TCS Daily


Two Parties, Like it or Not

By James H. Joyner - August 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Every so often I read that the Democrats are about to implode, how various rifts will tear the Republicans asunder, that the Libertarians will emerge as a competitive party, or about the emerging Independent majority. These are all fascinating as ways of examining current events but they fly in the face of historical reality.

It is no accident that our Republic has had a two party system in place in virtually every election cycle since the founding and that the Democrats and Republicans have taken turns governing since 1860. The Constitution all but assures that our politics will be dominated by exactly two parties and politics helps ensure that the current two parties will be the two parties of the future.

Presidential races are, as all Americans are by now surely aware, decided by the Electoral College. Every four years, we have fifty-one separate elections, one in each state plus the District of Columbia. Forty-eight states and DC award a slate of delegates pledged to vote for their plurality winner. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, who award two at-large electors to the statewide plurality winner and one elector to the plurality winner in each of their congressional districts. To be elected president, one must amass 270 electoral votes (50 percent plus one of the 538 electors). If no candidate gets a majority, as would happen in a race where three or more candidates got a very large number of votes, the House of Representatives would decide the election by a somewhat arcane method I'll refrain from boring you with here.

The 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs ever two years in first-past-the-post races in 435 single member districts. That is, the races go to whoever gets the most votes, even if no one gets a majority.

One third of the 100 U.S. Senate seats are up for election every two years. They are all contested at-large (voters from the whole state in one big pot, rather than in smaller regions) with the plurality winner taking the seat.

Because there is no prize for second place, as in the proportional representation system common in many parliamentary systems, our system encourages -- indeed, essentially forces -- candidates and parties to the political center in an attempt to get as close to a majority as possible or, in the case of multi-candidate elections, more than anyone else. For all practical purposes, ideological parties such as the Libertarians have no prayer in such a system, as they will seldom emerge with a plurality in even a congressional district, let alone a state-wide Senate or presidential contest.

Political scientists term the boring, unprincipled, ever-shifting political groupings that tend to coalesce in systems such as ours "Catch-all parties." While formed by people with similar political allegiances, the successful ones expand the size of their "tent" as much as necessary to be competitive. And, again, "competitive" in elections for American federal offices means enough to appeal to a majority, or at least a plurality, of the voters in a given district, state, or collection of states.

The Libertarian, Green, Constitution, and dozens of other parties that most have never heard of are far more interesting than the Republicans or Democrats. They are also more intellectually coherent and ideologically principled. Their adherents tend to give better speeches and write more interesting public policy essays. Alas, none appeal to more than a sliver of voters. So, while one of their standard bearers may win the occasional city council or state legislative seat -- or even, once every few blue moons, a U.S. House seat -- none will ever be elected president, much less elect a majority in either house of Congress.

The idea that either the Democrats or Republicans are likely to either fall apart because of bickering among the numerous factions that make up the alliance or by pushing their ideological preferences so far as to alienate the country is also incredibly far-fetched. To be sure, there is frequently an argument to be made that, if present trends continue, one or both parties will do precisely that. Unfortunately for the hopeful, however, those trends don't continue very long.

There was talk during the late 1960s and early 1970s that the Democrats had simply gone too far to the left, at least on the national level. They were nominating guys like Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern and seemed to be in league with the Flower Children, runnin' down the country and walkin' on the fightin' side of Merle Haggard.

By the mid-1970s, it looked like the Republicans were doomed. There was Watergate, runaway inflation, out-of-control intelligence operations, and Ford's pardon of Nixon. It got so bad, the country elected Jimmy Carter. Which pretty much ended the Republicans' problems.

Indeed, during the Reagan and Bush (41) years, political scientists and pundits alike talked about a GOP "lock" on the Electoral College. With runaway victories in 1972, 1984 and 1988, combined with wins in 1968 and 1980 (and coming oh-so-close even in 1976) it seemed inconceivable that the Republicans could lose the presidency.

Bill Clinton picked that lock in 1992. It wasn't just that he was a uniquely gifted orator and campaigner and his opponent was neither. Or that the country was tired of the Republicans. The landscape had simply changed in the blink of an eye.

The Cold War was over, obviating the Republicans' natural advantage in national security policy. The growing Hispanic population and other changes suddenly put California -- long a Republican stronghold -- into play and, soon, a gimme for the Democrats. And the Democratic Party of McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis was suddenly gone, replaced by New Democrats like Clinton who could talk about Jesus, values, and family with the best of them.

