The internal divisions within our political parties are deeper than they’ve been in at least two decades. The Democrats are divided between the Hillary types and the Bernie camp. The Republicans between Trump and Never Trump. This is beginning to harken back to the old days, when our parties were amalgams of factions that were sometimes harshly at odds with each other—when the Democrats were the party of black people and Southern segregationists, and the Republicans the party of Wall Street and patrician Yankee liberals.
The United States has had three different “party systems” in its history. First were the Federalists vs. the Democratic-Republicans, which lasted from the early 1790s to 1815. Second came the Whigs vs. the Democrats, which ran from the 1830s to the mid-1850s. Third—the Democrats and Republicans, from the 1850s to now. That’s an awfully durable competition. But nowhere is it written that these things are fated to last forever.
Are we beginning to see signs that the parties might one day split? Are trends like heightened polarization and our inexorable movement toward a more parliamentary politics hastening such a day? And if that day arrives, what might replace our two parties?
With these questions in mind, we asked four distinguished thinkers who are well-versed on parties and their history to bat the issue around. The conversation took place just before Christmas 2017. Democracy editor Michael Tomasky moderated, with managing editor Jack Meserve pitching in.
Michael Tomasky: You all know the history of the American party systems, and you know why they changed and why the Federalists collapsed when they did and why the Whigs collapsed when they did. Is there anything that you see today that feels or smells like those two situations to you? Or that smells like something is falling apart in terms of the party system?
David Karol: The party system is always evolving, and certainly there are a lot of tensions in the Republican Party right now. But I’m really just struck by how resilient the two-party system is. Everyone always says the American electoral systems really encourage two-party competition, but beyond that, we do not have more third parties than in the past maybe because the parties now are really open.
The Tea Party happened, the Bernie Sanders movement happened, and of course Trump. And you can look at him and say certainly he wasn’t the candidate of the Republican Party establishment, but on the other hand, even someone as exceptional as him, decided it was better to work within the two-party system. And I think that was a fateful choice. A lot of what he’s done since then goes back to that decision. So even he is working within this framework.
I teach political science, I teach political parties, so people always ask me are we going to have a third party? It’s just most movements. Most issues get coopted by one party or the other.
Christopher Caldwell: It’s unlikely the parties are going to collapse, because they’re a slightly different thing than they were 150 years ago. They have become vessels of infrastructure for campaigning and policymaking. There are a lot of financial connections, a lot of communications savvy and a lot of networking of all kinds in an American political party. All of that is very expensive. No ambitious political movement can compete with it, starting from scratch. So what tends to happen is, even when ideologies shift, the party structures remain.
Ideologically, the parties migrate around like a clock face, always remaining opposite one another. A hundred years ago the Republican Party was the protectionist party and the Democrats were the free-trade party. Fifty years ago the Democrats were the protectionist party and the Republicans the free-trade party, and now we seem to be moving back around. Maybe a better metaphor is that they’re like boxers circling each other. Until we get money out of politics, I think we’re going to have these two parties—or at least these two names.
Michael Kazin: People talk about the evolution of the parties, even third parties and independent candidates. But that’s really more about the presidency; Trump is a good example, since he used to be a Democrat and is now a Republican. But below that level, parties I think are quite durable and have even gotten more so because of the need to raise huge amounts of money to fund campaigns and also because of the professionalization of politics, which many Americans resent—all the consultants, and pollsters, and the admakers; this whole professional structure of politics that doesn’t make sense unless those who work in it are connected to one party or the other. So the structure of politics has gotten more partisan particularly since the 1980s. In addition, ideological partisanship is much stronger at the grassroots. So there is much less reason to cross the aisle; you’ll be primaried if you do. The two parties aren’t devolving anytime soon. The possibility of a third party emerging with any staying power is very small.
Frances Lee: My thoughts are very much along the same lines. The parties, if anything, seem stronger than ever. Major parties in the United States almost never die. We only have two cases of major parties going out of business, the Whigs and the Federalists. The reason parties are so hard to kill is that they can take in influences. The parties are very decentralized in that all you have to do is be able to win the primary, and then you can reshape the party.
Donald Trump would not be President today if he had tried to mount a third-party candidacy rather than running as a Republican. Bernie Sanders would not be a national leader if he had just stayed in third-party politics in backwater Vermont rather than caucusing with the Democrats and contesting for control of the Democratic Party. So the existing parties are a shortcut to power for ambitious politicians. The parties are porous to those ambitions. In the process, they take on new influences, and new policy priorities.
