington was spared the indignity of actually having to campaign for office due to the nearly universal reverence he received from Americans of all stations. In addition, Washington did not attempt to ally himself within any particular political faction, as can be seen in his selection of cabinet officials— the arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton served as his Secretary of the Treasury, while Thomas Jefferson would serve as Washington’s secretary of state. Yet as ideological differences coalesced into clearer partisan factions over the course of the 1790s, the Presidency would not be able to transcend the political divisions of the nation.
II. American Political Parties and Party Systems: Ideas, Organization, Context↑
To understand political parties, we must consider the substantive goals they pursue, the means they use to pursue those goals, and the broader environment in which they operate. Stated differently, we need to consider ideas, organization, and “context” in order to understand parties. The relationship between parties and political ideology is of course complex; sometimes parties stand for a relatively coherent and even comprehensive set of principles, sometimes parties are composed of eclectic and even hostile factions, united by only a very narrow range of commitments; sometimes the major parties represent clear political alternatives, and sometimes the parties seem ideologically indistinct. Party organization has two key elements: the means of selecting candidates (an issue of crucial importance), and the means of recruiting and supporting the party elites who oversee the party organization and engage in the work of campaigning. Context is an imprecise concept, obviously; but for parties, context refers to the demographic features of their electoral supporters (where do their supporters come from? what voters are open to their appeals?), the means of communication that allow them to reach the voters (or acquire the resources necessary to mobilize and influence voters), and the other groups and organizations that attempt to shape public consciousness and the electoral process.
Over the course of American political history, the patterns of party ideology, organization, and “context” (e.g. the demographic-geographic patterns of party support, the main technologies of communication related to election campaigns, the role played by non-party groups and organizations in the electoral process) form a series of distinct periods or “alignments”—at least, this is one of the main ways of viewing the development of the American party system. The distinctions between periods are not always exact, and changes along some dimensions from one alignment to the next are not always stark—for instance, party coalitions change without corresponding changes in party ideology and party organization. By considering the differences between political alignments in American history, we can consider how the relatively unchanging institutional structure relates to the ever-changing character of American society.
Let us consider our three different perspectives on parties in a little more detail.
Party Systems (the Context of Political Conflict): Coalitions-Demographics-Regions-Strength
Parties can be considered from the perspective of their supporters—what kind of people typically support one party or another, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, sex? How does party support vary by region? Given the patterns of party support, what kinds of challenges do the parties face in managing and expanding their own electoral coalitions? Given the demographic-geographic components of party support, how much influence do short term factors— such as the state of the economy, the choices of political leaders, international events, and so on—have on electoral outcomes?
Party Organization: Candidate Selection, Communication Technology, Mode of Campaigning
The struggle to “democratize” the nomination process has been a central theme in the development of the American party system; in general, the power of parties (particularly party elites) to determine electoral candidates has declined, but each step in the reform process (from elite selection in the caucus system, to selection through the convention system, to the mixed system that characterized much of the 20th century, to the primary system that was only fully institutionalized at the national level by the 1970s) has created new sources of discontent. National party organization in the USA has evolved in four basic stages:
- The Patrician Era (First Party System): an early, elite-dominated process in which national officials played a major role in Presidential selection (from when the Constitution was adopted until approximately 1828) Political communication is relatively constricted, though an emerging partisan press is starting to reach a wider audience.
- The Jacksonian Model (Second and Third Party System): between the 1820s and approximately the 1880s, in which party organization was a “bottom-up” affair dominated by local and state party insiders. Political communication is dominated by a partisan press; political campaigning is raucous and “labour intensive,” characterized by mass public demonstrations and parades. Parties help maintain the support of “party regulars” through a system of government patronage.
- Late 19th and Early 20th Century (Fourth Party System): nationalizing trends enabled by new forms of communication technology are combined with individualizing trends (in particular, the direct primary election) which undercuts the influence of state and local party organizations. An independent press, characterized by official non-partisanship and professional journalistic standards, starts to play a more prominent role in campaigning. New forms of communication and technology (e.g. telegraphs and railroads) enable national candidates to conduct more ambitious political campaigns.
- Mid-Twentieth Century- Present (Fifth and Sixth Party Systems): Selection through party primaries is extended through all national offices, including the Presidency, by 1972. Party organization is to a large extent eclipsed by the role of individual campaign organizations and interest groups. New modes of communication create a post-modern mass media environment.
Table 4.1: Party Systems in the USA
|Era/ Major Parties||Party Ideology||Party Organization||Party Geography/Context||Transforming Crisis?|
|First Party System Jeffersonian Era 1800-1824||Republican-Democratic Party: “Individualist Egalitarianism” Federalists “Hierarchical Individualism”||Patrician Era—rudimentary organization, limited mobilization||Federalists are influential in NE/Mid-Atlantic; post-1800= “one party rule”||Rise of western frontier states, public mobilization, reaction against eastern elites (1824 election)|
|Second Party System: Jacksonian Era 1824-1852||6Democrats: Individualist Egalitarianism “Jeffersonian” Whigs: Hierarchical Individualism||Mass Politics State and Local orgs. predominate Campaigning||Both parties are competitive in most regions||Slavery ; third-party challenge|
|Third Party System: The Gilded Age 1860-1896||Republicans: Hierarchical Individualist “Nationalism”Democrats: Jeffersonian||Continuity with Jacksonian Era Era of the “party machines” National party power emerges slowly||Electoral strength of the parties more or less even REGIONAL differences emerge: GOP rooted inNorth East and Mid-West, Democrats in South and West||Populist and Progressive challenge to established economic beliefs; thirdparty challenge fails, but decisively influences both parties|
|Fourth Party System: Industrial Republican/Progressive Era 1896-1932||Republicans: Nationalist-Progressive Democrats: Populist-Progressive- Ascriptive Hierarchy||Transformative Era: direct primaries, independent press, campaign finance, mass media||(Complicated: regional patterns of support are quite volatile, outside of the Democrat-leaning “Solid South”)||The Great Depression|
|Fifth Party System: New Deal Coalition 1932-1968 (||Democrats: Populist-Progressive Republicans: Neo-Liberal Moderates to New Right||Decline in party organizational strength Patronage channelled through the State Incumbency Advantage in Congress||The Democratic Party begins to move North. The GOP: complicated transformation as party shifts from moderate, north eastern base to “New Right” in the South, Mid-West, Plains, Mountain West||Civil Rights, Social Change, Vietnam and Foreign Policy|
|Sixth Party System: Divided Government/ New Republican Era 1968-2016?||Democrats: Progressive “Universalist” Republicans: Neo-conservative “New Right”||Candidate centered campaigning New Media Campaign Finance and “Capital Intensive” politics||Coast vs. Interior/South Cultural and Ethnic Divisions Religion Marriage Gap||Foreign Policy? Economic Policy? Courts and Cultural Issues?|
Understanding party ideology in American politics is difficult, due to the simple fact that parties are often internally divided over ideological questions. Therefore, it is necessary to identify both the “mainstream” of party ideology within any given period, as well as the ideological divisions that exist within the parties. This is a messy business, because as we will see, ideology can often be in conflict with interests. For instance, many Democrats opposed President Obama’s climate change initiative for reasons that had nothing to do with ideology, and a great deal to do with the fact that they came from energy producing states. To understand the role of party ideology—beliefs about what kinds of policies and laws should guide political life—we have to understand that American political parties tend to be ideologically divided.
III. The First Party System: Federalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, and the Struggle to Define the USA↑
The differences between the Federalist Party and the “Jeffersonian Republicans” (sometimes referred to as the Democratic-Republicans)—the first parties in the United States—originated in conflicting beliefs about the meaning and goals of the Constitution, differing regional economic interests, and the differing political cultures of the states. The Federalists—usually associated with the figure of Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of state—believed that the Constitution allowed the American national government to pursue a vigorous policy of national economic development in order to increase the fiscal capacity of the state, improve the economic infrastructure of the nation, and promote American manufacturing through protectionist trade policy. The policy agenda of the Federalists depended upon a broad understanding of the powers of the national government. Not surprisingly, the Federalists received most of their support from states along the North Eastern seaboard, the states where manufacturing played a significant role in the economy.
Figure 4.1: Electoral College Vote 1796
The Democratic-Republican Party—sometimes referred to as the “Jeffersonian Republicans,” the Democratic-Republicans, the Jeffersonian Democrats, or simply the “Jeffersonians”—coalesced around a different set of ideas and a different set of interests. Whereas the most able Federalist leaders and thinkers envisioned a future for the country based upon technological development and industrialization, those who formed the Democratic Republican party hoped to shape the economic and political future of the nation by promoting westward expansion and agricultural development. In addition, the Democratic-Republicans were suspicious of the power of the national government, and were particularly aghast at the financial policies promulgated by the Federalists. Their suspicions went much further: the devotees of Jefferson and Madison thought that the Federalists harbored crypto-monarchists who wished to subvert the democratic elements of the American constitution, consolidate power in the national government, and establish an aristocratic order in the new world.7 Thus, the Democratic Republicans did not see the Federalists as legitimate political opponents—they saw them as subversives who had to be completely defeated, so as to maintain the integrity of the Republic8.
This was not a peculiar trait of the Jeffersonians. During the 1790s, the American public and its leaders did not regard parties and partisanship as necessary elements of democratic politics. The Federalists did not merely think that the Democratic Republicans were unwise– they thought the Constitutional visions adopted by their opponents were completely erroneous, if not “un-American.” Federalist opposition to the Democratic Republicans contained a strong element of cultural disdain, as the Federalist bastions in the north east of the nation were not only the economic powerhouses of the nation, but also the most religious and “culturally conservative” regions in the country. Jefferson himself was renowned as a free thinker with unorthodox religious ideas, and his political compatriots had expressed sympathy if not support for the markedly anti-Christian French Revolution. Thus, while the Democratic Republicans thought their opponents anti-democratic monarchists who wished to establish an aristocratic social order, the Federalists thought their opponents were economically backward, violence prone levellers who wished to bring the degeneracy and immorality of the French revolution to the new world.
In order to wage political warfare against their opponents, however, both the Federalists and Democratic Republicans had to develop the rudiments of party organization, organizations without which it was impossible to put their political ideas into practice. The development of party organizations during this period illustrates an interesting paradox, however: parties emerged in order to make the constitutional order workable, yet as they developed, they would render some parts of the original system largely inoperative.
Party organizations developed in order to overcome the very practical problems imposed by geography, in an age when communicating and travelling over long distances was difficult. The basic task of any politician in a democratic society is to achieve support amongst the electorate. In the case of state and local elections during the late 18th century, this was a relatively straightforward task, as the number of voting citizens was relatively small. In the typical case, a group of “local notables” would meet in private to discuss their preferred candidates; nominations for office would occur at town meetings; disgruntled office-seekers could still seek out office on their own, if they felt that they had been unjustly excluded by the local power structure. Politics in such a setting, while certainly rambunctious, violent, and even routinely corrupt, was largely “non-partisan” Individuals contest with each other as individuals, and what we would call ideological differences are mostly absent. Political parties developed at the state level out of the need to select candidates for state-wide office, in particular, the offices created by the Constitution—such as Senators and members of the House of Representatives. Whereas selecting candidates for local elections could occur in local meetings, it was practically impossible to assemble large groups of citizens for “nominating conventions” given the difficulties of travelling during this time.9 Yet a solution presented itself—the state legislators, already assembled in the capitol, would select a list of candidates for the general election; each faction or party, having created its own list, would rely on committees of supporters throughout the state to support its favoured candidates. Thus emerged political parties in embryonic form.10
The role played by state level parties in selecting candidates for federal election was not at odds with the Constitutional order—the problem would emerge when Congressional party caucuses began playing a role in the selection of Presidential candidates. The first Presidential election was not controversial or even contested, as all political factions (and practically every citizen in the nation) supported George Washington as the obvious choice for President. Things changed once Washington was no longer available as a symbol of national unity. Despite the warnings of the outgoing President about the dangers of parties and partisanship, the elections of 1796 and 1800 exhibited fierce and even violent political conflict, conflict that would leave its mark upon the system of Presidential selection. Partisanship eliminated the independent role of the electoral college, before the system of Presidential selection even had an opportunity to be tested in practice.
In the original constitutional order, states played the primary role in determining how to select electors in the electoral college. State legislatures could choose the electors, or they could allow the electors to be chosen by voters; electors could be assigned to differing candidates on the basis of proportional representation (or on a district by district basis), or on the basis of a “general ticket,” in which the winning candidate would receive all of the electoral college votes from the state.11 If we keep in mind that the Framers did not assume that there would be organized party competition—and if we keep in mind the limits of “national media coverage” during this time, not to mention the difficulties of political campaigning in an era without cars, trains, or railroads—we can see why the electoral college needed a second stage: these series of state wide contests were unlikely to give a majority of votes to any single candidate12. In the event of a tie, or if no candidate achieves a majority, the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the responsibility for choosing the winner (in the latter case, the House must choose from the top five candidates.) However, the members of the House do not vote as individuals; each state casts one vote as a delegation, based upon the choice of the majority of its representatives, an arrangement which gives a decisive advantage to the smaller states at this stage of the selection process.
The early political parties, organized around national leaders, “hacked” the Constitution’s system for Presidential selection by adopting the practices used by state legislators—members of Congress promulgated lists of dedicated electors, who were then endorsed and supported by fellow partisans at the state level. Thus, rather than serving as an independent body that would choose amongst Presidential candidates based upon their own deliberations and determinations, the electors were instead committed to the specific candidates selected by the congressional caucuses of the Federalists and the Republicans. Without the unifying figure of General Washington, the Presidency became ensnared in American partisanship.13
Yet just as quickly as partisanship had emerged, it seemed to disappear, as the Jeffersonian Republicans routed the Federalists. For close to a quarter century, the USA became (almost) a one party state.
To what extent is the triumph of one political party a consequence of underlying socio-economic-demographic- geographical-technological factors, and to what extent is it dependent upon human action and choice—to adopt one policy rather than another, to succeed in one venture while failing in another? As we will see, there is no way to give a definitive answer to this question—the rise and fall of parties in American politics is determined by the decisions, successes, and failures of political leaders, as well as by social and economic changes that seem beyond the reach of control or even prediction.
We can see this by considering the fate of the Federalist Party, which was weakened after the election of 1800, and very soon faded into almost complete irrelevance as an organized political party.14 Was the Federalist Party doomed by demographics? One could easily make this case. The Federalists had most of their support in the North East, which was economically more developed but less populated than the South. Yet it is impossible to explain why the Federalists failed politically, without taking into account their political beliefs, their political strategies, and the contingent events that made their political objectives difficult to achieve.
All political parties are motivated by a mixture of ideas and interests, and the Federalists were no different— Hamilton and his allies thought Federalists policies would achieve both the public good, establish the validity of their understanding of the Constitution and their vision of political economy, and insure continuing control of the national government for Federalists. Their general political strategy was to build a coalition rooted in government patronage, financial reform, and economic development. Patronage was not used to create mass support for the Federalists amongst large groups of citizens willing to sell their votes for jobs, income, or subsidies. Rather, patronage was used to create a network of elites who would be bound to the national government and the Federalists, and who would use their local power and reputation to mobilize support for the Federalists. Distributing resources in order to create and support political allies would, of course, be a recurring theme of American politics. Even political leaders who have a genuine attachment to the common good must take into account the means necessary to mobilize public support for their policies—and patronage, in all of its various manifestations, is always an attractive method for mobilizing supporters.15
Just as importantly, the Federalists hoped to insure their political success by insuring the economic success of the nation, and this they pursued through a series of interconnected financial and economic reforms. The central plank of the Federalist economic platform was the assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, a policy which was expected to have a number of positive benefits. By insuring that the state debts were not repudiated, the Federalists assured financial elites of the economic trustworthiness of the new nation; by paying interest on the debts (instead of simply retiring the debt) the Federalists would give financial elites additional reason to support the national government; by freeing states from their financial obligations, the Federalists would allow those states to reduce the tax burden on their own citizens, thereby insuring more investment, consumption, and economic growth. To finance the debt, federal taxes would be laid on foreign imports—an indirect tax that would be less observable, and thus less keenly felt, by most citizens. Further Federalist policies in public finance—in particular, the creation of a national bank—were also expected to promote economic growth and prosperity.