Indeed, it looked like national security would never be an issue again. Then came the 9/11 attacks.

Is it possible that the Democrats will be overtaken by the excitable "netroots" and veer so far to the left that they miss their golden opportunity to take back the Congress in November? Absolutely.

Conversely, could the Republicans interpret narrowly holding onto both Houses of Congress as a mandate to continue spending money like drunken sailors and grandstanding on issues like flag burning, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo? You bet.

Neither trend, should it materialize, however, will continue for long. Catch-all parties exist for one thing only: To win elections. Historically, it hasn't taken take too many lost elections to cause a major course correction. In the modern information age, it doesn't take too many consecutive polls to cause strategy changes.

Modern political parties change identities as fast as Al Gore changes personalities. That fact simultaneously frustrates hard core partisans and yet ensures their long-term survival.

James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway.

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25 Comments

One Point Forgotten.
The author appears to be forgetting the fact that there have been changes in political parties in America in the past.

We started with the Democratic-Republican Party and the Federalist Party... along the way the Whig Party had some success, and then the modern Democratic and Republican Parties arose.

One can argue that the current political climate precludes changes in parties, but one must admit that it has happened in the past, and, therefore, may happen in the future again. I am certain that there were some in the early days of the Republic who thought that the D-R Party and the Federalist Party were there to stay.

A Reminder that Phd stands for ...
Piled Higher and Deeper. What a noxiosly disjointed and cynical (grandstanding? who grandstands more than the Democrats-and on the same issues) essay. Could be this, could be that, oh well, we'll see...

The Neglected Middle
Who Will Benefit From The Lieberman Debacle?
American Daily, August 10, 2006

Ultimately, the Lieberman spectacle could signal a Democrat implosion in which the party maneuvers itself into an untenable position that will PLEASE NEITHER THOSE ON THE LEFT NOR ITS MORE MODERATE MEMBERS. Nevertheless, a Democrat Party whose members realize that they must remain committed to their agenda (liberal though it may be) is more likely to prevail than a Republican Party that rallies around and preserves the political career of such turncoats as Arlen Specter.

It is becoming clear that, as a result, REPUBLICAN “MODERATES,” seeking to beat the Democrats to the punch, in fact may have maneuvered themselves into a political posture that is quite possibly EVEN MORE UNPALATABLE TO THEIR OWN VOTING BASE. Time is running out for the GOP to regain the high ground in this election cycle.

http://americandaily.com/article/14993

Remember Perot... and Jefferson
From Wikipedia (1992 Election):

"The public's unease about the deficit and fears of professional politicians allowed the independent candidacy of billionaire Texan Ross Perot to explode on the scene in the most dramatic fashion—at one point Perot was the leader in the polls. Perot crusaded against the national debt, tapping vague fears of deficits that has been part of American political rhetoric since the 1790s. His volunteers succeeded in collecting enough signatures to get his name on the ballot in all 50 states. In June, Perot led the national public opinion polls with support from 39% of the voters (versus 31% for Bush and 25% for Clinton)[1]. Perot severely damaged his credibility by dropping out of the presidential contest in July and remaining out of the race for several weeks before re-entering. He compounded this damage by eventually claiming, without evidence, that his withdrawal was due to Republican operatives attempting to disrupt his daughter's wedding. His presence, however, ensured that economic issues remained at the center of the national debate."

Ross Perot was actually in the lead, by a substantial amount, until he dropped out and revealed that he was a lunatic. However, his party still got Jesse Ventura elected. DavidF1966 had a great point when he noted that we had to go from Democratic-Republicans and Federalists to Democrats and Republicans somehow.

Third parties can and do happen. The key thing that I think the author has missed is that they don't happen for very long. One of two things generally happens:

1) The Bull Moose/Reform Party Scenario: Both of these parties were formed in response to the political ambitions of one man. In the case of the Bull Moose Party (officially, the Progressives,) that one man was Teddy Roosevelt. When he lost the Republican nomination to William Howard Taft, he split off to form the Bull Moose Party, composed largely of a group of what we refer to today as RINO's. The Reform Party was formed after the 1992 Perot candidacy, and essentially for the purpose of supporting him again. It won a brief boost after getting Jesse Ventura elected, but is now falling apart. Since these parties tend to be cults of personality, once that personality is no longer running they usually fall apart.