So it’s really remarkable when you reflect back on what the Republican Party was at its founding and look at what it is today. And the Democratic Party as well. They’ve literally exchanged places. The Republican Party was a Northern party that was for African-American rights, high-taxes, and internal improvements. But the vessel can completely change its contents over time. The Republican and Democratic parties are the two oldest parties in the world, and they’re as strong as ever because they’re so responsive to what people want to make of them.
Caldwell: To change a party system, it takes forces stronger than party. Before the Civil War we had two national parties, which were each about equally divided between Northern and Southern wings. And then things happened. The Mexican War brought questions about how to handle newly conquered and newly settled territories, for instance in the controversy over the Wilmot Proviso. Suddenly, to everyone’s shock, the issues that divided North and South were more important than the issues that divided parties.
So the question is: Is there something today—whether sectional, ethnic, or ideological—that is “perpendicular” to the party system and likely to prove stronger than it?
Kazin: We can argue about which party is more divided, but I think the Republicans have the potential for a deeper division, if the McConnell-Ryan wing believes that Trump is leading the party to big losses in 2018 and beyond. But neither side would be motivated to start a third party.
With a few exceptions, like the Populists of the 1890s, a third party is usually a vehicle started to run one individual for President: Henry Wallace in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, Robert La Follette in 1924, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. Even the Free Soil Party in 1848 would not have won 10 percent of the popular vote for President if Martin Van Buren, a former Democratic President, hadn’t been its nominee. One can imagine that happening again, with say Michael Bloomberg or some younger billionaire, Marc Zuckerberg, who can self-finance deciding “I’ll try it, see how far I get.” But it would probably be a one-shot deal.
Lee: The question with Trump, I think, is to what extent he represents larger forces in the party and to what extent it’s sort of a cult of personality around him. There aren’t Trumpist candidates running for office. Steve Bannon would like to lead a broader movement but he hasn’t succeeded in that. There was the Tea Party before, but it’s not exactly the same as Trumpism. So it’s just not clear that it represents something with deeper roots. He won the presidency as a celebrity and he spoke to grievances that Republican voters had, as well as the sense that they weren’t being well represented, but it’s very much about him as an individual. Does he represent something larger? Is there a movement?
Tomasky: So Abraham Lincoln only became President because the Democrats split into two parties and nominated two different people. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that the Republican Party could do that. Because I think Bannon might just be the type of person who would do that and would say “the hell with it, we’ll burn down the barn to root out the rats and if the other side wins one, the other side wins one.” Is that inconceivable?
Karol: I think Steve Bannon is highly overrated as a force. If he’s some wizard, he’s the Wizard of Oz. The press wants there to be someone behind Trump to make it more of a story. He was happy to step in and claim that.
One thing I wanted to say about this question of is Trump a personality or is there something else there. What’s interesting is if you look at the exit polls from the primaries, Trump did about as well with self-identified Republicans as with independents, and usually with an outsider that’s not the case. Bernie Sanders of course did much better with independents. Obama did when he ran against Hillary Clinton, McCain did when he ran against Bush, Gary Hart when he ran against Mondale.
So Trump did just as well with ordinary Republicans as independents would in the Republican primaries, and his vote was not especially new voters either. He mobilized some people who hadn’t been voting in primaries, but I think it was much more than that, it was an underserved portion of the Republican base. I think the nationalist, anti-immigration theme was important, and I think there would have been potential for a third party on that basis—not that would win, but a protest party on immigration, had Trump not won the nomination and given voice to those sentiments. Because on the one hand he is sui generis in American history, but if you look around at what’s going on around the world now in Western countries, there’s this nationalist wave. The difference is in these other countries it’s a third party: It’s UKIP, it’s the Front National, it’s the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). But Trump brought it into the Republican Party.
Lee: And that’s just a reflection of the major parties’ ability to accommodate protest movements.
Karol: And it was there, it just didn’t have a visible leader. I mean, Bush couldn’t get immigration reform through because of these people. The Gang of Eight couldn’t win because of these people. It was kind of always there, and finally someone gave it that visibility.
Caldwell: It sounds like your diagnosis is that the Republicans are kind of misrepresented. There’s a gap.
Karol: I think on that issue there was a gap between the elite and the base, definitely.
Caldwell: It would be quite possible now for either party to split up, at least enough to delivery the presidency to its rival. That happens a lot, and not just with Lincoln. It’s how Wilson became President in 1912, it’s partly how Nixon became President in 1968, it’s partly how Clinton became President in 1992. An interesting question is: In the extreme case, is it better to be the party that survives or the party that dies? Because, remember, in the 1850s it was the Democrats that really blundered. And yet, although they withered as a force, they survived as a party. The Whigs did the opposite. They became the chrysalis out of which the Republican Party emerged. The Whig Party died, but the Whig spirit wound up dominating the country for the next 50 years.
