I was having lunch with a friend who recently retired
from elected office.
The conversation got around to the future of the major
political parties, and he wondered aloud if they were
going to be very important going ahead. It’s a fair and
good question since the public attitudes toward these
parties seem a a low ebb for the time being.
But I’m not so sure the current decline in the national
political parties is going to be permanent, nor that they
will be replaced any time soon.
At the outset of the nation, there were no political
parties, but there were political differences which were
soon transformed into two parties, the Federalists and the
Democrats. The Federalist Party then became the Whig
Party, and after that, in 1854, the Republican Party.
Numerous third parties, over 225 years, have arisen and
then disappeared. Occasionally, one of these parties
have affected the outcome of a presidential election, and
in a few cases, elected members of Congress, but the U.S.
in contrast to most of the world's other democratically elected
governments (most of them using a parliamentary system),
has remained a two-party system.
The philosophies of the two parties have evolved over time.
Originally a radical abolitionist party, the party most black
Americans voted for (until 1932), and then anti-trust and
progressive, the Republican Party became the more
conservative and pro-big business party. Originally a rural,
anti-abolitionist party, the Democrats became the more liberal
and pro-labor union party, and after 1932, claimed the most black
From a primarily agrarian society, the U.S. became the leading
industrial nation in the world.
From the end of World War II through the end of the war in
Viet Nama, roughly 30 years, the image of the two parties and
their supporters remained relatively stable. But the Democratic
Party leadership, which dominated this period, held on to the
“New Deal” politics which had brought them to power in 1933,
and by the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, significant changes in
voter values brought a new alignment. The “solid South,” more
conservative than the other regions in the country, no longer
voted Democratic. The Northeast, once very Republican, but
now significantly more urban, began to vote for more
Democrats. The Far West (California, Oregon and Washington)
likewise became notably more liberal, while the rest of the
West voted mostly for conservative Republicans. The Midwest
was split, with more urban/industrial states voting Democratic,
and more agrarian states leaning to Republicans.
With the rise of new ethnic groups in the U.S. population,
particularly Hispanics and Asians, the voting demographic
once more has changed. The liberal or “progressive” politics,
especially in social issues, of the Democratic Party has
established it in most large cities and urban areas across the
nation, while the conservative politics of the Republican
Party have re-established it in more rural and suburban areas.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the latest redistricting for
the U.S. House of Representatives where the Republicans now
have a distinct advantage. But the transformation of the
political parties is more than an urban-rural divide.
Long known, especially through most of the 20th century, as
the party of big business and the rich, the Republican Party
has become a significantly more working class party which
supports small business but not “big” business. The
Democrtic Party now claims the allegiance of many more rich
Americans and upper middle class elites. Financial donor
records indicate that it is now the Democratic party which
is more favored by large corporations and other big business
interests. This reality goes against the persisting populist
rhetoric of the Democratic Party, but since the election of
President Reagan in 1980, a noticeable shift has occurred to
the conservative party by many working class Americans,
especially those who are more socially conservative, and those
who have become more middle class in income.
In very recent years, during the administrations of President
George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, the nation
has become more divided and polar politically than it has
been since before World War II.
But the polarities of the policies and rhetoric of the leadership
of the two parties have been too confining for many voters in
various parts of the U.S. Social conservatives have dominated
the Republican Party for a number of years, but many
Republicans, otherwise economically conservative, have been
excluded from party affairs. Many of these Republicans live
in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic region, and enjoy
continued support in their communities and states. At the
same time, many social liberals in the Democratic Party are
also more moderate on economic issues, and are turned off
by the anti-business rhetoric and policies of Democratic
spokespersons and in the U.S. senate and house. These more
centrist voters in each party have been increasingly excluded
from party affairs, and have led more and more of them
to identify as “independents.”
On the other hand, attempts to satisfy these unhappy voters in
both parties through the formation of third parties or rogue
political groups fail to change the two-party system.
The so-called Tea Party voters in the Republican Party
illustrates this. This group, often unfairly characterized in
the liberal media, has been a genuine grass roots movement
in the Republican Party (and part of, I might add, the working
class ascendancy in that party). When it demonstrates its
voting power, as it did in 2010, it has altered GOP party
values and policies. In 2012, however, (perhaps overvaluing
its success in 2010), it sometimes worked against overall
interests of the conservative movement by insisting on
some inappropriate candidates. and demands on national
national candidates, which contributed to (but to be fair, did
not entirely cause) an overall unsuccessful outcome.
Another major reason for GOP lack of success in 2012
illustrates why I think the prediction of demise or recession
of the two major parties is very premature if not wrong.
The Democratic Party clearly had the best get-out-the-vote
and voter I.D. apparatus in 2012. It was probably the biggest
reason why, in a period of economic downturn, the
incumbent president was re-elected. In 2004, however, it was
the Republican Party which had the superior get-out-the-vote
effort, and re-elected its incumbent president even though
Democrats thought they would win. My point is that
sub-groups in a major party or even third parties do not
have the resources to create and implement successful
I would agree that if one or both of the major two U.S.
parties would refuse to modify and transform themselves
in response to voter concerns, there would be some kind
of change in the two-party system. In the 1850’s, the
Whig Party did just that, and precipitated the formation
of a new major party. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the
Republican Party resisted change, and kept losing.
The same will happen to the Democrats, I think, if they
persist in pushing national policy too far to the left.
There are individuals who decry the two-party system,
and many of their arguments are rational and reasonable.
But the two-party system is part of the nation’s political
DNA. Before this system would be abandoned because
one or both of the two major parties were no longer
reflecting their voters concerns and interests, one or both
of the failing parties would be replaced by another.
How many Federalists or Whigs or pro-slavery Democrats
do you know today?
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.