2) A Genuine Split, One Party Dies: These occur relatively less-often, but are much more thorough and tend to last. One example is the end of the Whig Party. The Whig Party platform (roughly) mirrored a lot of what Pat Buchannan says. They appealed to professionals and bigwhigs in much of the country, and did pretty well for themselves during the early to mid-1800's. By the 1850's or so, the Party was falling apart over the question of slavery. It turned in to roughly a fifty-fifty split for and against slavery. After a failed Presidential Election in 1852, many of the Party activists left and joined either the Republicans or the Know-Nothings (an anti-Catholic Party.) The key concept here is irreconcilable differences. When they arise and split a party to the point where it is no longer an effective force, other groups will rise to take their place. When whatever issue caused them to split in the first place is resolved, they tend to form back together again under a new name.

(Wikipedia has some pretty comprehensive articles on the various different "Party Systems" in the US, search for "First Party System" and keep readinfg through the "Third Party System" and you will find all of the direct facts I have quoted, the theory is my own.)

The Democrats are staring Scenario #2 in the face. The war is an extremely divisive issue. There is pretty clearly a genuine split developing between "National Security Liberals" like Lieberman and Zell Miller, and "Anti-War Liberals," the Kennedys, Boxers, Durbins and Reids of the world. The fact that they go after their own now with the hatred that is usually reserved for Republicans tells me that they are splitting up. The fact that their Party has won so few presidential elections since the days of FDR says something, that the Democratic Party is becoming an ineffective political machine, and I predict a hemorrage after the election.

Splits can and do happen. I think we are seeing one right now, and I think that the US will soon have a center-left party and a far-left party. (As a future prediction, I bet that the center-left party will win many more votes than the Democrats of today, and will probably attract Republican moderates as well. Once it overwhelms the far-left party, they will collapse and only recieve support on college campi.)

But it would not matter...
David,

There is no point arguing that there could be some other party to replace either of the two current parties. The new party would still need to be "centrist" to capture as much of the majority vote as possible, exactly as Dr. Joyner explained.

This is additionally true because the "decision-making", undecided, swing voter is very close to going either way. And these "median-opinion" voters make all the difference.

It is important that extreme views are represented within the two major parties so that if the "median view" does shift one way or the other, the political system is able to respond.

But remember that most of our politicians are lawyers and they will take any position they are hired to defend. This is good because they will represent their constituencies according to our beliefs. And it is bad because they are fundamentally insincere.

Superheater...
Sometimes you are only irritating. And other times you are only ignorant. But this time you are being pointlessly abusive of a great mind. What's wrong with you?

The moderates have been deciding all along...
Voters of each constituancy will chose their congressmen and this is typically based on leadership and track record more than national politics. The Presidency, however, will be a certain "acid test" for how far off the median each party may have drifted. Or it could also be about personalities. Or maybe we'll all just do what Neil Young says we should do.

Your future Center Left Party is the Democtratic Party now...
Publius,

Of course, you are correct that the Democrats will split into a Center Left (moderate, majority) faction and a Far Left radical fringe. They already have. The radicals have strength today because the Democrats are in terrible trouble. With no clear moderate message to appeal to the median majority, the center cannot shout down the self-destructive, madman types. This business with Lieberman will sort out the radicals because he will win his reelection and start to rebuild the middle himself through such success. Most of the other Democrats are going to do terrible this Fall.

Nevertheless, your scenerio is valid. Naturally your Center Left Party will still be called the Democratic Party. And history will hardly notice.

Ronald Reagan and the "swing voter."
Ronald Reagan was elected in two of the largest landslide victories we have ever seen in this country. He even converted many traditional Democrats. The concept that there is some vast political center that decides elections is, based on the evidence at hand, ludicrous. Democrats win by moving to the center, like Bill Clinton and his famous Triangulation strategy. Republicans win when they move to the right. The problem is that since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have not run a candidate with the spirit to defend their own ideas. If we do, we will win, and win overwhelmingly.

Right now the Democratic Party is shifting distinctly to the left. With Howard Dean as the Chairman of the DNC, tell me that this is not so?

If the Democrats do split, they will split in to a center-left party and a far-left party. I think you are quite correct to suggest that extremes will no win, and hopefully the far-left party wil die out.