Kazin: But the Republicans were successful because they included all former Democrats who were able to bring them some white working-class support that the Whigs never really had. Half of the members of Lincoln’s first cabinet were former Democrats. One of the reasons William Seward didn’t get the Republican nomination in 1860, even though most rank-and-file Republicans would have been for him, is that most of the former Democrats in the party opposed him, as a former Whig governor and senator who favored a high tariff.
Tomasky: Let’s talk a little bit more about the Democrats because they have their issues too. And to put it in the most obvious terms, they’re looking at potentially a huge fight in 2020 over who and what kind of person is their nominee and more broadly a big fight over theories of how to be the majority party.
Lee: It’s much easier to be the opposition party, to coalesce in opposition to Trump. You can oppose him from every angle, even if the various criticisms don’t form a coherent whole. That can provide a lot of glue to the Democratic Party, just as opposition to Obama held the Republicans together despite divisions. Issues might get fought out in 2020, but whether or not we have an ideologically divisive primary for the Democratic nomination all depends on what candidacies emerge and what forces coalesce around them. It might happen. But looking back to 2016, Sanders’s appeal was not based only on his ideological positions. His appeal was also that he was clean, he was not corrupt. In that sense, Sanders was sort of the “drain the swamp” candidate on the Democratic side. So there is an anticorruption, party establishment versus party grassroots dimension to the 2016 divisions in the party; and it’s also hard to say whether those will reemerge in 2020. It could be that the Democrats might come to power without any of these issues being resolved.
Karol: I think if you look at the last presidential elections (2016, 2008), the narrative that it’s ideological differences is really overdone. I mean the voting patterns have been really about demographic differences both times. Obama was African-American voters, but also more male voters, and younger voters, and Hillary was whites, older, female, Latinos. And this time it was a little different because the African-American vote was really her core support and saved her. But the generation gap was even bigger. Even though Sanders was older than Hillary, but because of what Frances said, of him seeming to be drain the swamp-change candidate, he had a huge age gap and it wasn’t all issue based.
There’s a tendency to project what Sanders supporters on Twitter are saying as if that’s what all these people voted for; I don’t think that’s true. Obama and Hillary had differences in 2002 over the war, but there were plenty of people against the war who voted for her in the primary, so I don’t think that at the voter level this division that you see in the elites between more moderate, Hillary-oriented people and Sanders people…I think a lot of voters are not clued into that and it’s not important for them.
Kazin: I think it’s also important to look at what the party activists are thinking. Hardly any activists are saying “wait, we have to be more moderate.” Look at what happened when Ralph Northam, the new governor of Virginia, sent out a tweet as governor-elect saying maybe we’ll have to worry about cost control of Medicaid. Immediately he got an avalanche of responses, saying: “What you ran on was extending Medicaid in Virginia, how could you change your position?” And he quickly walked back that statement.
This is similar to what Frances was saying about the Republicans. For grassroots activists in the GOP, you can’t say that everything that happened under Obama was not so terrible. Of course, we don’t know what exactly is going to happen between now and 2020. But right now, all the energy, among activists of all ages, is opposing everything that Trump has done. That’s not going to change; it’s a source of unity for the party as well as a potential problem in both the midterm election and in 2020.
Karol: That’s why they’re activists, right? We talk about parties being strong, but they’re not strong in the way they used to be. People don’t go to work for a party and get a job at the county clerk’s office or at the post office; if they’re activists it’s because they’re true believers, so of course they’re militant.
And also there’s a pattern my co-authors and I found even cross-nationally. When a party loses power usually they lean more to the extreme the first election out of power. That might not be so divisive because you can see that people who are looking at 2020, who didn’t necessarily have this background, who it wasn’t their style before, have become very militant. So Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, who initially won an upstate New York district that Bush had carried, she moved to the left when she became a statewide official. But you know she’s voted against almost every Trump nominee, and that’s I think an easy way to do it, there’s no policy content to that.
Lee: That’s true for a lot of the Tea Party candidates as well. For some, the Tea Party identity is a way to seem authentic and to offer a rationale for their candidacy. The label is just a path for political ambition. Tea Party affiliates in Congress are not distinct in their behavior; they’re just Republicans. The Tea Party label was just a way to get to Congress, a reason one can offer for challenging an incumbent or an establishment-preferred candidate.