Federalist ideology extended to the realm of foreign and military affairs as well. During the 1790s, the world was shaken by the French Revolution, and all of the violent reform and violent conflict it precipitated. Most Americans, even most Federalists, were initially enthusiastic about the French revolution, yet this began to change as more Americans became aware of the radical character of the Jacobins and their allies. In particular, the clergy of the United States were revolted by the anti-Christian and atheistic tendencies of the French revolutionaries, and this helped the Federalists gain another political foothold. The followers of Jefferson remained committed to the revolutionary cause, and thought that the fall of the old regimes of Europe would initiate an era of peace and commercial prosperity. The Federalists looked at the outbreak of war in Europe not as a movement towards perpetual peace, but rather as a sign of the ever present danger of war and conflict; they did not directly support any side in the conflict, but they did think it provided additional reasons to support an American military establishment—an establishment necessary for defence against external and domestic enemies.
The main Federalist policies—strategic use of patronage to establish a network of like-minded elites, financial and economic reform, and a “realistic” foreign policy that did not elevate sympathy for foreign revolutionaries above the national interest—were successful enough to help the Federalists maintain control of the Presidency, and of the national government as a whole. Yet the limits of the Federalist strategy were also apparent, as their policies began to drive many citizens towards the Jeffersonians, particularly in the West and the South. Settlers in the western territories felt that the national government had not done enough to “pacify” Native American nations, particularly in what was then the southwest of the nation. Western settlers also felt that federal land policies had privileged large investors over ordinary citizens; the settlers also believed that federal trade policy had focussed on the interests of the North East, while neglecting the interest of the farmers who needed access to the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans. In addition, Federalist taxation policies were often deeply resented by rural farmers and western settlers—and this resentment often boiled over into resistance and outright rebellion.16 Thus, even while Federalist policies seemed to be successful in promoting economic development, citizens on the periphery of the nation were beginning to show signs of discontent.
One should note that the differences between Federalists and Republicans cannot be understood in “class” terms, if by class we mean “differences in income and wealth.” Different kinds of economic interests—not simply the differences in between the wealthy and the poor—led to different patterns of support. The typical wealthy Jeffersonian Republican was a southern land-owner—and usually a slave-owner as well. Such an individual might have little in common with a poor settler in rural western Pennsylvania, but both were suspicious of the Federalist platform, particularly the financial policies that benefited wealthy speculators and eastern bankers.
It would be a mistake to think that patterns of party support can be explained solely by economic interests, even if that explanation takes into account the complex nature of regional economic interests. Culture played an important role as well, though it is impossible to disentangle the “causal role” played by cultural and economic interests, as the fault lines of culture and economics so often coincided. The Federalists, in addition to representing the economic interests of the north east, particularly those engaged in commercial trade and finance, also found support amongst the cultural establishment: the mainstream churches, the large universities, and the established families. While the Federalists rejected the claim that they were aristocrats who were entitled to rule by birth, education, and virtue, they were nevertheless the more in-egalitarian of the parties, and Federalist elites never doubted that they were superior to the frontier farmers and small entrepreneurs within the Jeffersonian ranks who lacked education, manners, and wealth. Historians have noted that the contempt shown by Federalists for “the middling elements” of society contributed to the ferocity of anti-Federalist sentiment. Economic interests combined with the sense that their enemies were part of a different (and outmoded) social order to give the Republican Party an ever growing sense of unity.17
The Federalist response to relations with revolutionary France played an important role in sealing their electoral fate. As noted above, many Americans were initially sympathetic the Revolutionary cause, but this had changed by the mid-1790s. Federalist elites had long been averse to the radicalism and violence of the revolutionaries, but ordinary Americans were also disgusted the French Directorate’s attempts to interfere in American politics and interfere with American trade. Within the course of a few short years, people who had once applauded pro-revolutionary plays and newspapers and criticized the pro-British foreign policy of the Washington administration began to repudiate the French. The Federalists did not change the mind of men like Thomas Jefferson, but they appeared to have the public on their side, well into John Adams’ Presidency. All of this changed very quickly.
The failure of the Federalists to capitalize on anti-French sentiment provides an excellent lesson in how short-term political decisions can shape the outcomes of elections and the fate of political parties. Fearful that recent immigrants—particularly Irish immigrants– might have sympathy for revolutionary France, the Federalists passed a series of acts which made naturalization of immigrants much more onerous, and gave the executive branch a much freer hand in detaining and deporting resident aliens. Even more ominously, the Federalists attempted to restrain individuals from publicly expressing supposedly seditious, pro-French sentiment. This was bound to raise political passions, because the “press,” though not yet circulating widely amongst the mass of citizens, was nevertheless crucial to the diffusion of information and opinion amongst elites—and the press, more so than even today, was explicitly partisan. Writers, editors, and publishers made no effort to hide their support for either the Federalists or the Republicans—though the Jeffersonian press was more extensive, and with some notable exceptions, more inflammatory than Federalist journals. The Sedition Act, passed in the face of Republican opposition, was used by the Federalists against Republican critics. In addition to suppressing dissent, the Federalists initiated plans to develop and expand the military, not only to confront any threat from Revolutionary France, but also to suppress dissent and insurrection in the United States.
The Federalist Party did not entirely disappear after the election of 1800; it lingered on for decades in a much weakened form. The crushing defeat and the long, slow death that followed provides an excellent example how ideas shape political action, even when acting on those ideas comes with a heavy political cost. Rather than adjust to the democratic-libertarian ethos that was clearly coming to dominate the nation, the Federalists maintained their commitment to state-directed economic development, an aggressive anti-French foreign policy, and authoritarian security policies. Given the patterns of immigration, settlement, and population growth, the Federalist program appeared fated to fail. Yet had the party of Hamilton not overplayed its hand in response to the French Revolution and the threat of foreign radicals, the triumph of the Jeffersonians would probably not have been so complete or so long lasting.
After losing the 1800 Presidential election, the Federalist Party faded into relative insignificance in the national electoral arena.18 The period between 1800 and 1824 was dominated by the Jeffersonian Republicans—it even appeared as if the United States would not be characterized by party competition, as opposed to competition between differing regions and differing individuals. Such a system—a system without organized, permanent, and disciplined organization—appears to be most commensurable with the political order envisioned by Madison in Federalist Paper #10. Despite the absence of parties, however, politics did not disappear. Conflicts between regions, and conflicts between party elites and political outsiders, would eventually lead to the re-emergence of new political parties.
Initially, the Jeffersonian Republicans repudiated the “statism” of the Federalists: they eliminated many internal taxes, they eliminated the national government’s debts, they allowed the charter of the Bank of the United States to expire, and, in general, reduced the presence of the national government in the life of the nation. Yet overtime, the followers of Jefferson (and even Jefferson himself) synthesized Republicanism and Federalism. Jefferson’s decision to pursue the “Louisiana Purchase”—an essential part of the expansionary program necessary to advance the interests of the western farmers—depended upon a “loose construction” of the powers of the President in foreign affairs; the disasters of the War of 1812 led Jefferson’s followers to pursue national development, internal improvements, and even economic protectionism— though the Jeffersonian Republicans always claimed that they pursued these Federalist priorities within the boundaries established by the Constitution. Thus, the Jeffersonian Republicans not only defeated the Federalists; they ended up incorporating many Federalist ideas and policies as well.
By 1824, the dominance of the Jeffersonian Republicans started to unravel, as the system of Presidential selection that had developed since 1800 began to be at odds with the emerging democratic ethos of American citizens. The problem was that, in the absence of a party system that could narrow the scope of electoral choice, the electoral college produced split decisions that, according to the Constitution, had to be resolved by the House of Representatives. In the 1824 election, the candidates were not distinguished by party affiliation or even by ideology, but rather by region and personality—Crawford from New York, Henry Clay from the West, John Calhoun from South Carolina, former Federalist from Massachusetts John Q. Adams, and the political outsider and war-hero, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Though Jackson received the most votes in the electoral college, he did not receive a majority of the total number of electoral votes. The House of Representatives—following the procedures outlined in the Constitution—chose to select John Quincy Adams from amongst the top five candidates. Andrew Jackson would return to win the next Presidential election in 1828—and in doing so, he would usher in a new party system.
Figure 4.2: 1824 Electoral College Vote
|John Quincy Adams||84|
|William H. Crawford||41|
IV. The Second Party System: Whigs vs. Democrats↑
The period between 1828 and 1854 witnessed the birth of the American party system, and the birth of two of the most enduring political parties in the world—the Democratic Party (at the beginning) and the Republican Party (towards the end.) Over the course of little more than a decade, the United States went from being a nation where party competition was dying, to a nation where parties and party competition were key elements of the political order and even the culture. How did this occur?
Any explanation has to begin with President Andrew Jackson, and the concept of “Jacksonian Democracy.” Whatever the ideology of the Jeffersonian Republicans, in practice, the period between 1800 and 1824 was characterized by elite domination of political life and a relatively restricted role for public participation. Andrew Jackson’s political career demolished some elements of aristocratic entitlement19 and popular deference in American politics— his path to the Presidency was enabled by the expanding number of white, male citizens who were beginning to make their power felt in the electoral arena.
Figure 4.3: 1828 Electoral College Vote
|Andrew Jackson (Democrat)||178|
|John Quincy Adams (National Republican)||83|
As in the case of the “critical election” of 180020, the Presidential election of 1828 revealed clear regional divisions in the country—and in fact, the regional bases of party support and the policy questions that differentiated the parties were largely unchanged, even though the party names had altered. Jackson received overwhelming support in the South and the West, though he was also able to eke out more narrow victories in Pennsylvania and New York. John Quincy Adams won his electoral victories in former strongholds of the Federalist Party (such as New England and Delaware), and his policies were more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian; the son of the Federalist John Adams ran on a platform of internal improvements and support for the national bank. Jackson inherited the Jeffersonian ideas of strict constitutional construction, opposition to the national bank, and support for westward expansion. The election results suggested that John Quincy Adams’ attempt to resurrect Federalist ideas was doomed; unlike the aftermath of 1800, however, the 1828 election did not give rise to a period of one-party dominance, but instead gave rise to an era in which party competition became an accepted part of the American order.
One of Andrew Jackson’s supporters provided the initial intellectual support for the party system. Martin Van Buren, a major figure in New York state politics who had a keen sense for the direction of popular sentiment, threw his support behind Andrew Jackson after the general’s near victory in 1824, and helped to re-articulate the “Jeffersonian” political principles that would eventually shape Jackson’s Presidency. Under Van Buren’s tutelage, Jackson repudiated the “federalist tendencies” that he had shown as Senator, and helped to develop the core commitments that would define the Democratic Party for close to a century. In contrast with Jefferson, however, Van Buren would also explain why partisanship and party competition were essential to representative government, and not just a temporary aberration. In New York state, Van Buren had been an early master of party organization, and according to some commentators, he embodied the kind of political operator who was motivated by the lure of office and power as opposed to the appeal of ideas. Whether or not this is true—and I think it somewhat unfair to Van Buren—it is the case that Van Buren explained why party competition and partisanship were compatible with American constitutionalism. The conflict between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians had been a conflict between truly “great” parties—great in the sense that these groups embodied fundamentally distinct and incompatible understandings of the Constitution. Federalists such as Hamilton had to be defeated, defeated completely, because they adhered to anti-democratic ideas that were fundamentally incompatible with Constitutional system. In essence, Van Buren accused Hamilton and his adherents of being closeted monarchists who hoped to create an aristocratic social order, a moneyed financial elite, and an imperialistic state along the lines of European autocrats. Such people had to be defeated. Yet not all party differences rose to the level of principle. Having established the proper understanding of the Constitutional order, party politics could be reconceived as a useful form of elite competition, in which differing groups of candidates could appeal to the public on the basis of policy differences—and even personal differences rooted in character and competence—that did not rise to the level of fundamental political principles. Having mastered the basic techniques of mass mobilization in New York, Van Buren was able to foresee that political conflict could emerge even without deep differences in political philosophy, and that this kind of political conflict could benefit the public as a whole. Van Buren did not directly create the party system, but he was able to foresee that party conflict—kept within the boundaries established by the Constitution and, perhaps, American political culture as a whole—would become a normal part of the American political experience.21
There is some disagreement over whether the main parties that developed during the mid-19th century—the Democrats and the Whigs—even had distinctive approaches to public policy, let alone political philosophy.22 Some scholars have argued that the Jacksonian Democrats were motivated by nothing more than the desire for power and the spoils of office, at least initially. Over time, however, some relatively clear distinctions between the parties emerged. The Democratic Party, the party of Jackson, were more likely to oppose loose construction of Constitutional powers, particularly if that involved the national government in complicated and expensive projects; they tended to adopt the Jeffersonian conception of political economy, a vision in which small farmers would play more of a role than financiers and industrialists. The Whigs were more “Hamiltonian” in orientation—they tended to support a policy of internal improvements and economic protectionism, though they would always reject the claim that they were re-born Federalists. On issues like internal improvement and economic protectionism, the Jacksonian Democrats were often willing to adopt “Hamiltonian” positions, something that was necessary for them to maintain support in New York, Pennsylvania, and new states such as Kentucky and Ohio (states that benefited from spending on internal improvements such as roads and canals.)
On the issue of the national bank, however, the differences between the parties were quite stark. Like the Federalists, the Whigs were often accused of being the servants of financial interests; and the followers of Jackson in the Democratic Party distinguished themselves by opposing government’s role in creating and maintaining banking institutions. The issue had taken on greater salience given the deep economic recession of 1819, a crisis that had imprinted itself upon the public mind and shaped political consciousness in the Jacksonian Era. Over time, an even broader array of issues would come to separate the Whig and Democratic party, as the Democrats adopted a more aggressive attitude towards national expansion, the removal of Native Americans, and war with Mexico. Thus, the differences between the Whigs and Democrats were significant, though certainly not as extensive as the differences that characterize party ideology in the 21st century.
To fight for their principles, and to fight for the spoils of power, the Whigs and the Democrats would develop new forms of party organization that would allow them to attract cadres of political activists, select candidates, and mobilize voters. Prior to the Jacksonian era, “party organization” in American national politics was rooted in the Congressional Caucus—or “King Caucus,” as its detractors referred to it. This system, in which elected members of Congress attempted to narrow the electoral playing field by endorsing a particular Presidential candidate, had been shown to be inadequate by 1824. Rather than lining up behind the candidate endorsed by the Congressional Caucus in Washington, state legislators and state conventions endorsed a variety of candidates, all of them claiming to represent the “Democratic Republican” party of Jefferson. Out of the chaos of the 1824 election, new types of party organization developed along with new institutions for performing the fundamental tasks of electoral politics—choosing candidates and mobilizing supporters.
Whereas the “Jeffersonian Republicans” and “Federalists” were to a considerable extent just names for groups of like-minded elites, the Democratic Party and Whig Party were actual mass organizations, made up of cadres of political activists who were distinct from both elected elites and the general public. In an era with limited mass communication, political campaigning was labour intensive—it depended upon the work of thousands of “volunteers,” who would do the work of mobilizing voters. Party supporters volunteered their labour in the hopes of receiving some kind of material benefit—access to government jobs and access to government contracts being the most sought after prizes. Thus, the “spoils system” became an integral part of American party politics.23
Party organization became much more complex in this period, but it also became much more decentralized—rather than being dominated by coteries of national elites, national elites became the creatures of state and local party organizations, and most importantly, nominations for elections occurred through state and local nominating conventions. In the convention system, party organizations conducted meetings or conventions which produced official slates of candidates for all elected offices–in contrast with the previous systems of candidate selection which was simultaneously more “top down” (due to the role of the Congressional Caucus) and more individualistic (in regards to lower level offices, in particular; as the election of 1824 illustrates, disgruntled aspirants to higher office could chose to simply ignore the dictates of the Congressional caucus and run on their own.) State party conventions would select candidates for state-wide office; district conventions would select candidates for the House of Representatives; delegates to these conventions were chosen by local party associations. A fully national convention system developed by the end of Andrew Jackson’s second term. This was a pyramid-like selection process which began with local meetings, moved through the state level, and culminated in a national party meeting which selected the candidates for President and Vice-President. Combined with the development of party regulars motivated by the spoils of office, the convention provided a link between political offices from the lowest state official to the Presidency. The development of the party convention was sporadic—eastern states, particularly New York and Pennsylvania, were the first adopters of this mode of candidate selection–but it gradually spread from east to west, and from the Democratic Party to the Whig Party. By the election of 1840, the convention system joined the spoils system as a key element in party organization.