Buzz off, Forest, This isn't intellectual feudalism.
Don't start a sentence with an "and".

Of course you might have some expertise with "irritating" and "ignorant".

Even "great minds" screw up, especially when they confuse people's convictions with "grandstanding".

In any case, you don't like my posts-don't read them. If a TCS author doesn't like criticism, he/she should post here.

Perhaps you like intellectual servility, I don't and I didn't like the this essay.

By the way Forest, check the "great mind's" next post..
He refers to "Amtrack", not "Amtrak". While not damning, it does prove my point about error.

It certainly would matter
You could have a liberal and a conservative party and the political terrain would be (and is) argued around certain disagreement points. But you could have the libertarian and the authoritarian party, maintain the two party system and have completely different arguments over policy.

The reformation and realignment of parties is vitally important because it changes the nature of the political battlefield. The most radical reformation possible is killing off one or both of the major parties and replacing it with something else.

not a good point
Catching spelling and grammatical errors is the job of the editor. Sure, it would be great if great minds needed no spell check or grammer check but life just doesn't work that way.

Some errors shouldn't be made On the Contrary
This isn't a simple typo. I believe in "amendable defects", but this is infamiliarity with the most rudimentary fact.

A difference your missing
Both the Republicians and Democrats are moving further away from the center. This means that moderate liberals and moderate conservatives, bonded by the undecided middle, could get together and form a very powerful entity indeed. The difference between this and other party in-fighting is that the extremeists are winning, opening the door wide for a strong third party.

Reagan was no extremeist; he was a foreign policy hawk who believed in diplomacy and pressure and a domestic moderate. The compromise got things done as the Democratic controlled congress had to agree with much of his domestic policy and, to get what they wanted, they had to O.K. his military building. Reagan was not afraid of the veto and both parties learned early that we wasn't BSing if he said he would use it. He also wasn't afraid to "shut down" the government if he didn't like what congress was doing.

Reagan was principaled, unwavering in his faith, and stayed the course; Bush tries to emulate him but can't because he doesn't have the personality or the background. Remember, Reagan was a Democrat first and became a Republican later.

Republicans moving to the right? Where?
...

Meant it to be more rhetorical than it came out
If it is true that Schwarz of Michigan is a moderate Republican Congressman, defeated by a more conservative candidate in the primary.

Depends on how deep the split is.
If 1 to 5% split off, you are correct, the Democrats will continue as a slightly weakened party for a few election cycles, then begin to rebuild strength.

The thing to be wary of is that there is already a viable party to the left of the Democrats. The Greens. They run nationally and are competitive in a number of states.

It wouldn't take too many Democratic defections, if they were concentrated in key Green states, for the Greens to start winning state level contests. That would give them enough media attention to start being taken seriously on a national level. Especially considering how the deep blue states already get more MSM attention to begin with.
Deep blue states are the ones where the Greens tend to poll better to begin with, and it's the ones where the Greens would be most attractive to disaffected Democrats.

I don't think that it's a guarentee (high likelyhood, but not a guarentee) that the center left would be the portion that survived the split.

There's another dynamic to consider. The Libertarians.(forgive the gratuitous plug)

The Libertarian party has a platform that has the economic conservatism of the Republicans, and the social liberalism of the Democrats. So it can be an attractive alternative to both parties. (I've talked to many Democrats and Republicans who have told me that they would vote for Libertarain candidates, but they don't want to waste their vote, since it was inevitable that either the Dem or the Rep would win.)

The Greens far left economic and social positions are likely to only be attractive to far left of center Democrats. I can't imagine any Repuplican switching to the Greens.

If the Dems lost enough support so that they stopped being competitive in state and national races, it's possible that many of the people who are sticking with both the Reps and the Dems, so that they can be relevant, would switch.

If we must stick with a one dimensional graph (I prefer the two dimensional graph that the Libs use.)
The current situation boils down to this.

Far Left - Greens
Center Left - Democrats
Middle - Libertarians
Center Right - Republicans
Far Right - None

(OK, I confess, the Greens have had more success electorally than the Libertarians, but the Libs are gaining.)

The Democrats are bracketed on both sides, while the Republicans only have to worry about their left flank.
This is one of the reasons why the Democrats have been drifting leftward. If they try to return to the center too aggressively, they loose people to the Greens.
The Republicans can and do ignore their right flank, because their far right of center voters have no choice, other than staying home.