Caldwell: I think the Tea Party tendency, and after it the kind of Republicanism associated with Steve Bannon, actually poses a more systemic challenge to America. They are an attack on the system of American politics as it is now practiced, not a critique of policies within the system. But since we’re on Democrats, I’m reminded of something Peter Drucker, the management consultant, wrote in 1968: that the center of American economics and politics is going to be “the college campus rather than the factory chimney.” And the campus is the place that links the two essential parts of the Democratic coalition—the high-tech billionaires and the identity politics groups, broadly understood.
The Bernie Sanders candidacy is, I think we agree, more like Trump’s than people were willing to admit. It attracted a significant number of people who had formed their political allegiances during the Cold War and just didn’t recognize themselves in the politics that followed it. As that generation ages, the identity-politics wing of the Democratic Party will strengthen its hold.
Tomasky: Let me interject a question here. As we all know Hillary Clinton won 487 counties out of 3,100-odd counties and a big deal was made of that. Is that a problem the Democrats must address? What does it say about the deficiencies of the Democratic Party? Is that overhyped?
Kazin: If you want to become a majority party again, it’s a real problem.
Tomasky: But I mean she got more votes…
Kazin: Yeah, but she only got a minority of the popular vote. When one party had a durable majority, it was able to compete pretty much everywhere. That was true of the Jacksonians in the 1830s and ‘40s, and it was true of the Democrats in the New Deal era. It was briefly true for the Republicans in the 1980s, too.
Lee: But it hasn’t been true in a long time. Neither party has been able to compete all across the country. On the red-blue political map that has prevailed since 2000, there are lots of places Republicans can’t win, and lots of places Democrats can’t win.
Kazin: Since the New Deal order fell apart it really hasn’t been true. Congresses go back and forth, the presidency goes back and forth. But going back to Chris’s point, it will be a real problem for the Democrats, if what we describe as “identity politics” is perceived as dominating the party. White voters will be the majority for several decades to come. And, like other people, they want to vote for a party they think is speaking to and for them. Why is Minnesota in play the way it wasn’t 30 years ago? It’s because it’s almost 80 percent white. It’s also true of West Virginia, which is not in play because it’s also so white, as well as because of the coal industry and evangelical religion. I firmly believe the Democratic Party should be a small-d party as well as a large-d one, and you can’t be that if Democrats appear to write off these white people without a college education because they think they don’t need them to win.
Caldwell: I used the expression “identity politics” descriptively, not disparagingly. Not that I’m incapable of using it disparagingly, but I don’t see this as much of a problem for Democrats. The country is divided between urban interests, as they used to be called, and rural interests. This is a problem structurally, because of the way the Senate seats are apportioned. You might assume it would also be a problem in terms of mythology and narrative. Think of the images in Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad—the idea that the real Americans live out there on the farms and in the small towns.
However, in the past generation there’s been an extraordinary attempt to build a counter-mythology of the United States where the immigrant is the “real American.” Up until the last election, the Democrats had been doing pretty well with that.
Lee: Well I think one troubling development on the identity politics front is the way in which race has become a bigger division between parties than it used to be. As the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, Republicans are becoming less representative; as a party, they’re getting more diverse at a slower rate than the country as a whole. Democrats are getting more diverse at a faster rate than the country as a whole. Trump spoke to that racial divide. After all, there’s identity politics for white people, too. Trump tapped into it in a way other Republican politicians would not. Explicit race-baiting had been off limits in our national politics. Trump’s willingness to break taboos gave him a voice that resonated as authentic. That’s a troubling development. Racial cleavages are hard to manage in a democracy, especially when it becomes a primary line of division between coalitions competing for power.
Caldwell: It’s not only a prospect, it’s baked into the system in a certain way. I’d like to leave race for just a second and to make a point by analogy. If you look at how gay marriage was passed, it was a combination of executive-branch strategizing, on-the-ground organizing, and lawsuits, the classic new-politics operation. Twenty years ago Republicans would have put all their energies into passing legislation to resist it, and they would have voted for the angriest candidate ready to carry it out. That is what they did with the Defense of Marriage Act.
But it seems not to work, so that is not the way conservatives are practicing politics now. They’ve gone into the courts with their own civil-rights cases, like Hobby Lobby. They say, “You know what? My rights as a Christian are being violated.” It has become clear to Republicans that the logic of identity politics trumps the logic of electoral politics.