In contrast with the system of “elite selection” that had characterized candidate selection in the first few decades of the 19th century, the convention system for candidate selection appeared to be more open to popular influence. In practice, however, party conventions were dominated by party regulars and office holders; the general public played no direct role in the selection of candidates, though of course the parties did their best to discern which candidates were likely to generate popular enthusiasm. Having selected candidates, party organizations would attempt to mobilize the voters through the art of public spectacle—mass parades and mass public meetings enraptured the voters, with chanting, singing, and celebrating playing more of a role than calm deliberation. European visitors who expected American democracy to resemble the Roman Senate were severely disappointed— American mass democracy was disorderly and carnivalesque, at least on the surface. Beneath the apparent disorder, party organizations had developed ways to mobilize supporters, select candidates, develop platforms, and engage the public.
During the second party system, in contrast to party conflict during our own time, both of the major parties were competitive in most regions of the nation. We can see this by considering the regional representation of parties in the House of Representatives in 1836 and 1848.
Table 4.2: Geographic Divisions of The 1836 and 1848 Elections, House of Representatives, by Region
|South Carolina||2/7||1/0||6 (Nullifier)/0|
|% Total Seats||40||30|
|Connecticut||6/2||0/1||0/1 (Free Soil)|
|New York||30/1||10/32||0/1 (Free Soil)|
|Pennsylvania||18/9||3/13||7/1 (Free Soil)|
|Massachusetts||2/0||10/8||/1 (Free Soil)|
|Indiana||1/8||6/1||0/1 (Free Soil)|
|Ohio||8/11||11/8||0/2 (Free Soil)|
|Wisconsin||/1||/1||/1 (Free Soil)|
Table 4.3 Parties in the House of Representatives, 1828-1850
Voting in the electoral college between 1836 and 1848 also reveals a similar pattern—both parties were competitive in most regions and most states, though there were some states that were consistently in the Whig or Democratic camp. This is compatible with the claim that, during this period, the parties had relatively minimal policy disagreements, competing instead on the basis of idiosyncratic personal appeals.24 But we should note that the absence of major ideological differences between the main parties does not mean that there were not serious political divisions within the country as a whole. The question of slavery, particularly the power of the national government to limit the growth of slavery in the south west, divided the country into two ideological camps. Yet these were divisions that split both parties in two as well.
The problem of slavery in the 19th century was rooted in the Constitution’s compromises with the “peculiar institution.” The Constitution’s relationship to slavery reflects the peculiar situation of the Founders—while some Founders clearly recognized the injustice of slavery, they knew that it would be impossible (or at least difficult) to challenge slavery without threatening the project of constitutional reform. Furthermore, the southern states—the states where slave labour played a large role in the economy—demanded protection for slavery and the slave trade, at least in the short term. By 1807, as soon as the Constitution allowed it, Congress passed an act prohibiting the importation of slavery. Yet any hope that this might put slavery on the course of extinction proved to be illusory.
Slavery proved to be an enduring part of the Southern political economy and southern political culture, contrary to the expectation of the Founding generation. Southern political leaders, whether Whig or Democrat, tended to think that the future of their region depended upon extending the slave economy to the West25, and preventing federal intervention into the institution of slavery wherever it existed. The economic and political interests of the North were not nearly as uniform. The number of people voicing moral objections to slavery grew over the course of the 19th century; many more argued that slave labour necessarily undermined the value of free labour. Yet the Northern states also benefitted from their economic relations with the slave states, and both parties were aware that any attempt to adopt an anti-slavery platform would lose them far more votes in the South than they would gain in the North. From the perspective of pure political calculation, neither party had anything to gain from adopting either a strict anti-slavery or pro-slavery position, and thus both parties ended up with pro and anti-slavery wings. The most serious political disagreements existed within each party.
The ability of the parties to keep slavery off the “electoral agenda” depended upon several compromises over the status of slavery in the Western territories and the maintenance of slavery in the South. Most important was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which emerged out of controversies over the admission of Missouri to the Union. James Tallmadge of New York added an amendment to the bill admitting Missouri to the Union which made (partial) slave emancipation a condition for admission. The Southern states, by this point, were united in support of slavery, and regarded this proposal as a threat serious enough to spark violent conflict. The South was outvoted in the House of Representatives, but the regional balance of power was quite different in the Senate, where the vote on the Missouri Bill and the Tallmadge Amendment was deadlocked. Missouri’s admission as a slave state was eventually achieved by simultaneously admitting Maine as a free state, carved out of Massachusetts. By doing this, the balance of power in the Senate between slave and free states was maintained. But there was an additional compromise as well—all future states carved out of the Louisiana Territory that were north of 36 30 were to be admitted as free states. Political leaders in both parties and all regions hoped that the Missouri Compromise would maintain the balance between North and South for the indefinite future. The second party system was built upon the Missouri Compromise— had it failed, the Jeffersonian Republican Party would have split into two sectional parties. Instead of sectional parties, the second party system was characterized by national parties who were internally divided along sectional lines over the question of slavery. As the compromise came undone, so too did the party system.
Four major political events illustrate how the compromise over slavery broke down, leading to the end of the second party system and the demise of the Whig Party. The first major event was the Presidential election of 1844, an election which foreshadowed the ideological splintering of the nation. The Democratic Party ran on an expansionist or annexationist platform—in contrast with the Whigs, the Democrats promised to assert American control over territory that belonged to Mexico, territory in what is now the American South West. The Whigs selected Henry Clay as their candidate, the most articulate proponent of the Whig perspective on economic nationalism, internal improvements, banking, and many of the other issues that had divided the parties in the past. Despite his prominent political career and national reputation, the public rejected the “American System” of Clay and the Whigs, in favour of the Democratic Party’s vision of westward expansion and an economy rooted in agriculture and trade.
The election of 1844 illustrates several crucial dimensions of party competition in the United States. First, the national pattern of party competition was rooted in the complexity of regional economic interests. Consider the electoral college results from 1844 election:
Figure 4.4: 1844 Presidential Election
|Electoral College||Popular Vote|
|James Polk (Democrat)||170||49.5|
|Henry Clay (Whig)||105||48.1|
|James Birney (Liberty Party)||0||2.3%|
A quick look at this map might lead one to conclude that the pro-annexationist Democratic Party had a clear advantage in those states whose economic interest were most closely tied to westward expansion. Yet economic interests within the states were not uniform, as illustrated by this map of Presidential election results by county:
Figure 4.5: 1844 Presidential Election Results by County
The Whigs were able to compete with the Democrats in many counties in the South, not because of ideological differences over slavery, but because wealthy slave owners often concluded that western expansion would reduce the value of their property (due to increased competition.) In addition, during the course of the actual political campaign, Presidential candidates and party organizations often had to present slightly different messages to different regions of the country in order to maximize their competitiveness—in the South, for instance, Henry Clay often hedged his position of western annexation; in the North, Democrats hoping to appeal to anti-slavery voters continued to repeat Jefferson’s claim that territorial expansion would “diffuse” slavery through the west, making emancipation more likely to occur in the future.
In northern states like Pennsylvania, one might think that the Whig’s “American System” would have insured their success. Yet Democrats were able to appeal to the interests of new immigrants—Irish and German Catholics, for the most part— while the Whigs attempted to woo American Protestant workers who faced competition from immigrant laborers. Thus, the parties were able to compete in most regions of the country, not only because of the complexity of economic interests and the emergence of cultural and religious divisions amongst white voters, but also because the technology of communication, being relatively undeveloped, allowed the parties to tailor their message to specific regional audiences, without fearing that their inconsistencies would be revealed in national newspapers, or on the nightly news, Twitter, or You Tube.
Interlude: The Spatial Theory of Party Competition, Duverger’s Law, and the Role of Third Parties in American Political Development↑
The Presidential election of 1844 helps to illustrate “the spatial model of party competition” developed by the economist Anthony Downs. The key claim of the spatial model is that, in a two party system with a first past the post, winner take all electoral system, the two parties will tend to adopt relatively similar policy platforms. In other words, both parties, in making appeals to the public, will converge around the ideological center. We know that this is wrong as applied to the American political system today, but it is useful to think about why this model of partisan conflict is wrong.
Figure 4.6: The Spatial Theory of Voting
|L= Left wing (e.g. egalitarian) position|
|R= right wing (e.g. individualist) position|
|M= Median voter|
|A= Ideological preferences of Party A|
|B= Ideological Preferences of Party B|
Assume first that ideology can be measured along a single “left versus right” dimension; this is a simplification, but it is a useful one. This one-dimensional view of ideology focuses solely on the role of the government in the economy– at the far left, you have complete state control of private property, at the far right, you have a libertarian night-watchman state. Next, let us assume that the distribution of ideology in the general public can be modelled as a bell curve; most people will cluster around the moderate middle, with relatively few anarchists and communists at the extremes.
Given this distribution of ideology in the public, how will parties respond in a “first past the post, winner take all” electoral system? If we assume that political parties are interested in winning elections, then we would predict that the parties will converge to the ideological centre, trying to capture as many votes amongst the moderate middle as possible; they will remain distinct, however, because if they become truly indistinguishable, then they will start to lose too many of the extremists’ votes. Now, we should note that this model does not even depend upon a ‘normal’ or “bell curve” shaped distribution of policy preferences in the general public– if parties want to win elections, they will converge on the centre even if public opinion is not normally distributed, at least in a first past the post system where third parties are not usually much of a threat. The main claim of the theory is this—if we assume that political elites are motivated primarily by their interest in achieving power, then we would expect that political parties (in a two party system, based upon first past the post elections) would converge on the ideological center; power seeking parties in a two party system will thus come to resemble one another, as moving to ideological extremes will decrease their chances of electoral victory.
The theory that power-obsessed parties will “converge on the center” can account for some aspects of American political development. As long ago as the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the American system, “great parties” do not exist; that is, parties that have fundamentally different principles about the proper arrangement of society. While Tocqueville observed that there were some differences between the parties on economic questions (as we have seen, the Whig party was more disposed towards the interests of finance and internal commercial and industrial development; the Democrats of the 19th century were more oriented towards agriculture and westward expansion) party competition was more like a sporting event than an ideological battle.
The spatial theory of party competition helps to explain why the United States developed a two party system in the nineteenth century. While some have suggested that there could be sociological reasons for the two party system, most scholars would argue that the two party system in the United States is best explained by American electoral institutions. According to the political scientist Maurice Duverger, electoral systems based upon a “first past the post, winner take all” electoral system will tend to generate two-party political competition, as opposed to a multi-party system.26 The reason for this is relatively simple. Imagine that you are a socialist in the United States today—would it be better for you to support a socialist party, or support the existing “left-leaning” Democratic Party? If we assume that approximately 10% of American voters are socialist, and if we also assume that they are more or less evenly distributed throughout the nation (though clustered in college towns), it would be difficult for the Socialist Party to win any seats in the House or the Senate, and impossible for the party to win the Presidency. Yet if the Socialist Party received 10% of the vote, it would in all likelihood be an electoral disaster for the Democratic Party– it makes one wonder why Republicans haven’t provided more seed money for socialist party formation. If we assume that most voters wish to avoid the “worst case” political scenario, however—electoral victory by the party that you most oppose— then we can see why most voters in a “winner take all, first past the post” systems will support one of two established parties. This tendency is known as “Duverger’s Law.”
Unlike laws in the physical sciences, however, Duverger’s Law has some very notable exceptions. “Duverger’s Law” and the spatial model both assume that electoral victory is always the most important goal of political actors, and that avoiding “the worst case scenario” is always the primary consideration of voters. The 1844 Presidential election illustrates why these assumptions are incorrect. Why does it matter that some voters are motivated by the desire to vote for a preferred party and a preferred ideology, as opposed to being motivated by the “rational” desire to avoid the worst case scenario? It matters because even a small number of “non-strategic” voters can shift the results in an election. While the Whigs and Democrats both operated, more or less, as if they were motivated by electoral victory, the Liberty Party—an anti-slavery party—ran a candidate in the Presidential, despite having no hope of victory. Yet by receiving over 2% of the vote, in an era of tight electoral competition, the Liberty Party almost certainly determined the outcome of the election by allowing the Democrats to win close electoral contests in Pennsylvania and New York. The Democrats would face a similar problem in 1848, when a third party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren, ran as the candidate for the “Free Soil” Party, winning close to 10% of the vote, many of whom were anti-slavery Democrats. So while both political parties behaved according to the spatial theory of party competition and Duverger’s Law/Tendency, they were vulnerable to third party candidates running on anti-slavery platforms. Both theories are based upon the premise that ideas never trump interests. Even if most politicians and most voters are motivated by interests, a small number of individuals motivated by political ideas can shift the political balance of power.
What allowed for one of these third parties—the Republican Party—to replace the Whigs? Two things had to occur—slavery had to become even more significant as an issue, and political changes had to make it more difficult for anti-slavery voters to stay within the Democratic Party. To explain why slavery became more significant as an issue, one would have to consider the cultural factors which shaped political consciousness in the free states of the USA. To explain why the Democratic Party was no longer able to appeal to anti-slavery voters, one would have to consider the consequences of the Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso, the Kanas Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision.
Differences over the question of slavery eventually disrupted the political coalitions assembled by Whigs and Democrats. Victory in the Mexican-American War allowed the United States to take vast amounts of territory from its defeated neighbour, territory which would become a new source of tension in the struggle over slavery. David Wilmot, a “free soil” Democrat from Pennsylvania, added a proviso to an appropriations bill which stated that slavery should be prohibited in the territory taken from Mexico. Votes for the bill which included the “Wilmot Proviso” were along sectional, not party lines. Additional strains emerged as more and more Southern politicians began to challenge the basic assumption of the Missouri Compromise—the assumption that Congress had the power to limit slavery in new territories. The cracks in the party system became more apparent, as did the strength of sectional differences.
One possible alternative to national power or national slavery was “popular sovereignty”—the notion that citizens in the territories should decide whether or not slavery should be allowed within their states. This principle was a key element of the “Compromise of 1850,” a series of bills, which dealt with the territories acquired during the Mexican War, passed with bi-partisan support under the auspices of Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. Yet the compromise proved to be a failure. The strengthened Fugitive Slave Law—a crucial part of the compromise of 1850, at least from the perspective of Southerners—made Northerners even more complicit in maintaining slavery. Compromise with slavery was easy for many Northerners, when the reality of slavery—and the legal and political apparatus necessary to maintain it— was physically distant. The various attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the north added to the ranks of abolitionists, and further destabilized the old party system.
Worse was yet to come. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created even more turbulence, as this bill attempted to apply the popular sovereignty solution to territories that had been part of the Louisiana Purchase, territories that all had assumed were still governed by the principles of the Missouri Compromise. The proponents of the Kansas Nebraska Act assumed that this process would be peaceful, as settlers moved into the territories and calmly settled their differences over slavery. They were mistaken. Slaveholders and anti-slavery settlers moved to the Kansas territory in the hopes of overwhelming their opponents, and failing that, they engaged in guerilla warfare, hoping that violence would determine whether the territory was admitted with or without slavery. Unsurprisingly, this outbreak of violence did nothing to calm sectional hostilities, and did nothing to make compromise more likely. The Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision made in the very midst of the violence of “bleeding Kansas,” would make compromise even more difficult, as the court asserted, contrary to three decades of political practice, that Congress could not prohibit the expansion of slavery in the territories, even should it choose to do so. Retreating to the Missouri Compromise was no longer an option; the very basis of the second party system had been declared unconstitutional by the highest court in the land.
The emergence of the Republican Party as a political force was thus “over-determined,” in that we cannot distinguish the precise effect of the various forces that allowed the Republicans to replace the Whigs. A combination of cultural, social, and institutional forces were all at work, and it seems impossible to determine which forces were necessary for the transformation to occur. What we do know is that no explanation based upon economic interests alone can account for the transformation of the party system. Many voters in the Northern states—particularly poorer farmers and labourers—had an economic interest in preventing the slave economy of the south from expanding. Yet just as many benefitted from the links between the Southern and Northern economies, and everyone benefitted from peaceful relations between the regions. This is not to say that economic interests were irrelevant. Still, without the changing moral climate of the North, and without the changes that brought an end to the Missouri Compromise—without changes in ideas and institutions—the second party system might have endured for a much longer time.
