Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Political Parties

It's Election Day - albeit an "off-year" election, with just a few really big races commanding national attention. But this Election Day is a good occasion to think about the current state of our two principal political parties. Forty years ago, when I was studying such things in college and graduate school, it was fashionable to analyze why we in the U.S. always end up with two parties and why the parties tended to be (as they then tended to be) more like broad coalitions than narrowly ideological parties, as was and is often the case in other democracies with parliamentary systems.

In those days, anyone who studied American politics learned how certain institutional factors - notably, "single-member" electoral districts, as opposed to proportional representation - fostered the development of a 2-party (as opposed to a multi-party) system, since only one candidate could win, and there was thus nothing to be gained (unlike in a proportional representation system) by getting a respectable but non-winning vote in a district. Likewise, the Presidency functions as the biggest "single-member" district of all, reinforced by the "winner take all" system of allocating each state's electors. The result, we all learned, was two broad-based political parties, in which coalitions were formed before the election - unlike parliamentary systems with their more ideological parties which, having competed electorally, then had to form coalitions among themselves to govern afterwards. Given the proverbial instability then associated with many (but not all)parliamentary coalitions, the American experience was widely touted as preferable. (In my post-60s political fervor, I tended at the time to the view that a parliamentary system with more ideologically defined parties might have been a better alternative.)

That was the institutional explanation of why we had two parties for most of our history and why those parties perforce tended to be broad coalitions. There was also a historical explanation - namely that people tended to vote as they fought (or would have fought) in the Civil War. With some modest modifications beginning with the New Deal (e.g., the shift of northern black voters from the Republican to the Democratic column), that political division of the country seemed to hold, more or less, until the party realignment unleashed by the 1960s.

The gradual, but inexorable result of that realignment process has been two parties which are much more coherently identifiable ideologically - the Republicans having become a very conservative party, with its base in the South, the Democrats having become a more liberal party, with its base on the two coasts and in urban areas. The consequence has been the collapse of the political middle.

A recent on-line article, "Party Polarization Signals the End of the 100-Year War,' by James R. Rogers http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/11/04/party-polarization-signals-the-end-of-the-100-year-war/ traces this process. Rogers relates how in 1982, 344 House members (almost 80%) were ideologically positioned between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In 1994, the "middle" had declined to 252 members; in 2002, 137 members, in 2011, 16 members, and in 2012, a mere 11 members (less than 3%). Rogers acknowledges the multiple factors that may have contributed to this process - "partisan Gerrymandering and closed-party primaries" and "increasingly polarized voters electing increasingly polarized legislators" - but also puts forward his own theory that connects it with "generational change - the dying off of the last generation of voters whose partisan affiliation was significantly influenced by residual Civil War loyalties." It is that century or so of post-Civil War ideologically mixed political parties which Rogers regards as the aberration, rather than the current more polarized politics, and he seems to favor the latter as promoting "electoral accountability."

There is much to recommend Rogers' analysis. His endorsement of the outcome, however, seems debatable. He is somewhat dismissive of "the slower, back-slapping way of policy-making and debate in Washington during the 1950s" as simply something politicians and journalists enjoyed more.

At the time in fact, many - especially in academia -  lamented that "slower, back-slapping way" and wanted to see more ideological coherence in political parties and more electoral accountability. Many (myself among them then) applauded how the civil rights era's migration of the southern white vote to the Republicans liberated the Democrats to be more liberal. In the process, however, it liberated each party from the effect its minority wing (liberals for the Republicans, conservative for the Democrats) had in restraining extremism and fostering balance, which made cooperation and compromise possible. If the 1950's system was slow and hindered the march of progress, the current system is infinitely more so - with the added cost of higher intensity conflict.

The fact that we now live increasingly in politically segregated jurisdictions and that people now receive all or most of their news from ideologically congenial sources contributes to perpetuating this polarization and consequence political dysfunction - from which it is harder and harder to envisage an escape.

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