Kazin: Can I make a historical point about that? I think we’ve always had identity politics in this country. When Irish Catholics came, the famine generation, in large numbers in the 1840s and 1850s, the Democrats made an explicit appeal to them as immigrants and Catholics. They said, we don’t hate you the way the Whigs and then the Know-Nothings do. Republicans couldn’t counter that appeal and many didn’t want to. So the Democrats won the Irish Catholic vote pretty consistently for another century.
Caldwell: I believe the first Irish-Catholic majority for Republicans was in 1994.
Kazin: By then there was so much inter-marriage it was hard to say who was Irish Catholic and who wasn’t. But I think Republicans are playing on identity politics too. Being a white evangelical Christian now has become a political identity as much as a theological one. So as Frances was saying, we’ve always been a very heterogeneous country, ethnically and racially, and even more so now with immigrants coming from around the world. Part of the battle for the two parties is going to be how to mobilize their identities more successfully than the other side mobilizes theirs.
In this sense, Trump and his allies are smart to run against immigration. If immigrants continue to come in large numbers, that’s a problem for Republicans. In the long run I don’t think you can stifle immigration if you’re going to have a successful economy, but it’s probably smart politics for them.
Karol: It’s not like identity politics is anything new, but what is the phrase? Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion, right? Which is a famous gaffe from 1884, I mean that I think encapsulates identity politics at that time. I think some other conservative parties around the world have done a better job of reaching out to immigrants, like the Canadian Conservative Party has done. And I think that some groups like Asian Americans who are now very Democratic weren’t always, and part of that is issues that are no longer relevant like the Cold War, with lots of people coming in from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam. But I think that their children have the sense that the Republican Party is a white party and is not their party and if that if that wasn’t the case Republicans could win more support there, but that’s before the division between the Republican elite and the base. The Republican elite wants to get those people and wanted immigration reform passed for economic reasons, and because they thought they could win support. Republican voters don’t want them to and Trump represents that.
Tomasky: I’d like to ask another question at this point. Centrist elites certainly always bemoan the fact that the center has been hollowed out and the yearning for a Bloomberg-type candidate is an expression of that, and so on and so forth. They assume that there is a big chunk of the American electorate out there that feels unrepresented by the two major parties, as they do. Is that a correction assumption on their part?
Lee: Not as they do. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the parties, people do not like the parties. The preferred identity is to claim to be an independent. But most folks are not independent in the sense that they have a party preference, but they still don’t want to identify themselves with a party and say I am a Republican or I am a Democrat. If you compared independents who only lean toward a party and those who self-identify with a party, the leaners are not more moderate, they’re not distinctive on issues, and they have just as much distaste for the opposing party as people who identify with the party.
The folks who call themselves independents are not moderates. To the extent that they have an ideology, it just tends not to map onto what the parties offer. There are a lot of folks who don’t have organized political views. Their issue positions don’t line up with either party. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t have a strong party preference because party preference isn’t necessarily connected to issues, it often rests on social identity.
Caldwell: And there’s only a center if you’re thinking ideologically. If politics is about identity, there’s no center.
Kazin: I was just thinking about when we have had had centrist presidents. You could argue that, in some ways, Bill Clinton and Eisenhower were. Both men moved their parties more to the center: Eisenhower a little to the left and Clinton a little to the right. In both cases, they felt that the country as a whole was more in favor of the other party—either more conservative in the ’90s or more liberal in the ’50s. What did Samuel Lubell say about that?
Lee: Yes, the sun party and a moon party, the dominant party and the secondary party.
Kazin: I don’t think we have either now. But the only true independents in American politics today are people who don’t really care much about politics. Most probably don’t vote.
Karol: And you know the old finding that most people aren’t ideological doesn’t mean that they’re centrists. To the extent that they have any policy views, they have a hodgepodge. There’s a famous phrase from Phil Converse that the voters are innocent of ideology. They don’t know that if you believe in gun control you’re supposed to believe in single payer and same-sex marriage. There is no logical connection between all these things, they’re put together by political entrepreneurs and parties so the idea that there’s millions of people who agree with Michael Bloomberg and David Brooks, I have not seen those legions in the field, just a lot of generals.
Kazin: You see now how few people really wanted a balanced budget since the Republicans don’t care about it anymore.
Karol: There’s an elite centrism that doesn’t speak for almost any voters.
Tomasky: But it also seems to me that the biggest problem with one of those kinds of centrist campaigns is simply the issue of abortion. They talk about this Kasich-Hickenlooper dream ticket. Well who’s going to be on the top of the ticket and who’s going to be the running mate and what’s that party’s position going to be on abortion? That’s really going to determine how that party is perceived, will it not? And who it gets votes from?
Kazin: And that goes to the importance of social movements: There are no centrist social movements. It’s an oxymoron.