And then, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the war came…
V: The Civil War and Reconstruction, The Gilded Age, and The Third Party System 1860-1894↑
The election of 1860 one of the few “critical” or “realigning” elections in American history—an election, or series of elections, that signals a fundamental re-ordering of the party system, caused by significant and enduring shifts in the party coalitions and the geographic bases of party support. The most significant change was that the former party system, characterized by competition between two national parties that were competitive in most regions and most states, was transformed into a sectional party system—a system where one of the parties tended to dominate entire regions. The Civil War and Reconstruction period would make the Democratic Party the dominant party in the South27, though they continued to have strength amongst immigrant communities in the North, particularly amongst Catholic immigrants. As the Republican used to say, the Democrats were the party of “Rum28, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The Republican Party, shut out almost completely in the South, was buoyed by increased strength in the North East, and by increasing strength in the new states emerging in the West. Despite the regional differences in support, the ideological differences between the parties—once Reconstruction was abandoned in the South—were relatively muted. Given the radical technological and economic changes that were occurring, this left the parties open to ideological challenges from populist and even socialist parties who opposed the general consensus established by the mainstream parties. The era would come to an end as the Democratic Party came to incorporate some of these novel strands of political thought, a process that would transform the party system once more.
As always, we must be careful to remember that the changes between party systems are accompanied by significant continuities. For instance, if we leave aside the question of slavery, the Republican Party was almost identical to the pre-civil war Whigs in terms of its favoured policies. Regional differences between the parties had been apparent prior to the war as well. Nevertheless, the Civil War did realign the American political order. What is interesting about this period, and very much in contrast to the present day, is that the after the issues of slavery and reconstruction had been resolved to the satisfaction of the political establishment, ideological differences between the parties became so muted that they were almost impossible to detect. The era would come to an end as “populist” and “progressive” ideas started to work their effects upon both major parties.
The Regional Basis of Party Support and Party Ideology
We can see the regional basis of party support during the post-civil War era by considering state-level results in the electoral college.29 Party competition fell into a pattern that is familiar to us—each party had a regional basis of support, with many states in the South dominated by either the Democrats, whereas many states in the North East and the Mid-West were dominated by the Republicans. There are some anomalies, of course. During the period between 1866 and 1876—the period usually referred to as Reconstruction30— many states that were part of the former Confederacy were occupied by federal soldiers, and this allowed the federal government to restrain, to some degree, the ability of the former Confederates to deny all manner of civil and political liberties to African Americans. By 1876, having grown tired of the costs and complexities of reconstruction, and having grown tired of facing white intransigence, the Republican Party abandoned Reconstruction, and chose to focus instead upon maintaining its political support in the North East, Mid-West, and the new states of the West. In the South, many regions were dominated by a single party—the Democratic Party—that was firmly committed to the principles of white supremacy.
Ideological divisions between the parties during the Gilded Age are difficult to describe, as divisions withinthe parties were often quite significant. What the parties stood for could vary immensely from region to region and from state to state. In regards to some crucial policy controversies—the question of monetary policy, for instance—the parties, even at the state level, were often internally divided.31 Yet it is still possible to offer some tentative generalizations about the differences between Republicans and Democrats during the late 19th century.
In many ways, the parties were still divided over the economic questions that had separated the Whigs from the Democrats in the pre-Civil War era. The Republican Party, like the Whigs, advocated economic protectionism to help support American manufacturing. Similar to Whig support for internal improvements, the Republicans supported the railway companies, in the hopes that this would help foster internal trade through the creation of a national market. Republicans supported the banking industry for similar reasons. The Republicans also incorporated the anti-immigrant sentiment that had to some degree characterized the Whig party. The Democratic Party, as consequence, tended to be the party that attracted the support of the new immigrants who were arriving in the North East and moving to the West.
A series of specific policies cemented the Republican coalition. Republican support for relatively generous pensions for Union veterans, as well as pensions for the widows of dead Union soldiers, helped to solidify their support in the Northern states. Republicans were the main advocates of reconstruction in the south, and they made some attempts to defend civil rights and voting rights for African Americans even after they abandoned reconstruction in 1876. Yet while the memory of the Civil War was a key element of the party’s identity, the Republicans were less than fully committed to the reconstitution of Southern society. The tariff was the other key plank of the Republican coalition—while Democrats saw the tariff as a revenue tool32, Republicans thought that trade barriers should be used to support American manufacturing.33
The Democratic Party underwent a transformative process during the Gilded Age, in which the “anti-national government” or “Jeffersonian” roots of the party were slowly supplanted by the desire to use the power of the national government to constrain private economic power. Thus, while the Republicans wanted to use the national state to protect and support domestic industry, Democrats were more likely to support calls for more extensive regulation of inter-state corporations, particularly those engaged in railways. This process took a very long time, and was not completed in the 19th century; the Jeffersonian roots of the Democratic Party were hard to remove, and this left them open to populist challengers who were re-thinking the relationship between egalitarianism and state power. Throughout the 1880s, a variety of insurgent parties, rooted in Western states with large numbers of farmers and relatively low levels of competition amongst railways, began to advocate railroad regulation and even nationalization, and it was this challenge of “prairie radicalism” that initiated the ideological transformation of the Democratic Party.34 While the Democratic Party opposed the extension of national power secure civil and political rights for African Americans—it remained the party of white supremacy– the Democrats would eventually embrace calls for national regulatory power over the new forms of economic organization.
Party Organization during the Gilded Age
The main patterns of party organization—the ways in which parties separated members from non-members, selected delegates and candidates, determined platforms, dealt with internal conflict, and conducted political campaigns– exhibited a considerable degree of continuity between the era of “Jacksonian Democracy” and the post-Civil War Gilded Age. In both eras, party organization was structured by “party regularity,” the set of rules and practices, some largely informal, that determined how candidates for office were selected. This process began with separating party members (party “regulars”) from non-members at the local level, and culminated in the selection of candidates for the highest offices in the land. Local party committees managed the process of candidate selection at all stages. They controlled the membership lists, which determined who could participate in the local caucuses or primaries which selected delegates for state and national conventions (as well as selecting members for local party committees) ; they called conventions for the selection of delegates; they also controlled the ballot, an extremely significant power during a time when there were limited sources of political information. This form of organization made state and local elites the key figures in party politics, and despite all of the considerable political changes that occurred during the Civil War period, this organizational form stayed firmly in place. This form of party organization limited the ability of the public to influence the parties. Other features of the party system also limited public input and dissent– for example, state delegations to national conventions voted as a unit, thus limiting the influence of minority factions. Furthermore, campaigning was controlled almost entirely by state and local political organizations; as a consequence, national party organizations had very little ability to shape an ambitious national agenda. This might very well have been part of the system’s appeal. The parties distinguished themselves by staking out differing positions on some of the main issues that fell under federal jurisdiction—for instance, the Republicans were the party of economic protectionism and nativism, the Democrats the party of free trade and mass immigration— leaving many contentious political issues under the control of state and local parties. Thus, the Democrats could maintain a political coalition that could “agree to disagree” over a very wide range of contentious issues; the position of the Democrats on temperance laws would vary, depending upon whether you were in the Lower East Side of Manhattan or rural Georgia. In an era where the agenda of the national state was relatively limited, neither party had to worry about enforcing complete ideological uniformity.
Patronage was the fuel of party organization, as it had been since the Jacksonian period. “Patronage” is the answer to the question “how do you get large numbers of ordinary citizens to devote time and energy to mobilizing voters?” In return for participating in elections and party-building, party supporters could hope to receive positions in government, or perhaps even lucrative government contracts. In addition to providing “boots on the ground” during election season, party supporters typically had to hand over a percentage of their earnings to their political party. Political organization in the 19th century seemed to depend upon this corrupt relationship between political parties and the state.
Why did a form of party organization that was based upon maximizing the power of local elites and minimizing the national political agenda decline? Why did a more “nationalized” form of party organization begin to emerge, one that would allow national political leaders to achieve a degree of independence from local political elites—a process that would, once open primaries were adopted as the main mode of candidate selection, transform parties from private organizations into “public utilities”? Technological change is almost certainly part of the answer to this question, as technological change would create problems that could not be addressed by the existing form of party organization, as well as possibilities that could not be fully exploited. Industrialization in the late 19th century created new political demands that could not be easily addressed by the old forms of party organization. In essence, this is because the problems of industrialization—the various conflicts between labour and capital, or the conflicts between the railroad and banking industries, on the one hand, and rural farmers on the other—led to political demands that challenged the limited, localistic focus of the established order. The nationalization of the economy, along with the increase ease of travel and communication, made the old notion that political identity is rooted in locality more difficult to accept; national communities of interest appeared at least as important.
Dissatisfaction with the existing party system took on a number of distinct forms. Some groups, such as the “Mugwumps” in the Republican Party, were factions that worked within the party system, but hoped to change some of its central features. For the Mugwumps, the main focus of reform was the system of patronage and assessments, practices which maintained a standing army of party regulars and filled the party coffers, but limited the capacity of the national government, principally through the irresistible forces of incompetence and corruption. Even more significantly, national organizations began to mobilize public support outside of the party framework. Instead of directly lobbying members of congress, organizations attempted to directly shape public consciousness by sponsoring clubs, lectures, and journals. Using similar tactics, agrarian organizations attempted to forge links amongst farmers in the West and the South. Some agrarian radicals hoped to fuse farmers into a national “pressure group” in order to influence the established parties. Eventually, the agrarians channelled their discontent into the creation of political parties—most notably, the Populist Party—which would ultimately disrupt the third party system.
The major parties responded to these challenges in a number of ways. First, they began to adopt some of the tactics of national organizations in order to bypass the power of local political elites, manage genuinely national campaigns, and conduct a more deliberative or “educational” style of politics that aimed to convert voters instead of merely mobilizing supporters.35 These attempts to nationalize electoral politics did not displace the older mode of nominations; state elites continued to play an influential role in determining the political fate of parties and even presidential candidates. Nevertheless, the changes in communication, fund-raising, and campaigning that were emerging in the late 19th century foreshadowed some of the more far-reaching changes in political parties that would occur in the early 20th century.
VI: The Fourth Party System: The Progressive Era/”Industrial Republican”, 1896-1932↑
A new era in American politics began with the “critical election” of 1896.
Critical elections are usually defined as decisive shifts in party coalitions, usually precipitated by some significant economic or political crisis. The Jacksonian Age came to an end when a series of political events caused the opponents of slavery within the Whig and Democratic parties to coalesce under the Republican banner. A similar dynamic occurred in the late 19th century, though the outcome was the transformation of the established parties, as opposed to the emergence of a new political party. Transformations in the American party system are like the transformation of day into night; in that it can be difficult to know exactly when the transformation occurs. We should be aware that selecting 1896 as a “critical election” is somewhat arbitrary; the ideological forces and patterns of party competition that were clearly evident in this election had been developing slowly for years. Many scholars would go further, arguing that continuity was more significant than change in the 1896; most importantly, and in contrast with the changes of the 1850s and the 1860s, the geography of party competition did not undergo a fundamental change in the 1890s.
Yet something was changing in the 1890s. American party conflict in the 1870s and 1880s seems very distant to us today, because neither party at that time can be easily classified within our familiar ideological categories. By 1896 this is starting to change; by the 1920s, the ideological divisions between the two major parties start to seem more familiar to 21st century observers, even though the “conservative” Republican and “progressive” Democratic parties still contain many anomalous ideological strands (and many elements of social life had not at that time been “politicized.”) To understand the transformation of the parties in the early 20th century, however, we have to consider how the movement known as progressivism shaped both parties.
By 1896, in response to the challenges of capitalist development, and in response to the political challenges of agrarian radicalism, the Democratic Party had incorporated many “populist” policy positions and united behind the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. Much like Jefferson, Bryan thought that republican government in the United States depended upon the freedom and independence of a large class of small, land-owning farmers. Unlike Jefferson, Bryan thought that more active national government policy was needed to serve the farmers’ interests. While the Democratic Party had distinguished itself from the Republican Party on questions such as Reconstruction and the tariff, the election of 1896 made it the clear that the Democrats and Republicans were now distinguishable on a range of other issues as well—after 1896, the Democrats became the party that hoped to use “Hamiltonian” means (government power) to pursue “Jeffersonian” or egalitarian ends.36 In the short run, this strategy did not lead to much electoral success. The rise of agrarian radicalism or populism within the Democratic Party allowed the Republicans to increase their support in the more industrialized regions of the country; the election campaign of William McKinley would stress that the Republican policies—protectionism, hard money, limited regulation—served the economic interests of both owners and labourers.
While the ideology of agrarian radicalism would transform the Democrats in the election of 1896, allowing the GOP to consolidate its support in the industrialized North East, both parties would be shaped by the Progressive movement in the early 20th century. The Republican Party would experience its only Presidential defeats of this era when former President Theodore Roosevelt split from the GOP to run for the newly formed Progressive Party in 1912 and 1916. Yet the most long-lasting effect of progressivism was that it introduced new visions of the purpose of government, the nature of law, the character of American constitutionalism, and the role of political parties within the constitutional order.
The most famous characterization of progressivism is that it aimed to use “Hamiltonian” means to pursue “Jeffersonian” ends. Progressives argued that the changes that had accompanied industrialization, including the rise of large corporate organizations that spanned the continent if not the world, cities that housed peoples from across the globe, and the replacement of an economy based upon land-owning farmers by an economy based upon wage labour made the traditional opposition between state power and egalitarianism irrelevant. Thomas Jefferson’s small government libertarianism may have served the interests of ordinary citizens in the early 19th century, and his egalitarian anti-statism may have made sense in the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet in the absence of the frontier, in the absence of supply of “empty land” that could allow anyone to pursue the Jeffersonian dream of agricultural independence, the Jeffersonian antipathy to government power—particularly national government power—was no longer compatible with the interests of the ordinary citizen. When the nation was first created, libertarian egalitarianism was a coherent alternative to the doctrines of Alexander Hamilton; it made less sense in the era of the robber baron, the urban slum, and the political machine. Whatever differences existed amongst the various breeds of progressive37, they were all united in this sentiment: the old order was not adequate to the tasks of the present.
What did the progressives wish to progress towards? What did they hope to progress beyond? The short answer to this question is that the progressives hoped for a political system in which the will of the people was implemented more accurately and more successfully. This required an expansive administrative state38, staffed by bureaucratic experts able to ascertain and implement the public will. In regards to their concrete goals, progressives argued for a national administrative-welfare state, one that could moderate the ill-effects of industrialization and corporate power while insuring individuals against the exigencies of modern existence through public health insurance, unemployment insurance, and so on. As we will see in our discussion of the courts, many of these objectives—particularly those associated with the regulation of behavior, as opposed to the provision of goods or the redistribution of wealth– required changes in legal doctrine. Legal rules that once constrained government power in order to prevent arbitrariness had to give way to new theories which granted the state greater discretion. Going further, many progressives thought that the character of the Constitution had to change as well. In particular, limits on national power that were part of American federalism had to give way to more open-ended national regulatory power. Constitutional limits on state governments had to be jettisoned as well. A few progressives even argued that the structure of the federal government was too cumbersome, and should be replaced by a parliamentary form of government. This objective was of course never reached. Instead, in the hopes of tying the national state more closely to the will of the people, progressives promoted modes of policy-making and candidate selection that bypassed the established parties— voter initiatives, referenda, and the direct primary were all assaults on the party system and party elites that would transform American politics, though not all at once, and not always in anticipated ways.
How did progressive ideas become effective? This is a difficult question to answer in general, due to the varieties of progressivism in America and the variety of circumstances in which it emerged. Changed social and economic conditions certainly made the public more amenable to criticisms of the established order. Adding fuel to the fire, the work of independent investigative journalists—the “muckrackers”—brought to the public’s attention a wide range of abuses, whether in regards to politics, business, or the relationships between politicians and businessmen. The movement to replace party patronage with a professionalized civil service, one that would be more capable and less corrupt, extended far back into the 19th century. At the level of abstract theory, intellectuals had begun to question the philosophical basis of American constitutionalism and the American legal order for half a century as well, under the influence of disparate and conflicting sources such as Darwinism and German idealism.