Left or Right, White or Black, Up or Down...
"The moderates have been deciding all along... "

...which of the choice was preferable Left or Right. It's about time the moderates, and everyone else, had a chance to choose between Left, Right and CENTER.

Mark...
Of course, we have multiple parties and with a parliamentary democracy we might see some of these folks with pure ideological views start to get elected in enough numbers to directly influence government. Nevertheless, if such ideas become mainstream enough for the "one standard deviation off the mean" voter to go for it, then one or the other (or both) of the two major parties would roll out candidates of their own who are lifelong advocates!

Fringe parties in America are populated by players who rather enjoy being outsiders. In some ways parties like the Greens are social clubs for radicals. (I mean that in a nice way...I was a Founding Member of the California Greens back when I was fascinated by the idea of a global political party. By the way, the Greens are not very far Left. Not Communists at all or even very good Socialists. Mostly well-meaning kids with day jobs. The dogma itself is laughable. Nothing serious. Certainly not able to focus long enough to make any sort of sustained series of campaigns.)

And...
So this isn't intellectual feudalism but you are the monitor of grammer? And spelling? Of course, you are careful to proof your own stuff, aren't you?

Superheater. Pal. I am as rough on an author who doesn't know what he is talking about as anyone should be. And I will also play rough with blog bullies like you when you get stupid.

I read your notes and you do have moments of clarity. Nevertheless, you make yourself look like a crank when you indulge your emotions. Or maybe you don't want anyone to take you serious...(or is that seriously?) Love you!

That's just the point...we've been deceived...
The government would like us to believe that we have a real choice and that our two parties "could" have extreme positions regarding many issues. The fact is that with our system the median voter holds the day. The party line numbers include the extreme voters who do not "waste their votes" with third party candidates. Both parties know what their core voter numbers should be and they seek to improve their chances primarily by getting out the vote in the neighborhoods where they are strong. Further, they seduce both cross-over votes and those who consider themselves to be "Independents".

In "contested" races the political machines spend enough against each other speaking to the undecided, swing, decision-making voters in the middle ground to "barely win" without wasting too much cash or political capital. Big wins are an anomaly unless the losing side cuts its losses and sacrifices some nice party regular in a hopeless cause.

The two major parties own this country and have a franchise on government. Their most effective politicians are moderates. As society evolves, the definition of "median voter" shifts.

When a party gets out of touch with the middle ground and starts losing too many contests, the leadership is changed by the people putting up the money and the platform corrects itself. This would be true if the Libertarian Party came to power as one of the two majors. They would still need to appeal to the mainstream, median, moderate, (liberal but not in my neighborhood) voters in addition to their core. Or they would not get their candidates elected.

The Electoral College strikes again...
In 1980, Ronald Regan won with 50.7% of the popular vote. The Electoral College gave him the landslide and this is precisely the point! In a normal distribution one standard deviation off the mean is 68% and that is 34 points in either direction. To capture all the median voters in addition to your "more than one standard deviation" core (who are all going to vote for your guy) you would need 84% of the vote! The median is huge.

not far left?
Every position they take causes govt to grow and capitalism to be restricted. That's a leftist agenda, regardless of the justification they claim for their positions.

I agree that some third party types enjoy being on the outside, but their are many who are tired of supporting politicians who then turn their backs on the people who supported them.

How many people supporting W knew that he was going to go on a spending binge that's making Clinton jealous?

If you think I'm a "blog bully"
You aren't very swift, because by definition there is no such thing.

Bullies use superior physical force in a conscript environment, you and everybody else here are here by choice, no conscription. Since this is a virtual environment, there's no possibility of physical force.

If you want to worry about indulging emotions, perhaps you should worry about your own, your "bully" analogy seems to me to be the remnant of unresolved school yard trauma.

Your declaration about playing rough is unconvincing in this series of posts. You'll need sounder rhetorical skills or else you'll be a pinata.

My posts are replete with typos. However, I'm not getting paid for my time, I'm just venting. Even so, I wouldn't make such a fundamental error as "Amtrack". Its always fair to impeach the credibility of the witness when their command of the most basic facts is lacking, either from knowledge or good proof-reading.

As for being taken seriously, I'm not so vain as to think anybody gives a rat's a** about what I say. Anybody who does is a damn fool. Talk is cheap, and money screams, it doesn't talk.

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