Jack Meserve: This isn’t exactly about parties, but it certainly connects to it. It feels like from my lifetime, I’m 28, we’ve seen just steadily declining functionality of political institutions. The bills that get passed are just written slapdash, as in this most recent case, there’s that famous memo that went around during Obamacare. Somebody, I think it was LBJ’s chief of staff, saying I think we have the votes for Medicare, we have 54, which now doesn’t even make sense. Is that a breakdown of institutions connected to parties? How is it connected to parties?
Karol: Our political institutions are not designed for political parties. And that’s a fundamental point. Now the reason we haven’t had these problems before is that for much of the twentieth century, when the government grew and did so much domestically and internationally, the parties were not that polarized. So the previous period when parties were polarized, say the Gilded Age, the late nineteenth century, the government barely did anything. It didn’t have to be that functional. So we now have this fatal combination: We have these really cohesive parties and we have a very large government like every other advanced industrialized country, even when the conservative party is in power, and it’s just a giant problem with these institutions.
Lee: I would just layer on top of that there’s a close competition between parties. The division of power between the parties is pretty narrow. The margins of control that the majority party has in Congress are slim and always endangered. We have divided government most of the time. So we have these strong parties, both of which see themselves as majorities competing for power and a system that requires super-majorities to work.
Caldwell: Yes we’ve had a couple of periods where the parties were as polarized as now. I’d say the 1890s, but also the 1930s. The difference is, one party was able to simply overpower the other, at least for a while.
Kazin: I think the other side of this is what’s happening in the states. You mention, David, the weakness of the federal government in the Gilded Age. But the state governments were actually very powerful in many ways, given the police power they could wield. Even the federal government devoted something like a third of its budget to Civil War pensions—which was a great way to keep the Republican Party in power.
Arguably, with Trump, more states may actually become competitive and the partisan divides in them will become even more intense. Look at the recent Alabama Senate race, for example.
Karol: Definitely state politics has become more and more partisan. State legislatures are traditionally not as partisan as Congress, sometimes members of the minority party get committee chairmanships and things like that. That’s less true now. There’s kind of a nationalization of politics, and groups like the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council pushing similar politics all across the country in state legislatures. Most states do not have a supermajority rule (in the Senate) though some states do. Mostly not.
Lee: But they’re mostly bicameral.
Karol: Yeah, they are. But the bicameral rules in the states, it’s still based on population. The Supreme Court requires that. What’s interesting is what Mike was talking about: To what extent can state-level politicians separate themselves from the national party brand. In the past they were able to do that to a great extent. I mean the Southern Democrats were still dominant at the state and local level long after Democratic presidential candidates were in trouble. But look at the Republicans in California. It’s really remarkable, except for Schwarzenegger, who of course is unique, it’s an eighth of the country and there are basically just pockets that can elect some Republicans to the House, but nobody thinks they’re competitive statewide. It’s remarkable.
Tomasky: It’s mildly off point, but I hope only mildly. Talking about tension between our parties and our system of government, if you could change one thing to make things more functional, what one thing would that be?
Lee: Everything’s interconnected.
Tomasky: I mean the method of representation in the House of Representatives or the Electoral College or the Senate or what?
Karol: I’m totally against the Electoral College. I don’t think that we need to secure the slave owners’ interests anymore, but I don’t feel that would reduce polarization in a big way. If you got rid of the filibuster, and there have been moves in that direction, there would be less gridlock. We don’t know exactly what would happen because some people are for policies that they know they’re never going to get the votes for, so we can’t say exactly what the outcome would be. But I think more things would get done. I think for example Republicans would really gut Dodd-Frank right now if it weren’t for the filibuster. Now whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I mean if we’re going to say gridlock is a problem you don’t need to change the Constitution, you don’t need to change federal law. I think there’s no justification for the Electoral College, but I think in terms of dealing with gridlock I think the filibuster is the easiest answer.
Kazin: It won’t come as a surprise to anybody who reads us, but I think the Senate should be based on population. Our upper house has so much power compared to its counterparts in other nations—the House of Lords or the French Senate. It’s completely undemocratic and unjustifiable for each voter in Wyoming to have almost 70 times the voting power that a California voter does. Personally I’d favor switching to a parliamentary system. But that would require the current members of the Senate to, in effect, vote against themselves to amend the Constitution. But if we call ourselves a democracy, we have to have a democratic form of government that is democratically elected. And with the Senate, we don’t.
Karol: I agree with all those points.