We should also note, however, that progressivism became effective, at least in part, because it played a role within bothestablished parties. True, the influence of progressivism was strongest within the Democratic Party, but Republicans such as Robert LaFollette and Theodore Roosevelt were also firmly within the progressive camp, however much they might have disagreed with other progressives on particular issues. Given the changes that were occurring in social life, the economy, and in the realm of ideas, it isn’t surprising that something like progressivism emerged in the United States; similar social forces were in play in most other industrialized nations. The puzzle is why progressives failed to united under the banner of a single party, in the way that abolitionists had united behind the Republicans in the 1850s.
The patterns of progressivism can be explained by looking at the geography of party competition. After the “critical election” of 1896, the geographical divisions between the parties became even more pronounced. The Presidential election appeared to be close at the national level, but in most states the contest was very one-sided. Many regions of the country—the South in particular– had become “one party states,” that is, states where one party had such an overwhelming advantage in terms of public support that elections were foregone conclusions, if not exactly meaningless. Particularly at the state and local level, the dominant party usually became tied to the dominant economic interests; these connections, combined with the long-established practice of patronage, were the basis of “party machines” in many states and cities. Given the relative weakness of the “minority party,” it often made sense for individual progressives to pursue their political goals through membership in the dominant party, in the hopes that the power of their ideas, the power of public opinion, and the power of their allies in business, media, and academia could help them overcome the recalcitrance of the party establishment. Thus, in many states, the most serious political conflicts took place within parties, not between opposing parties.
The geographic patterns of party conflict during this period help to explain some of the curious patterns of legislative politics at the national level. There were two “progressive” Presidents during the period between 1896 and 1932, one a Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) and one a Democrat (Woodrow Wilson).39 While there were some differences between their versions of progressivism, both Roosevelt and Wilson pursued a similar political agenda, and they faced similar political challenges in that they often had to confront political opposition from within their own party (though this was more true for Roosevelt than it was for Wilson.) Progressives certainly attempted to supplant the mainstream parties—and under the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, they achieved considerable success. Yet because the mainstream parties were able to incorporate so many progressive themes, the Progressive Party proved to be a failure, despite the many successes of the progressive program.
Party Organization and Primary Elections
In addition to their substantive policy goals, the progressive movement also hoped to transform the way parties operated within the American political system. In many ways, this impulse was similar to the belief, common during the founding era and the early part of the 19th century, that political parties were not an essential element of democratic politics. Some progressive reforms aimed to limit the power of parties and elected officials by empowering the public. In many states, progressive politicians amended state constitutions to allow public ballot initiatives, referenda, as well as re-call elections. These institutional changes continue to shape American politics at the state level today. Yet the most important institutional innovation associated with progressivism was the direct primary.40 Rather than rely on a convention system for candidate selection, a system that allowed candidates to be selected by party elites and “regular” party members, primaries allowed the general public to determine who will run for the parties. While the change did not take place all at once (the system for selecting Presidential candidates solely through primary elections was not established until 1972), primary elections would transform party organizations from private clubs into something like public utilities. Between 1899 and 1917, every state in the union adopted primary elections to select candidates for public office. Progressives hoped that this would make politicians more responsive to the electorate. Whether this goal has been achieved is still an open question.
The use of primary elections to select candidates, whether at the Presidential or Congressional level, is one of the most distinctive elements of the American electoral system, and it has influences that reverberate throughout the entire political process. If I were to pick the one extra-constitutional institution that has the greatest influence on American political life, I would say that it is the use of primary elections to select candidates. Yet why were these changes introduced? Why did American citizens allow parties to be subject to strict regulation and control—why did they transform parties into public utilities—while parties in most other democratic societies remained private clubs with more or less complete control over candidate selection? As to why this happened in the USA and not elsewhere, the usual answer is that Parliamentary regimes place a greater premium on party discipline—if you remove the power of party organizations to select candidates, then you remove the most important tool for maintaining party discipline. If you combine a) the fact of limited party competition at the local, state, and Congressional district level, along with b) the absence of any need to maintain strict party discipline, then you have a decent explanation of why American parties adopted primaries as a mode of candidate selection, while most other democratic nations did not.
The rapid shift from party controlled nomination procedures to direct primaries cannot be attributed to the progressive movement alone. While many members of the political establishment opposed the policy goals of the progressive movement, the establishment was not entirely opposed to primary elections. Though some politicians attempted to repeal the use of primary elections in the 1920s, many political elites gave their support to this new mode of candidate selection during the early part of the century. It is difficult to explain why party elites would have supported primary elections, particularly in one party states, if this was only something that would help disempowered progressives influence the dominant party. Yet there is considerable evidence that conservatives within the Democratic and Republican Parties, whatever they might have thought about progressivism as a whole, did not consistently oppose the use of direct primaries, even though this seemed to undermine the power of parties by subjecting them to direct public control.
The reason for this may have been that, in a society that was growing rapidly, and becoming more “multicultural” as a consequence of mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe, it was more difficult to sustain the relatively informal nomination practices of the caucus-convention system. The older system was based upon a high level of trust and deference, because delegates selected at the local level were usually not officially pledged to any particular candidates. This rather loose link between the small scale local caucus and state and national conventions created a number of potential problems for party leaders, the most prominent being the threat of “bolting” by party supporters who felt that their interests had not been properly respected during the nomination process. It was also more difficult to maintain consensus in the old system when the number of individuals involved was increasing rapidly, and when party members came from very different cultural and religious backgrounds. Thus, while direct primaries might appear at first glance to be at odds with the interests of party elites, they may have thought that a more formalized nomination process, one that included a direct role for the public, might help to maintain party unity by making the nomination process more legitimate.41
It makes a good deal of sense to distinguish between the politics of the late 19th century—the Gilded Age—and the politics of the early 20th century (whether we all it the Progressive Era, or, more infrequently, the Industrial Republican Era), principally because progressivism –re-shaped the policy agenda of both parties, and because party organizations were (eventually) transformed by the widespread use of direct primaries as a mechanism of candidate selection. Yet there are some important continuities between the two periods as well. Usually, re-alignment theorists argue that, after 1896, the electoral coalitions of the parties transformed, with the Democrats establishing supremacy in the South and the GOP establishing a stranglehold over politics in the North East. Yet those patterns of regional support were already evident during the Gilded Age. Perhaps more importantly, re-alignment theorists often overstate the stability of electoral coalitions, and under-estimate the influence of short term political forces and decisions. The theory of electoral alignments seems to be rooted in both economic reductionism (the notion that political decisions are rooted in economic interests, economic interests that are stable over time) and political rationalism (in particular, the notion that individuals have and are able to perceive their objective economic-political interests.) Of course, economic interests do play a role in shaping partisan attachments and electoral outcomes—but economic relations, and the technologies they are based upon, do not determine political outcomes in a straightforward sense. Economic change shapes politics, but political life—the attempt to balance competing groups within a coalition, the success or failure of various policies, even the personal charisma of different leaders—has its own internal sources of change as well.
The elections between 1896 and 1909 do suggest that the Republican Party had assembled a dominant or majority coalition. The Democratic Party, best symbolized in this period by the prairie orator William Jennings Bryan, committed itself to the (white) economic underdogs in the west and south; by making this commitment to rural and agricultural interests, the Democrats allowed the Republicans to cement an alliance between financial and industrial interests and the north-eastern working class. Combined with their traditional support from “old stock” WASP Americans and the considerable number of voters who still abhorred the Democrats as the party of the Confederacy, this “new” coalition seemed incredibly powerful. Republicans had reason to think that they had assembled a relatively permanent majority. Yet this coalition was vulnerable—as all coalitions are—to both “third party” challengers and to attempts by the opposition party to re-configure and expand their own coalition.
Figure 4.7: The Election of 1896
|Party||Nominees||Electoral Vote||Popular Vote|
|Republican✔||William McKinley||Garret Hobart||271||61.0%||7,105,076||51.1%|
|Democratic||William Jennings Bryan||Sewall/Watson||176||39.6%||6,370,897||45.8%|
The general claim of re-alignment theorists is that the relatively close overall results of the 1896 Presidential election hid the vast regional disparities in party strength. This is certainly true for some regions (Bryan received an astonishing 91% of the popular vote in Mississippi, for instance), yet many states were politically competitive. Democrats didn’t’ re-nominate Bryan in 1900 out of irrational loyalty; he had come close, in 1896, to assembling a winning coalition of the “have-nots.”
The Republican Presidential victories during the early part of the progressive era were accompanied by a great deal of electoral volatility—all of which suggests that the choices made by parties, whether regarding the policies they pursued or the candidates they chose, were as important as the underlying “electoral alignment” of the public or the technological-economic interests of the nation. During the 1904 election, Theodore Roosevelt did not run as a traditional Republican. Rather, he adapted his campaign to reflect his own progressive sympathies, an adjustment that allowed the Republicans to achieve electoral success in many of the Western states that had found Bryan’s anti-establishment ethos appealing. The Democrats, unwilling to give Bryan a third shot at the Presidency, and unable to find a unifying radical candidate, nominated Alton Parker of New York, in an attempt to moderate the party’s image and contest Republican dominance in the North East. This attempt at coalition management proved fruitless, as the Democrats were unsuccessful except in the still “Solid South.” The elections of the very early 20th century reveal an “alignment,” in a sense, but it is an alignment that combined elements of relative political stability (the solidly Democratic south) with a broad political battlefield, where outcomes could be determined not by underlying economic forces, but rather by the choices made by parties in government and in the electoral arena. The Republican victory of 1904 was quite different from the victory of 1900— the choices made by political parties were as crucial as any underlying technological or demographic forces.
Figure 4.8: The Election of 1904
|Party||Nominees||Electoral Vote||Popular Vote|
|Republican✔||Theodore Roosevelt||Charles Fairbanks||336||70.6%||7,625,599||56.4%|
|Democratic||Alton B. Parker||Henry Davis||140||29.4%||5,083,501||37.6%|
How did the Democrats establish a winning coalition during this period? The usual answer is that they benefitted from divisions between progressive and conservative Republicans, divisions which led Theodore Roosevelt to seek election in 1912 under the banner of the Progressive party. Even if Roosevelt had chosen not to run, however, it is likely that the GOP would have fared badly in 1912. Taft, who had sympathies for the conservative wing of his party, would probably have proven unable to maintain the support of the GOP coalition. The election of 1912 was not an “anomaly” during a period of Republican strength; rather, it demonstrated the strength of the progressive movement during this period. Having ceded the mantle of progressivism to Roosevelt on the one hand and Wilson on the other, the Republicans were decisively repudiated.
Figure 4.9: The Election of 1912
|Party||Nominees||Electoral Vote||Popular Vote|
|Democratic✔||Woodrow Wilson||Thomas R. Marshall||435||81.9%||6,294,327||41.8%|
|Progressive||Theodore Roosevelt||Hiram Johnson||88||16.6%||4,120,207||27.4%|
|Republican||William Howard Taft||Nicholas Butler||8||1.5%||3,486,343||23.2%|
|Socialist||Eugene V. Debs||Emil Seidel||0||0%||900,370||6.0%|
Yet the party coalition assembled by Wilson was itself vulnerable. Under Wilson, the national government not only continued to pursue the progressive agenda; in order to prosecute the war effort, the national government extended its oversight to many aspects of the economy, and extended its surveillance powers in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few years earlier. The call for a “return to normalcy” was a popular rallying cry for the Republicans in 1920, and the Democratic coalition collapsed everywhere, except in the still solid south.
By the 1920s, the American party system had lost some of the ideological anomalies of the previous two decades. The Republican Party had not exactly purged its progressive wing, but it was nevertheless dominated by its conservatives or “classical liberals.” Though still committed to protectionist trade policies, the Republicans were now more clearly the “anti-government” party. Under Harding and Coolidge, the GOP began to distinguish itself as the party of limited government. The Democratic Party, within living memory the party of Jeffersonian libertarianism, had for the most part followed Wilson down the path of progressivism and was not inclined to shift direction. These partisan divisions might seem familiar, but the parties were not yet easily classifiable according to contemporary notions of “left wing” and “right wing.” While they were no longer an anti-government party, the Democrats were still a party of the South, and still just as committed to maintaining white supremacy in that region (or, in the case of Northern Democrats, just as indifferent to the plight of African Americans in the South.) The GOP at this time could still count African Americans amongst its supporters, as well as significant numbers of industrial workers in the North east and mid-west. The Great Depression would shatter this coalition in the 1930s—and while the GOP would revive, its new political base would be very different from what it had been.
So was there a Progressive Era alignment that came to end in the Great Depression? Yes and no. Re-alignment theorists suggest that economic divisions give rise to relatively stable party coalitions, with one party being dominant, and one party being in the minority, until the system is disrupted by an external crisis (whether economic or cultural) which re-shapes the party coalitions. The actual pattern of elections during the progressive era suggests that party coalitions are not particularly stable. The power of a dominant party is often subject to challenge, depending upon short term events and the decisions of party elites and political candidates. Electoral outcomes can shift dramatically over a relatively short period of time, as is shown by the shift from Wilsonian progressivism to the “neo-liberal” Republican administrations of the 1920s. What differentiates this era from the Gilded Age is the presence of new ideas which defined the terms of political debate, ideas that played a key role in electoral politics even when they were repudiated. Along with the institutional changes that shaped parties—particularly the rise of direct primaries—progressivism would come to play an essential part in the development of American party politics.
VII. The Fifth Party System and The New Deal Coalition: From the Great Depression to the Great Society, 1932-1968↑
During the early years of the Great Depression, the Democratic party remained the party of progressivism and the party of the segregationist south.42 The Democrats expanded their coalition to include African American voters, particularly in the mid-west and the north east. In addition, the Democratic Party increased its support amongst the white working class in the North East, particularly amongst relatively recent European immigrants. Unsurprisingly, maintaining a coalition that included African Americans and white supremacists proved to be difficult, and even before civil rights moved to the forefront of the political agenda, the New Deal coalition showed signs of weakness. Unlike the beginning of the New Deal era, in which party coalitions shifted in fairly decisive ways over a very short period time, the dissolution of the New Deal coalition would occur in slow motion, over the course of decades, and would not really be complete until the 1990s. Contrary to the claims of “critical re-alignment theory,” the New Deal coalition was in some ways not even the “the majority party” during the period between the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s. The Republican coalition—based upon an expanding middle class, evangelical Christians, as well as steadily growing support from white southerners– achieved significant political victories during this era, and Republicans were able to work with Southern Democrats and conservative Democrats to create, in many instances, a ruling “conservative coalition” within Congress.43 Strong as the Democrats seemed after the election of 1932, the GOP was able to reassemble an effective coalition of its own, albeit one that depended on a considerable degree of bi-partisan co-operation.
In other words, the presence of Southern Democrats (and “conservative44” Democrats in other states), Republicans, and progressive Northern Democrats created something like a three party system. Democrats may have had nominal control of Congress for most of the years between 1932 and 1964, but the “progressive New Deal coalition” only dominated national politics for a very short period between 1932 and 1938.
Table 4.4: Party Ideology and Party Coalitions: The Democrats and the Conservative Coalition During the New Deal Era
|Dem. Electoral College/% Vote||GOP Electoral College||House Dem. Seats||GOP House Seats||Other||DEM. Senate Seats||GOP Senate Seats||other|
The elections of the 1932 and 1936 appear to be examples of “landslide elections”—but appearances can be deceiving. The Democrat Party won decisively—in the House, in the Senate, and at the Presidential level—and they suffered few setbacks as a party during the mid-term elections of 1934. However, the power of the Democratic coalition was not as complete as it might appear based upon election results and party labels alone, as the party was internally divided over many crucial questions. Just as the pre-civil war Democrats were divided over the question of slavery, the New Deal Democrats were divided over questions of race and civil rights. For New Deal Democrats in northern states, African Americans were becoming an important constituency—and most importantly, they were voters who had only entered the Democratic camp relatively recently, and whose support could not be assumed as a matter of course.46 Southern Democrats, for the most part united on the question of race, were themselves divided into conservative and progressive factions. Some of FDR’s closest allies, such as future Supreme Court justice and Alabama Senator Hugo Black, were progressive Southern Democrats who were still rather “regressive” on racial issues (Senator Black was himself rumoured to have been a member of the KKK. ) Other Democrats regarded FDR’s version of progressivism with suspicion. Many of these conservative Democrats were from the South. Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, for instance, frequently objected to New Deal projects on the basis of policy and on the basis of Constitutional qualms (he may also have thought that some New Deal policies, such as a national minimum wage, were likely to make the Southern economy less attractive to business). But not all Southern Democrats were conservative, and not all conservative Democrats were “Southern.” Millard Tydings of Maryland, a business oriented Democrat whom his progressive colleagues referred to a “M’Lord Tydings,” (though not to his face), was a critic of both the progressive wing and the segregationist wing of the party. Thus, while the majority of the Democratic Party still fit within the “progressive-populist” ideology—and while a majority of Northern Democrats were moving towards the “universalist” ideology that would come to dominate the party in the post-1950 era– there were still a significant numbers of dissenters within the party. These divisions over questions of race made it difficult for the Democrats to address the problem of civil rights during the early New Deal period, even while many members of the party were beginning to question the “Dixiecrat” legacy of the party.
By the late 1930s, Democratic and Republican conservatives were able to assemble a coalition strong enough to seriously constrain progressive ambitions. How significant was the conservative coalition in Congress, and how did it shape the agenda of New Deal politics? Roosevelt’s attempt to “purge” conservative Democrats from the party’s ranks during the 1938 Congressional elections indicates that the President thought that these dissenters were a serious problem.47 Yet Roosevelt failed to remove his opponents within the Democratic party– something that would have been relatively simple (though not uncontroversial) in a parliamentary system that permitted party leaders to control party members. In assessing the state of play in the post ’38 Senate, North Carolina Democratic Senator Josiah Bailey suggested that the 23 Republican and 23 conservative Democratic Senators held the balance of power.48 The situation in the House was similar— progressive supporters of the New Deal and the President had suffered the bulk of losses during the mid-terms, and there were enough disenchanted conservative Democrats in the House to give the “conservative coalitions’ a potential majority. Thus while the Democratic Party may have continued to control the House and the Senate in 1938, six years after the start of the New Deal, in many ways this control was in name only.
The Republicans seized control of the House and Senate in the 1946 election, having benefitted from the general turmoil of the immediate post-war period. Yet even when the Democrats returned to unified party control in 1948, the conservative coalition remained formidable. President Harry Truman captured the problem faced by the Democratic Party in the following observation: “When a Republican runs against a Republican, the Republican always wins.” Even when the Democratic Party achieved power, the progressive wing of the New Deal coalition was not always in charge. In comparison with the early 21st century, the New Deal and post-war era featured parties with an incredible amount of ideological overlap.
The story of how the Republican party became the “party of the right” and the Democrats became the “party of the left”—what we might call the tale of partisan polarization—has many different chapters, and frankly, many unreliable narrators. The most commonly accepted element of this story is that the Republican Party gained ground at the expense of Southern Democrats, leaving the progressive faction49 within the Democratic Party triumphant over the states’ rights and segregationist element. Buoyed by the increasing strength of labour the 1950s, and hoping to appeal to the African American voters who were escaping the segregated south, Northern or “Liberal Labour” Democrats felt confident that they could maintain power without having to defer to the Southern Democrats.50 Democratic strength in the North East and the pacific northwest made deference to Southern Democrats less necessary. Many scholars argue that the Republican party responded to changes within the Democratic coalition by appealing to white Democratic segregationists—the so-called “Southern Strategy” associated with Barry Goldwater in 1964 Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act51 and the Voting Rights Act52 in the mid 1960s, the party of Lincoln turned itself into the party of states’ rights and the white south. This leads us to one of the most contested questions in American political science: did Southern Democrats transform the Republican Party? Or did the Party of Lincoln transform the Southern Democrats? How did the retreat of the Democratic party from the South shape the party ideology of the Republicans?
We should note that it isn’t clear why segregationists would run into the arms of the Republican Party in the 1960s. The Republican President Eisenhower appointed Republican former governor of California Earl Warren to the Supreme Court; Warren served as Chief Justice when the court delivered its momentous judgment in Brown v. Board of Education,a judgement that Eisenhower helped to enforce, and helped to extend with Republican sponsored civil rights laws in the late 1950s. It was true that the major civil rights laws of the 1960s were initiated under the leadership of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson—but the Republican party in Congress gave its support to those laws. One could, however, make the case that segregationist sentiment was becoming more prominent amongst Republican-leaning elites during this period. The Goldwater campaign of 1964 use of “states’ rights” rhetoric in the 1964 election, whether intentionally or not, appealed to those who were opposed to the individual rights of African Americans. Yet as some scholars have observed, the drift of southern voters into the GOP was occurring long before the Goldwater campaign and the divisive conflicts of the late 1960s; if true, this suggests that something besides race was transforming party coalitions.53
That “something” may have been class, or rather, economic development. Consider first the election of President Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. It is true that Eisenhower’s personal popularity might make it difficult for us to determine whether these elections reveal anything about the general social forces shaping the South during this time. Nevertheless, it is important to note how Eisenhower’s successes foreshadowed the future possibilities for the Republican Party. In presidential elections, Democrats such as Adlai Stevenson were still competitive in the South, but they were no longer dominant.54 The success of Eisenhower in the South suggested that a moderate to conservative Republican could succeed in the region, perhaps even one who was not the greatest German general of World War II. Even before Eisenhower’s election, the GOP had been increasing its share of the Presidential vote in the South.
Figure 4.10: Republican 2-Party Vote: South
We should note as well that by the late 1940s, Republican Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey was one of the most pro-civil rights leaders elected by the party since the Civil War; as governor of New York, for instance, Dewey had signed the nation’s first employment discrimination law.
More important than Eisenhower’s successes were the slow, steady increase in Republican voters in the South in the post-war period, as this development suggests that economic changes (and not simply a cult of personality) were the driving force behind the Republican advance in the Southern states during the 1940s and 1950s:
Figure 4.11: Lines of Republican Progress56
The problem with any attempt to explain the transformation in the South solely in terms of race and civil rights is that the South was undergoing an economic transformation during this period as well. At the beginning of World War II, per-capita income in the South was only 50% of national average, by 1980, it was 85%. Moreover, this period of growing prosperity and modernization brought new waves of immigrants from the North—mostly white immigrants, though this is something that has changed in recent years. Thus, according to scholars such as Byron Schaefer and Richard Johnston, the transformation of voting patterns in the South can be explained in terms of cultural transformation, not cultural continuity: as the Southern economy modernized, and as non-Southern whites moved to the expanding suburbs of the new South, class based voting replaced the old race-based voting patterns of the Dixiecrat era. We should not take this argument as definitive; race continued to influence politics in the South and elsewhere, and of course the GOP made overtures, veiled or unveiled, in order to attract the Southern Dixiecrat vote. But we have to try and incorporate complexity into this narrative. The South was starting to swing towards the GOP when it was the party of Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and Earl Warren—all of whom were supporters of civil rights for African Americans.
The growing strength of the Republican Party in the South—as well as the growing strength of a neo-liberal, cross-party conservative coalition—show that the New Deal coalition’s hold on power between 1930 and 1968 was in some ways limited. We should also note that the transformation of the New Deal coalition—the decline of the Democratic Party in the South and the rise of the Republican Party—cannot be explained in terms of race alone. But what then can account for the variety of changes in party coalitions that occurred in the post-war period? How did the Democratic Party become the unambiguous “party of the left,” and how did the Republican Party become the party of the right? What can account for the rise of the polarized parties and distinct regional electoral patterns of our own era?
Why did the mid-century American party system, characterized by ideologically diverse parties with regional bases of support that had been stable in some ways since the civil war, transform into the ideologically and regionally polarized party system of the 21st century? In order to understand the main features of the contemporary party system, we have to try and understand why the “New Right” emerged as the dominant or defining faction of the Republican Party, and why the New Left emerged as the dominant or defining faction within the Democratic Party.
VIII. The Sixth Party System? Political Parties, Elections, and the Era of Polarization 1968-2016↑
Political polarization57 is usually (though certainly not universally) taken to be an uncontested fact about contemporary American politics, and it is usually associated with the increasing divergence between elites in the Democratic and Republican parties, including the affiliated elites in think tanks, universities, mass media, interest groups, and so on. Whether or not this polarization of elites has also spread to the general public is more debatable, though the general consensus amongst political scientists is that the public is starting to reflect the polarization that has been evident amongst political elites for more than a generation.58 Let us consider the evidence which suggests that political polarization has in fact occurred.
Table 4.5: Polarization in the Electorate: Response to the Question “Government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” (% agreeing)59
The responses to these polling questions suggests that, in terms of the general public “mood,” opinions have been “polarizing” over the past generation, at least regarding the obligations of the welfare state. If we were to turn to more careful polls of social issues– polls that asked not merely do you support abortion, for instance, but polled support for abortion in different circumstances– we might find that public opinion is more conflicted and less polarized than it first appears. The statement “Government should help people who can’t take care of themselves” is meaningful as a symbol, but we have no way of knowing what the public would conclude if they had to actually thinkabout this issue (what does it mean to be unable to take care of yourself?) or make hard decisions about policy (e.g. trade-offs between welfare, education, health care, and so on.) Nevertheless, we can assert that there are at least some signs that partisans in the electorate have adopted increasingly distinct and divergent opinions on the symbol of government support for the poor. Polarization amongst elected politicians is easier to demonstrate.
Figure 4.12: Polarization in Congress
What we are looking at here are the “ideological scores” of members of Congress, as measured by Americans for Democratic Action, or ADA. Every year since 1947, the ADA has recorded the votes of every member of Congress on 20 major bills and converted the votes into an ideological score. A high score indicates “liberalism” and a low score indicates “conservatism.” The lighter colours indicate the full range of where party members fall on the ideological spectrum; the darker coloured line indicates the average score of the middle 50% of the respective parties. This measure of polarization should be taken very seriously, as it is based upon actual political actions instead of opinion polls– and it shows that, amongst partisan elites, polarization is very real.
The fact of polarization raises the question of what motivates parties as political organizations. If electoral victory is the main goal of politicians, then this should affect how parties and politicians act. Let us consider this from the perspective of “Duverger’s Law” and the “Downsian theory” of democracy. Polarization is something of a puzzle, if we assume that winning elections is the primary goal of politicians. We will have to make some other assumptions as well. Let us return to Duverger’s law, which posits that, in a political system with a “first past the post” plurality electoral system (as opposed to a system based upon proportional representation), there will tend to betwo main political parties. Why is this the case? Let us consider this by using a not-very- hypothetical scenario. It is early in the 20th century, and you are a socialist politician in the USA. Why not try to form a labour party? The problem is that, if your political support is spread out over the nation as a whole (e.g. on average, 10% of voters in every Congressional district), you can receive a large number of total votes without achieving much power in return. From the perspective of the average political activist or even voter, even if you agree with the third party from a policy perspective, supporting it will likely turn out to be futile (in the short run) or lead to a “worst case scenario” (the third party drains votes from the center party– the Democrats, for instance– allowing the more conservative party to emerge victorious.) For the discontented progressive or populist, it might make sense to channel your political energy into the existing political parties- to transform one of the established parties, instead of creating a new political party. However, if you believe that your new party has the potential to win voters from both of the established parties, then it might make sense to try to create a new party organization. This was the case for the Republican Party in the 1850s (they appealed to anti-slavery voters in both the Whig and Democratic Party); for a time, in the 1880s and 1890s, the Populist Party had reason to think that it could draw “agrarian radicals“ from both the Democratic and Republican Party.60
Now, let us make some assumptions about ideology, following the spatial model of party competition developed by the economist Anthony Downs. The main claim of the spatial model, is that, in a two party system, there will be a tendency for the two parties to cluster around the ideological center. We know that this is wrong as applied to the American political system today, but it is useful to think about why this model of partisan conflict is wrong. Assume first that ideology can be measured along a single “left versus right” dimension; this is a simplification, but it is a useful one .This one-dimensional view of ideology focuses solely on the role of the government in the economy– at the far left, you have complete state control of private property, at the far right, you have the libertarian night-watchman state. Next, let us assume that the distribution of ideology in the general public can be modelled as a bell curve: most people will cluster around the moderate middle, with relatively few anarchists and communists at the extremes. What will be the result, assuming that parties are primarily interested in winning elections? Party ideology will converge to the political centre, as the parties attempt to capture as many votes amongst the moderate middle as possible. They will remain distinct, however, because if they become truly indistinguishable, then they will start to lose too many of the extremists. Now, we should note that this model does not even depend upon a ‘normal’ or “bell curve” shaped distribution of policy preferences in the general public– if parties want to win elections, they will converge on the centre even if public opinion is not normally distributed, at least in a first past the post system where third parties are not usually much of a threat.
The theory that power-obsessed parties will “converge on the center” can account for some aspects of American political development. In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the American political system, “great parties” do not exist; that is, parties that have fundamentally different principles about the proper arrangement of society. While Tocqueville observed that there were some differences between the parties on economic questions (with the Whig party being marginally more disposed to promote the interests of finance and internal development, the Jeffersonian-Jacksonians more oriented towards agriculture and westward expansion) party competition was more like a sporting event than an ideological battle.61 Now, the emergence of the Republican Party, the Civil War, and the struggle over Reconstruction seemed to prove Tocqueville incorrect– yet only for a time. By the late 19th century, Tocqueville’s British counter-part Lord Bryce also noted that the parties had come to resemble one another. By the mid-20th century, the pattern of ideological convergence seemed to be repeating itself as the Eisenhower Republicans came to accept the New Deal, and competed with the Democrats by claiming to be better managers (as opposed to being a fundamental alternative to the emerging welfare state.)
There is something wrong with this model of political party competition, something incorrect about the notion that American parties are indistinct; this is especially true today, but I think that this is also true for much of American history. With all due respect to Tocqueville and Lord Bryce, the American parties have always been more distinct than the “spatial model” of voting would predict. But let us focus on the emergence of polarization from the 1960s to the present. If polarization has occurred, then the main assumption must be invalid: politicians, political elites, and political activists are not motivated primarily by the goal of winning elections, at least in the short term. Or rather, at some point, politicians and political activists became more oriented towards programmatic ideological goals, as opposed to the pragmatic goal of winning elections.
Partisan competition in the United States over the past fifty years has been driven not by a narrow minded focus on political power, but by the ideology of political elites. Following the arguments of Morris Fiorina62, I think that this change is based upon a “disconnect” between elites and the public; that is, partisan elites have polarized first, driven by ideological changes amongst intellectual elites (essentially, the rise of the new left and the new right, and the eclipse of the post-war liberal technocratic consensus) and by institutional features of American government (mainly the primary system.) How did this occur? There is no way to give a complete answer to this question, but it is possible to highlight one crucial part of the story of polariziation: ideological entrepreneurs created factions within parties, and those factions tried to restructure the “party brand,” the kinds of goals that parties pursue and the symbols that the parties invoke.63 That is how polarization begins. The outcome of this process, the patterns of political support that emerge between the newly polarized parties, depends upon regional cultural and economic differences. Elites begin the process of polarization, but they cannot determine the final outcome.
Two Presidential elections help to illustrate how ideology often trumps the short-term pursuit of power: first, the candidacy of the Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, and secondly, the candidacy of George McGovern for the Democratic Party in 1972. The election of 1964 illustrates what can happen when a party is faced with an internal faction that is more concerned with ideology and policy than with political victory. Goldwater represented the “New Right” within the Republican Party. In contrast with moderates such as Eisenhower, the New Right was not content to accept New Deal order, and was not content to challenge the Democrats on the basis of competence and character. In terms of domestic policy, the Goldwater-led GOP wanted to re-fight the battles of the New Deal. In terms of the expanding political agenda of the Great Society era, particularly in regards to the question of voting rights and civil rights, many members of the New Right took up the cause of the Southern Democrats, and argued—erroneously, in my view– that the constitutional system placed severe limits on the ability of the federal government to safeguard the basic rights of African Americans in the South. (We should note that the Republican Party in Congress was, as a whole, supportive of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights agenda during the 1960s.)64 On foreign policy, what made the new right “new” was its support for the aggressive, anti-communist internationalism that had been pioneered by the Democratic Party of Truman, JFK, and LBJ.