Caldwell: It’s funny how whenever you ask a progressive “What would you change?” they have a list of ten things at the ready. I have nothing to say. I wouldn’t touch a thing, personally. But clearly the public’s comfort with the Electoral College is eroding. There are rationales for giving the states a special day in picking a President, even if that means electing a President with fewer votes than his opponent. There is a conservative rationale of state sovereignty and a progressive rationale of states as laboratories of democracy. But both are losing their force. To the extent that states retain their policy-making importance, it’s because activists and foundations have been able to come up with one-size-fits-all processes that they think appropriate for every state. This uses state sovereignty but violates its spirit.
Karol: I’m not totally against federalism as long as minorities’ rights are protected, which wasn’t true for most of American history. But you can have federalism without the Electoral College. Many countries—Canada, Brazil, Germany, Australia—have this and sometimes there’s some overrepresentation in the upper house, but I think federalism could survive just fine.
Caldwell: So without the Electoral College, would you have candidates just running for the vote on one side in Texas and the other side in California, and not worry about winning over New Hampshire, say?
Karol: Everyone says this, but first of all, the Electoral College did not prevent the Civil War. It doesn’t prevent the red and blue map. We have geographical divisions anyway. So I think right now if Trump loses another million voters in California, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t register in our system. I don’t think that that’s right, normatively I don’t think that’s right—that the presidential election should take place only in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. I don’t think that’s a good system.
It’s almost like there’s this idea, people don’t want to say this, but this idea that rural white people should be overrepresented. What if the candidates spend all their time in the big cities? Well, first of all, they wouldn’t, but second of all that’s where most people live. You know the Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who was just elected in Nevada to the Senate, she only won one district, Clark County, which happens to be Las Vegas where most people live, she just has this one “little” corner of the state. Does anyone think that’s wrong?
Tomasky: Frances, what’s your idea?
Lee: The world of institutional reform proposals is one of unanticipated consequences. Although I agree with these criticisms of the Electoral College and the apportionment of the Senate, I hesitate to recommend changes because of the unforeseeable chain of consequences that so often result. One recommendation I do have: Reformers ought to steer clear of always trying to ensure more democracy, more openness. I think the constant pressure for “more democracy” has had some negative consequences. The openness in Congress has meant being open to organized interests, not to a broad public. Opening up the the parties has just made them more accountable to activist groups. Openness is not always the solution. It’s the easiest normative rationale one can offer for reform proposals. But in the real world it often has negative consequences.
Karol: I agree with that, but you know I think party reform has a lot of negative consequences. It’s actually easier for me to see the filibuster being abolished than the open parties being rolled back. There’s no legitimacy. Look at the super delegates, who I don’t think have the legitimacy to block a Sanders or to block an Obama, although mathematically they maybe could have. But people can’t justify it, so it’s a very populist and democratic ethos, and as a student of parties I totally agree. I just think it’s really hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
Kazin: Despite the fact that the Democrats have become in some ways more contentious since the McGovern-Fraser reforms, they have also given more people a feeling that they can take part in national politics. We don’t have figures like Mayor Richard Daley calling the shots anymore. In the ’60s, the New Politics people were mostly elite urban professionals who were trying to break the power of bosses like Daley. But now, in both parties, especially the Democrats, it’s young activists who, for the most part, have not been involved in politics for very long who are fighting to control the direction of the organization.
Lee: It’s true that people can participate in nominations more. It doesn’t mean that those who choose to participate are more representative. And the parties’ public image is no better; the parties are not better loved now.
Karol: I think it’s the opposite. We’re in a very partisan age but people don’t like parties. We don’t have survey data, but from everything we know of the nineteenth century it was this rah-rah feeling about parties. And now we have what scholars call “negative partisanship.” People hate the other side. It’s not so much that they love their side. And it’s like I was saying before about the super delegates: The idea of the party as an organization that has some legitimacy, some right to autonomy, means you should have to register to participate in the primary. I mean in other countries you have to pay to join a party, but that’s not the case here. That you should have to register maybe a week before the primary, God forbid. And that party elites know something and should have some minimal role in the process, but that’s also cross-nationally a phenomenon that power has moved away from elites. I mean look at Jeremy Corbyn’s election and primaries in France and Italy and Israel and other countries. So it’s not unique to the United States. That’s why I didn’t mention it as my reform proposal, because I’m just so pessimistic about that.
Lee: Yeah, I’ve already indicated my pessimism here. I think other countries have been able to use this strategy of opening things up as a way to address popular discontent with their parties. We’ve already opened up. What proposal is out there for us to try to restore confidence, faith in our major parties?