How was the New Right able to achieve power within the Republican Party, particularly when its ideological commitments were not appealing to the general public? The answer, in part, is that Democratic elites were moving to the left of the political spectrum at the same time, which reduced the political costs of moving to the ideological right, at least in the long run. Had the Democratic Party remained the party of Truman and Kennedy in the post-1968 period (that is, a party that prioritized the economic interests of organized labour over general environmental and consumer interests, moved slowly on the question of civil rights, and retained a firm commitment to anti-communist internationalism) the rightward shift of the Republican party would have been more difficult. In addition, the structure of American parties—in particular, the use of direct primaries—and changes in mass media and communication technologies made it easier for small, ideologically oriented factions to slowly develop, acquire new adherents, and influence elected officials.
The emergence of the New Right as a dominant force within the GOP coincided with the rise of the New Left within the Democratic Party, and this was remarkable for many reasons. To begin with, the mid-1960s were a period of enormous economic growth, and one might think that prosperity would ease social tensions and reduce the pace of political polarization. During the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, moderate Republicans seemed well situated to achieve dominance, in part because of the improving economic prospects of the post-war middle class. .Many individual GOP leaders abandoned intransigent opposition to the domestic policy of the New Deal Democrats. Leaders like Thomas Dewey, Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller did not claim to present radical alternatives to the Democratic Party; rather, they claimed that they would be better mangers and overseers of the emerging welfare state, with fewer ties to labour and organized crime than their Democratic counterparts. GOP moderates achieved considerable success in the traditional Republican strongholds of the North East, where they were able to capitalize on the Democratic party’s reputation for patronage, corruption, and lax ethical standards. Moderate Republicans followed the political implications of “Downsian” theory– they competed by seeking the political centre, while still trying to differentiate their political brand in important ways.
This strategy worked under Eisenhower, but it had its limits. By the late 1950s, moderate Republicans were under heavy fire from Democrats in the North East, as the political organization of private sector labour unions continued, and as the Republican Party lost the battle to attract African American voters. While there were pockets of support for the GOP in the suburbs of the North East, they were unable to maintain or expand their electoral support. Moderate Republicans did not inspire mass allegiance or devoted partisans; middle of the road managerial competence was not enough to compete with the more compelling, and more Manichaean, political narratives of the left and the right.65
The New Right had enthusiasm to spare, an enthusiasm that enabled them to endure defeat after defeat in order to pursue long-term goals. The New Right was defined initially by its ideology– it combined the “Old Right” critique of the modern welfare state, without the Old Right’s isolationism.66 Adam Smith at home, Harry Truman abroad is a good summary of the New Right’s political program. Eventually, the synthesis would also include Christian social conservatives, as well as the disaffected former liberals known as “neo-conservatives.” 67
Few other political movements demonstrate better the problems with assuming that politicians and political activists are primarily concerned with maximizing votes. For instance, one of the most significant intellectual figures of the New Right, the publisher and author William F. Buckley, ran for Mayor of New York City in 1965. Buckley knew that his campaign had no hope of achieving victory in the race. When asked what he would do if he won the election, Buckley stated that he would “demand a recount.” The point of the election was to publicize ideas, not to win power. Not all of Buckley’s ideas would seem conservative today: he advocated drug legalization, elevated bicycle paths, and special fees for out of town trucks and cars. On the other hand, like too many others in the New Right, Buckley was unsympathetic if not hostile to the Civil Rights movement (a position he recanted later in life). Buckley saw his candidacy not as a short term quest to achieve political power for himself, but as a small part of a long term campaign to influence the Republican party.68
More important than Buckley’s quixotic mayoral campaign was another failed campaign, that of Barry Goldwater in 1964. This campaign, more than any other, shows the limits of interpreting elections through the lens of economic assumptions. Political amateurs– driven by ideas, not by the desire for office– fueled the Goldwater Campaign, and they used the relative openness of the nominating process to influence state party conventions and primaries. At this stage, the New Right was primarily concerned keeping its ideas alive, and it was better to lose elections than to allow the GOP to become indistinguishable from the Democrats. Given the complete failure of the Goldwater campaign, why didn’t the moderate GOP establishment reassert itself? In some ways it did. Richard Nixon was the last gasp of the older, more moderate GOP establishment; things did not turn out very well for President Nixon, but he did win some convincing electoral victories in 1968 and 1972. The problem for GOP moderates– the reason they became displaced by the 1980s– is that they did not attract the same level of political enthusiasm as the New Right. The New Right was able to establish an effective network of activists, magazines, think tanks, and affiliated academics– a vast right wing conspiracy, as former Secretary Clinton might say. Moderates had suburban moms and dads, middle managers, and trust fund beneficiaries. It was no contest.69
The election of 1972 illustrates that a similar dynamic was on the left wing of the political spectrum. The electoral drubbing of the Democrats in the 1972 general election was in many ways a result of controversies surrounding the 1968 Democratic nominating convention: Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, despite not winning in any of the primaries. As in the case of the GOP in the early 1960s, the late 60’s Democratic Party was being transformed by factional conflict, in this case, between the older Liberal-Labour Faction (defined by its combined support for New Deal style welfare state policies, bureaucratic policy-making, an approach to economic policies that was both pro-growth (e.g. JFK’s tax cuts) and pro-labour, and aggressive internationalism) and the New Left, which was now coalescing around a host of new social issues (women’s rights, the rights of gays and lesbians, consumer rights, environmental rights) as well as a rejection of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment. While the Labour-Liberals and New Left Democrats were committed to civil rights, even here there were growing fissures, as many old-school Democrats balked at emerging policies that were intended to address the lingering effects of racism (such busing and affirmative action) as opposed to simply establishing legal equality.
It is true that the despised Lyndon Johnson had done his best to address the concerns of the emerging New Left, at least in terms of domestic policy. His “Great Society” policies not only extended federal power into domains such as health care70, but many of his urban initiatives aimed to “empower” the poor instead of simply administering them. But the Lyndon Johnson who was the architect of the Great Society in domestic policy was reviled for being the architect of the War in Vietnam. The New Left faction in the Democratic Party was able to seize control of the reform process, and by 1972 the primary dominated system (as well as various mechanisms to insure representation for women and minority groups) allowed the New Left to capitalize on its considerable enthusiasm. As was the case for the New Right in 1964, the New Left, mobilized on the basis of new ideas about policy was able to capture the Presidential nomination in 1972 largely because of the movement’s enthusiasm and organizational prowess. And like the New Right in 1964, it went down to spectacular defeat in the general election.
Why did these factions come to prominence within the two parties?71 Party change in the mid-20th to late 20th century can best be understood as an elite driven process, in which ideological entrepreneurs disseminate new visions of politics; these ideas are then taken up by party activists or “political amateurs” who were motivated by ideological concerns as opposed to the (short term) desire for power. Elites create political ideologies by linking together disparate political values; the results are like works of art, or more realistically, products, which are then disseminated to the public by small cadres of committed political activists. So, for instance, the “ideology” of the New Right was not, and was not intended to be a coherent, non-contradictory political philosophy; it was a coalition, and the various policy commitments adopted by the coalition (e.g. cultural conservatism, free market economics, aggressive anti-communist foreign policy) had no necessary logical relationship with each other.72 We can also use epidemiological metaphors to understand the diffusion of ideology: ideologies infect factions first, who then infect the parties as a whole. The diffusion of ideology through a population, much like the spread of an infectious disease, will vary depending upon the characteristics of the population. In the case of infectious diseases, certain people might have immunity, or the population may be too dispersed and isolated for the disease to spread. In our own time, and even over the past fifty years, we have ideal conditions for the spread of ideological contagion.73
Party ideologies are not always consistent or coherent, particularly in the case of the USA, where national parties can only achieve electoral victory by appealing to a broad range of voters.74. Consider this fact: the Democratic Party of the 19th century was the party of “limited government (except regarding race), free trade, and laissez faire; they were the party of Jeffersonian libertarianism. Yet this ideology was not comprehensive even on these major issues–there were considerable differences within the party. The party that tended to favour limited government intervention might still feature many members who were in favour of specific forms of statism, particularly regarding tariff barriers. Across some issues, the party simply agreed to disagree— the Democrats, particularly by the very late 19th century, included many rural voters and leaders such as William Jennings Bryan who were sincere evangelical Christians; the urban Democratic party machines of the North East were more ethically flexible, to put it politely.75 The urban wing of the party tended to be pro-immigration, pro-Catholicism, and pro-alcohol; the rural and southern wing of the party tended to view these things very differently. The party was a genuinely diverse coalition; agreement on a few key issues co-existed with considerable disagreement about a broad range of political questions.
Modern parties are based upon much more constrained and comprehensive ideologies, ideologies that were articulated by elites long before they dominated parties or the public. Democratic Party ideology today is based upon a creative synthesis of what the Progressive-era thinker Herbert Croly referred to as the combination of “Hamiltonian means and Jeffersonian ends.” The basic elements of the modern state theory (rejection of natural rights limitations on government, notion of “universal class” of bureaucrats who have a special ability to defend the public interest, critique of existing constitutional structure as rigid and unworkable) was articulated in the 19th century by American students of Hegel, the founders of American pragmatism, and even political scientists such as Woodrow Wilson.76 This new ideological formation was disseminated through the popular and elite press, universities, law journals, and so forth. By the time of the Great Depression, these ideas were dominant within the intellectual elite of the Democratic Party (particularly within the executive branch.) The Democratic Party of the New Deal era was different from the Democratic Party of today, but it had taken one decisive step: the mainstream of the party had adopted progressive principles regarding the relationship between state and economy, principles that had been articulated and disseminated for decades prior to the Great Depression.
Contemporary polarization is rooted in acts of creative ideological synthesis that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. Based upon an analysis of thousands of “opinion makers” during this era, political scientist Hans Noel suggests that the basic elements of the liberal-conservative divide existed amongst elite opinion makers prior to the existence of those divisions amongst political elites, and prior to the existence of similar divisions in the public. Left-leaning intellectuals of the 1940s and 1950s anticipated the racial egalitarianism and post-materialist politics of the 1972 Democratic Party; civil rights and new social issues emerge in a coherent way amongst elite opinion makers prior to any clear “partisan adoption” of the issues. These intellectuals, and the New Left Democrats who followed in their wake, continued the progressive-populist tradition (government power in the service of egalitarianism), but they combined the old tradition with new suspicions of bureaucratic state power. This would lead the New Left to promote specific institutional commitments that were distinct from the executive-centered Progressive-Populist Democrats. For instance, while New Deal-era progressives tended to favour policy-making through executive branch bureaucracy, the New Left was much more open to policy-making through courts and interest group litigation, particularly in relation to civil rights, education policy, institutional reform (e.g. in relation to mental hospitals and prisons) and environmental policy.77 Not every aspect of New Left politics was anticipated by political thinkers and elite opinion makes in the immediate post-war period, yet in all of the essentials, the ideology of the New Left existed amongst elites before it achieved much influence in the party.
The structure of party organizations in the United State facilitated the transmission of polarized ideologies from small groups of ideological entrepreneurs to the larger world of activist political elites. For much of their history American parties were focussed primarily on running (and winning) election campaigns—selecting candidates, motivating voters, and raising money related to both activities. Over the course of the last half century, party organizations started to be dominated by ideological activists—or to use the words of James Q. Wilson, “political amateurs” (as opposed to the political professionals who had previously dominated party organizations.)78The word amateur is related, etymologically, to words for love e.g. amore, and I think that that is important to keep in mind. If we want to understand why political parties became more polarized over time, we have to consider why the people engaged in directly running parties, the people involved in grass-roots political activism, became increasingly motivated by ideology, as opposed to material motives (e.g. the prospect of receiving a position of some kind) or the prospect of exercising power.
American party organizations, up until the 1950s time, were remarkably decentralized. National parties (and national interest groups) played relatively little role in the selection of candidates for national office, national party organizations and interest groups played only a small role in local and state elections.79 Well before mass ideological polarization in the general public could be discerned, political scientists took note of the changed character of political party activists. The 1960 book by James Q. Wilson, The Amateur Democrat, is based around the claim that old party regulars—the descendants of the “party machine” operatives—were being replaced by new ideologically oriented “amateurs;” individuals who were less interested in political victory than political principles. In other words, the activist base of the Democratic Party was, as early as 1960, being transformed by the emergence of “New Left Democrats.” A similar and even more successful transformation would occur within the Republican Party: the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater, whose campaign was based almost entirely on principled opposition to the moderate GOP/ New Deal Democrat consensus.
Political activists are able to transform parties because of the weakness of party organizations. American party organizations during the era of “the political machines” were pragmatic or “professional” in the sense that they focussed on winning on elections, which therefore gave them an incentive to appeal to the political center.80 Civil service reform over the course of the late 19th century and early 20th century undercut the patronage system that was the basis of the old party system. It isn’t surprising that, given the decline of material incentives for engaging in party building activities, ideological motivations came to play a more prominent role in political activity. It is also possible that the very growth of the welfare state itself played a role in transforming party organizations, as the state supplanted political parties regarding various welfare functions. The primary system made it possible for highly motivated activists to shape parties as well, though one should note that this was a long term process. By the 1990s, new media technologies made it easier for engaged activists to motivate one another, communicate with one another, and organize for political combat. Civil service reform, the growth of the welfare state, the primary system, and the rise of new media all enabled “political amateurs” to shape party organizations—these developments created ideal conditions for the spread of ideological contagion.81 The “machine” model of party organization, in which parties were motivated primarily by the desire for electoral victories and the distribution of various forms of government patronage82, was starting to be replaced by the “purposive party”– parties which were motivated primarily by policy commitments83.
By the mid-to late 1960s, the New Right and the New Left constituted clearly defined ideological alternatives; but how did they come to define the political system as a whole? Ideological changes promoted by party factions re-shaped the electoral bases of the party, creating a political universe that is polarized not only along ideological lines, but in many cases along regional lines as well. In essence, the internally divided and ideologically incoherent parties of mid-20th century America were replaced, by the 1970s if not early, by parties that were much more ideologically distinct across a broad range of issues. We can consider the process of polarization by looking at the changing relationship between parties and some of the major social movements. During the New Deal, and continuing to the present day, the American labor movement became inextricably intertwined with the Democratic party—unions traded money, votes, and active support of their extensive networks in return for Democratic support for pro-labor policies.84 African-Americans had also shifted their support to the Democratic Party during the New Deal era, and this process intensified during the 1960s, as the national Democratic party demonstrated its commitment to the civil rights movement. 85 As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, the Democrats continued to add to their coalition, bringing together (not always successfully) a broad range of supporters of new social movements. The Democratic Party had long been considered to be a particularly incoherent party, this element of political folklore was rooted in the division between the progressive-liberal wing of the Democrats and the racially conservative (or even white supremacist) faction in the “solidly Democratic” south. By the 1960s and 1970s, there were still many divisions and disagreements amongst Democrats, but those disagreements now took place within an egalitarian political framework.
For the Republican party, the most significant social movement during the mid-to-late twentieth century was the Christian evangelical movement. Prior to this period, American evangelicalism was a cultural phenomenon but not a partisan or political phenomenon; creative political entrepreneurs and organizers were able to transform evangelical Christians into reliable Republican voters—Christian conservatives—over the course of approximately two decades. In some ways, the movement of Christian evangelicals into the Republican party was made possible by the momentous changes that accompanied the rise of new social movements. Four major “triggering events” helped to politicize Christian evangelicals and push them into the Republican camp: the Supreme Court decision to annul most state abortion laws in Roe v. Wade, the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, the emergence of gay rights, and the attempts of the federal government to limit the tax exempt status of some private schools (often on the grounds that they were racially exclusionary.) By themselves, these events might not have led to the close alliance between the GOP and evangelicals; political entrepreneurs made use of vast “direct mailing” campaigns to publicize political issues with Christian voters, and also to facilitate fundraising for conservative political candidates. By 1980, the alliance between the Christian right and the GOP was as close as the relationship between the New Deal Democrats and organized labor.86
The transformation of party coalitions and party activists during the 1960s and 1970s did not have an immediate “polarizing effect” upon the parties in government. Though the parties as a whole were polarizing, particularly in terms of the social movements and interest groups that supported them, there was still a considerable degree of ideological overlap between elected party officials. Congressional incumbents in the House and Senate benefitted from the advantages of incumbency: name recognition, power within Congress, and new fundraising capacities. “Candidate centered campaigning” allowed members of Congress to resist the ideological transformations that were occurring within their parties; individual politicians were able to develop their own networks of support at the state and local level, and therefore detach themselves (at least in part) from the fate of their party. The incumbency advantage in Congress helps to explain why activists channelled their energy into Presidential contests, and it also helps to explain the (for us) curious phenomenon of partisan de-alignment in the electorate during an era of party polarization.
As the Democratic Party87 moved left and the Republican Party moved right, the public remained divided. The early stages of elite polarization led to “de-alignment,” a situation in which neither party was able to maintain consistent strength and loyalty in the electorate. The evidence for de-alignment falls into three categories. First, divided government seemed to become the norm for three decades after 196888; third parties seemed particularly prominent89, and split-ticket voting seemed to be rising90. There are two basic theses regarding the period of partisan de-alignment that existed between the 1970s and 1990s. The first explanation is that the public preferred the Republican Party for the Presidency, but preferred the Democratic Party in Congress. Overwhelming Presidential victories for the Republican Party (in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988) did not coincide with a corresponding increase of the GOP’s electoral fortunes in the House and Senate.One argument that scholars made was that the voting public had become “de-aligned,” because instead of simply supporting one party through thick and thin, they tended to support the GOP in regards to Presidential issues (most importantly, foreign affairs) while supporting the Democratic Party on domestic issues (e.g. educational spending, environmentalism, and so on.) When foreign policy receded as a major issue (as in the elections of 1992 and 1996) the Democratic Party had an advantage, and in fact should continue to have an advantage at all levels of the federal government due to its expanding demographic base.
The other major attempt to explain the era of partisan de-alignment and divided government focuses on the divergence between public opinion and elite opinion; we can call this the partisan balancing thesis. According to this theory, the public voted for divided government because it was increasingly disillusioned with both parties, and thus divided government was a rational outcome, given the preferences of the public.
As we know, the “era of divided government” has not come to an end. The era of de-alignment, however, came to an end in the 1990s. Split-ticket voting disappeared91, as voters tended to support the same party across all branches of the national government.92; genuinely independent voters became more and more rare. American voters became “sorted,” into the Democratic and Republican parties, much as party elites had become polarized a generation earlier.
The political world that we are familiar with today– parties polarized along the lines of region, and along the lines of ideology—could be discerned in the 1990s, though this was most evident at the Congressional level. The movement toward polarization was stalled at the Presidential level by the “New Democrats,” a party faction that promoted centrist Democrats (such as Bill Clinton) in order to overcome the GOP’s post-1968 Presidential advantage.93 In terms of Congressional elections, we finally see the conclusion of a shift that had begun in the 1960s: the South, for the first time, became a majority Republican region in the 1994 elections. Just as significantly, the 1994 elections seemed to usher in an era of greater competition for control of Congress; the Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives since 1954, and they had controlled the Senate for all but 6 of those 40 years.
Regional polarization between the parties has also become more evident over the past thirty years. Voters have become sorted not only in terms of ideology— progressives in the Democratic Party, “conservatives” in the Republican Party—but also in terms of where they live. This can be seen at the Presidential level, where the Democratic Party is strongest on the coasts and the rust belt and the Republican Party is stronger in the South, Mountain West, and Mid-West States. In the House of Representatives, we can understand the significance of region in terms of the urban-rural divide; states such as New York, thoroughly “blue” at the Presidential level, are more divided at the Congressional level, with rural and upstate voters leaning towards the Republican Party. Here are two interesting data points that illuminate the regional sorting of voters: in the 1976 Presidential election, only 26.8% of people lived in counties where one candidate beat the other by 20% or more; in 2004, 48.3% of all Americans lived in these “hyper-partisan” counties. Much more so than in the past, Americans live amongst politically like-minded individuals.
What causes regional differences in voting and partisan affiliation? There are two broad possible answers: geography creates shared sectional economic interests, or geography creates (or coincides with) shared cultural interests. Let us consider the “sectional economic interests” thesis first. This is an economic theory of partisanship, and the key claim is that regional differences in party strength are rooted in enduring economic tensions between different sections of the nation; different regional economies produce different kinds of interests, which explains why certain kinds of workers might vote GOP (in Montana, for instance) while certain elites (in DC, California, and New York City) might lean Democrat. The Democratic Party finds its strength in regions where employment is rooted in the knowledge sector– this creates an upper crust of symbolic analysts, culture industry workers, and public sector employees, as well as their various servants (nannies, baristas, and so on) For the areas where the Republican party has the greatest strength, the economy is premised upon taking things out of the ground and keeping wages down (doing the latter is not always possible in high growth, low population states such as North Dakota.) If you accept that this is more or less true as a description of the nation’s political economy, then it can help to explain some of the distinct patterns of voting in American elections. In particular, it can help explain distinct class- based patterns of voting: the economic interests of a working class family making 40,000 a year will depend very much upon how they are making that money.
Explanations of polarization in terms of political economy can only go so far. Because regional differences in cultural values seem to coincide (to some degree) with regional differences in economic interests; it can be difficult to determine whether vote choices are rooted in the geography of economic interests or the geography of cultural values.
The question of culture and voting leads to the broader question of voting demographics. The main features of partisan demographics are well-known: white voters have a slight (though increasing) tendency to support the Republican Party, 90% of African American voters support the Democratic Party, while Hispanic and Asian voters are somewhere in between (though leaning Democratic, particularly in the last decade.) Religious voters—particularly voters who are regular participants in organized religions, as opposed to those who are merely “spiritual”—tend to lean towards the Republican Party.94 The relationship between class and voting seems to vary by region; there is strong correlation between increased wealth and Republican voting in “red states,” whereas in “blue” states such as California and New York increased income has a very weak relation with GOP voting. It is probably accurate to say that Americans are more divided by race, religion, and region than they are by income, even in an era of growing economic inequality.
Perhaps the most contested question in the contemporary study of party and elections in the USA is the question of whether elite ideological polarization (something that has certainly occurred) has been accompanied by similar ideological polarization in the electorate. The answer to this question is important for practicing politicians (at least those who want to win office), because the answer will determine how you conduct political campaigns: if polarized elites are disconnected from the public, then political victories will accrue to those able to occupy the political center; if the public have become polarized, then electoral strategies have to focus on mobilizing core supporters as opposed to converting vanishing moderates and independent voters.95 A brief overview of party development and election results during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years reveal that it is difficult to determine whether voters have become as polarized as their leaders.
The electoral strategy of President Bill Clinton was based upon the assumption that elites within the Democratic Party had shifted too far to the left96; as a Presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton campaigned as a centrist in regards to issues related to crime, public order, and what we might call “family values97;” on economic issues, he was able to portray the Republican Party as out of touch with the interests of ordinary citizens. Aided by the declining significance of foreign policy and the fading threat of the Soviet Union, as well as the early 1990s recession98, Clinton returned the Democratic Party to the Presidency for the first time in twelve years.
Figure 4.13: 1992 Presidential Election
|Results by County|
|Bush the First|
|Clinton the First|
The 1992 election demonstrated that a moderate Southern Democratic governor, running on a centrist platform, could still re-capture part of the old New Deal coalition—white working class and middle class voters in the South and Border States. The election also seemed to demonstrate the polarization, amply demonstrated amongst elites, might be confined to elites; in Presidential elections, this meant that whoever occupied the center would have an advantage.
The next two years also provided evidence in favour of the “disconnect” thesis—the thesis that elite polarization was not caused by public polarization, and that elite polarization had not spread to the broader public.99 Having campaigned as a centrist, President Clinton pursued an expansive and very progressive domestic agenda100—and his party was punished for it at the polls, as the GOP won control of both House and Senate for the first time since 1954. The election of 1994 saw the GOP emerge as the dominant party in the American South, as the party won a majority of southern Senate seats, House seats, and governorships. It is difficult to determine whether the GOP breakthrough of 1994 was a response to the Clinton agenda, or an affirmation of the Republican Party. On the one hand, the Republican party as an organization had made a self-conscious attempt to “nationalize” the 1994 Congressional elections—rather than allowing the dynamics of “incumbency advantage” to play out, the GOP made a concerted effort to tie Democratic Senators and Representatives to the national Democratic Party and the President. Despite the sometimes heated “culture war” rhetoric that some Republicans had engaged in during the first years of the Clinton administration, the 1994 GOP party platform—the “Contract with America”—avoided some of the most controversial cultural issues such as abortion, stressing instead the neo-liberal and nationalist themes of decentralized policy-making, welfare reform, and military preparedness. However, the GOP were fairly honest about their desire to govern in accordance with the principle of “The New Right.” Once in office they did what they had promised—and they quickly discovered that this did not appear to be what the voters wanted.
Rather than initiating a “conservative re-alignment,” the first years of GOP control of Congress provided more evidence that elite polarization had not spread to the public as a whole. As Congressional Republicans pursued an increasingly radical agenda and confrontational forms of politics, they found that public support for their party wavered. President Clinton benefitted from the sharp right turn of the GOP, easily winning re-election in 1996. Clinton was also willing to cooperate with the Republicans on certain areas of domestic policy reform, most notably, the 1996 welfare reforms that were opposed in apocalyptic language by intellectuals, journalists, and other members of the broad Democratic elite.101 The Republican Party, by way of contrast, was far less deft at managing its public image. In one of the clearest examples of ideology trumping pragmatic concerns with winning office and expanding party power, the Congressional Republicans pursued the “Lewinsky affair” with a relentless zeal that was entirely indifferent to the state of public opinion. Clinton, now reconfigured as both a moderate and as a victim of a latter day witch-hunt, survived the scandal, saw his party achieve reasonable gains in the mid-term elections of 1998, and retired from office with approval ratings in the mid-60s. The entire pattern of politics in the 1990s suggests that elite polarization had not yet extended to the public—parties were rewarded for moving to the center, and they were punished for moving to the extremes.102
The election of 2000 illustrated, however, how difficult it can be to run as a moderate, when a broad range of activists and even some voters have moved to the political extremes. George W. Bush faced a difficult challenge in the election of 2000: he had to confront the vice-president of a very popular President, during a time of great economic prosperity, while working with a party that had acquired a reputation for extremism. It was in fact the same situation that Clinton had faced in 1992, and Bush II adopted a Clintonian strategy—run to the centre, this time under the banner of “compassionate conservatism.” Why was Al Gore, a figure who had previously been associated with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, unable to adopt a similar centrist strategy, and unable to achieve anything like the decisive victory that so many political science models had predicted?103 The answer is that Gore had to adjust his campaign to prevent “defection from the left.” His various attempts to distance himself from the Clinton legacy, as well as the increasingly populist rhetoric he adopted towards the end of the campaign, were reasonable responses to the threat posed by Ralph Nader’s surprisingly successful third party candidacy. Gore’s strategy was not quite successful, but it was far from irrational; he closed the distance between himself and Bush in the final weeks of the campaign, and very nearly became President.104 What the campaign illustrated, however, was that electoral strategies had to take into account the increasing polarization not only of elites, but of segments of the voting public itself.105
The 2004 election campaign was dominated by issues of domestic security and foreign wars. The GOP won a decisive victory (more decisive than the 2000 Presidential contest, at least) but what is most interesting is the way in which the 2004 election was conducted. Much more so than in the previously discussed elections of 1992, 1996, and 2000, the GOP focussed on mobilizing “core supporters” as opposed to converting independents or moderates.106 While it would be incorrect to say that this form of political combat actually determined the outcome, the shift to “voter mobilization” provides some evidence that polarized political attitudes were spreading to the public— if opinions are polarized, mobilization of core supporters makes sense as a political strategy. In some ways, however, comparing the 2004 election with the previous three is an “apples to oranges” comparison (and the apple was bullet ridden)—it is possible that, had the election not been overshadowed by the War on Terror, the Democratic Party might have been able to unite behind a Clintonian domestic policy of moderate liberalism, careful economic management, and strategic bi-partisanship. This might have disappointed many within the party elite—and many political activists who had supported Nader—but it may well have been a winning electoral strategy.107 It turned out not to be necessary.
The GOP was able to win the 2004 election on the basis of foreign policy; in 2006, they lost control of Congress on the basis of foreign policy. There are some scholar who suggest that the Republican domestic policy during the Bush administration was, as a whole, contrary to public opinion— a claim that raises numerous complex questions.108 Even assuming that this was true, it is much more likely that the 2006 Congressional elections were a consequence of the chaos in Iraq, with all its costs in human life and human suffering. As such, the Congressional Democrats did not need to craft a comprehensive vision of domestic policy to re-take the House and Senate; neither did they require an economic downturn or high levels of unemployment. The 2006 election suggested that short term policy failures on key issues could now determine election —as opposed to long term demographic trends that had, for so long, been seen by political scientists as the key determinants of election outcomes. This election also suggests that the public had not yet completely polarized—polarization amongst the public would, presumably, lead to greater stability in electoral outcomes, as ideological loyalty starts to trump considerations of competence or effectiveness. Relatively rapid shifts in control of Congress suggests that key elements of the public respond to short term events, rather than basing their votes on established party loyalty.109
What about the 2008 election? I think it is fair to say that, for some commentators, the election was about more than President Obama—or rather, the convincing electoral victory of a fully committed “New Left” Democrat110 suggested that elite polarization had spread to the public, and the new American voting public leaned towards the now fully progressive Democratic Party.111 Obama’s victory in the primary campaign is another perfect example of the role played by ideology or “political amateurs” in the current political milieu; rather than make a safe choice, the most engaged Democrats chose the more inspiring but more risky candidate. This paid off, but there were at least two problems with the conclusion that the 2008 national election heralded a “Democratic Re-Alignment.”
First, the election was shaped by the financial crisis of 2008. We cannot know whether McCain would have won without this event, but we can be close to certain that Obama’s margin of victory would have been smaller. By late August, McCain was still in a very competitive position, and he was even leading in some polls—an indication that the public as a whole had not swung decisively or permanently in the Democratic direction.
Secondly, the geographic distribution of Democratic voters in the 2008 electoral foreshadowed future problems for the Democratic Party. While President Obama’s vote totals were similar to those of President Clinton in 1996, Obama voters were concentrated in a smaller number of counties. For instance, President Clinton won 81% of all counties that had “leaned Democratic”112 in a majority of elections between 1952 and 1988; President Obama won only 38% of those counties.
Most importantly, the “emerging Democratic majority thesis” was proven wrong by the election of 2010. The developments of the first years of the Obama administration parallel those of the first year of the Clinton administration—a newly elected President pursues an ambitious domestic agenda, only to be rebuked decisively in the mid-terms. What changed in the current era of divided government— a change more or less confirmed by the elections of 2012 and 2014—was that President Obama was able to achieve re-election without any making any decisive policy moves towards the political centre. The pattern of electoral conflict in the 1990s suggested that polarized elites were disconnected from more moderate, centrist voters. The current era seems to indicate that the public has polarized in terms of political ideology, but the geographic array of voters yields different winning coalitions at the Presidential and Congressional level. One would have to hesitate before making this claim: many political scientists embarrassed themselves in the late 1980s with claims about the permanent Democratic lock on Congress, and the permanent Republican hold over the Presidency.
Party politics in America has undergone four fundamental changes since the mid-20th century. First, there is the partisan transformation of the once solidly Democratic south into a region of Republican dominance. The South has undergone the most significant transformation, at least in terms of partisan labels; the question which still bedevils political scientists is whether the old Southern Democrats transformed the Republican party, or whether the Republican Party brought “Southern Exceptionalism” to an end. Secondly, party elites have polarized along ideological lines. While the process had begun much earlier, over the course of the last fifty years American political elites—the officials, activists, and highly engaged citizens who constitute the life of political parties—are now far more distinct in terms of their beliefs and policy commitments. The third transformation has to do with the ways in which the American electorate has responded to elite polarization. Elite polarization initiated a period of de-alignment, characterized by divided government, split ticket voting, and increased support for third party movements. The forth transformation—one that is still uncertain—saw the end of de-alignment and the rise of regional and ideological “sorting” amongst the electorate. Starting in the mid-1990s, however, voters started to align themselves with the party that best reflected their general ideological predispositions—though divided government remained common, it seemed to be a consequence of the geographic array of voters, refracted through the differing electoral modes of the Presidency and the Congress. While American political parties retain considerable internal divisions—between Blue Dog Democrats and New Left Democrats, between moderate Republicans and the Tea Party—the parties as a whole have become ideologically distinct, not merely amongst elites, but amongst the public as well. The USA has experienced intense partisan conflict in the past, but never across such a broad range of moral, political, and economic questions.