Kazin: Public financing would help. In Britain, there’s a severe limit on how much one can spend if you’re running for the House of Commons. I think it’s like £20,000. Whereas in the United States, campaigns for the House of Representatives routinely spend millions of dollars. The big money that’s raised and spent is one of the reasons why so many Americans are down on parties.
Tomasky: Just a general future-ish question. I take it from everything you’ve all said that you all think that ten, 15 years from now we’ll still have a Democratic Party and a Republican Party, we’ll still have a two-party system. But will they be about the same as they are now, just more polarized? In other words, will they change between 2017 and 2027 more or less the way they changed between 2007 and 2017, or might they change in some other surprising way that readers of this quarterly haven’t thought about?
Caldwell: We have had, just in the last couple of months, something that will be a great surprise to anyone who has sort of formed his opinions of parties over the last generation: The Democrats have become the party of sexual morality. There were signs of this starting in the 2012 election, when Obama talked about contraception as a kind of values issue. We see it now full-blown in the sexual harassment cases that have come up since the Harvey Weinstein revelations. The Democrats really want to talk about what constitutes decent sexual behaviour. The Republicans are more inclined to take the role that the Democrats took 20 years ago and say that your sexual comportment is none of our business. I think that that’s a big surprise.
More generally I would expect the transformation we’ve seen over the last generation to continue, which is that, as the universities consolidate their place at the commanding heights of the new economy, the Democrats will come to resemble the Gilded Age Republican Party even more than they already do.
Lee: If we look to the future projecting out from current trends, one implication would be that the racial divide is going to get deeper between the parties and that we’re going to see more harsh, racialized rhetoric in our national discourse along the lines that Trump would presage. A second thing if we just project into the future and assume that neither party gets a commanding majority of public opinion on its side is close competition between the parties. That means parties are going to have a lot of trouble working the constitutional system, that they’re going to be blocked and frustrated.
So that means they’ll have to go to the electorate with a message that the other party is worse because they’re not going to be able to deliver on many of their promises since the system blocks them from doing so. The upshot is more negativity and cynicism.
Kazin: Being a historian, I deeply believe in contingency. Structures matter a lot, but if you look at 1856, James Buchanan won the presidency pretty easily. But then the Civil War happened, and the Democrats didn’t win another presidential election for almost 30 years, until Grover Cleveland. And he didn’t even win a majority of the popular vote. Then, after Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964, many pundits wrote that the Republicans wouldn’t be competitive again for a long time. Of course, four years later, Nixon got elected and then was reelected in a landslide.
Stephen Skowronek, the Yale political scientist, predicted soon after the 2016 election that Trump will be like a Republican Jimmy Carter, that he would fail to construct a new governing majority by railing against entrenched interests and would probably be succeeded by a Democrat who promised to do things very differently.
A lot depends on whether he’s right—whether Trump will be seen as somebody who makes the Republican Party anathema to a majority of voters the way Carter did for Democrats. But I wouldn’t want to predict what will happen three years from now, much less 10 years from now. No one predicted the attacks of 9/11. Without those, George W. Bush may well have been a failure as President and would not have won a second term.
Caldwell: Did you say “would have been a failed President”? Is it your contention that Bush was not a failed President?
Kazin: Well he ended up being a failure, but he did get re-elected because of how he responded to the terrorist attacks. The Enron scandal would have been a much bigger deal without 9/11.
I think the world is changing very quickly. What’s going to happen in China and India and the Middle East might have as much to do with who dominates American politics as anything that happens at home. We who study American politics often forget that the world has a lot to do with what happens in America.
Tomasky: Plus the phrase “Bush scandal” sounds so quaint now. David?
Karol: I think Frances is right because there’s been this long period of very close competition between the parties. All the electoral institutions right now advantage the Republicans. That wasn’t always true but the Electoral College, the Senate, and even the House of Representatives—in part because of gerrymandering—can change, but there’s also what you were talking about before, because the Democrats have wasted votes in these large metropolitan areas. And so Republican victories come from very narrow majorities. In the case of Trump and Bush, not even a plurality. And they represent declining demographics. The evangelicals are not a growing group; whites are a shrinking group. They do worse among younger whites than among older whites. So if they’re going to be a competitive party, something has to happen.
People were talking about this for a while, that Republicans had to be pro-immigration to appeal to these groups, but it turned out there were more white voters than some people thought. There are certainly tensions there and there are dangers there for them. But even if whites are declining as a share of the electorate, if we have increasing racial polarization and Republicans can keep getting a larger share of the white vote, then this is sustainable for a while.
Tomasky: That’s it. Thanks everybody.