The Constitution of the United States makes no mention of political parties. America’s first president, George Washington, abhorred them. He spent a large part of what turned out to be his most influential presidential message, his Farewell Address of 1796, warning the country against the dangers of what he called “factions.” Yet Americans ignored that warning and developed, soon after his presidency ended, two major parties. The country has had two major political parties almost continuously ever since. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine American democracy, or indeed democracy anywhere, functioning effectively without such parties to connect citizens to the government and to structure elections and legislative proceedings.
For that reason, the current distress that major parties are experiencing across Western democracies is cause for concern. In recent years, in Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, the parties that have dominated the political landscape since World War II have weakened, in some cases to the point of disappearing, without being replaced by new parties with the demonstrated capacity to govern. The troubles extend to the United States. Donald Trump, for much of his adult life a Democrat or an independent, seized the Republican nomination for President in 2016, won the office, and has carried out policies, such as trade protectionism, that almost all Republican officeholders had previously opposed. A leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is not a Democrat. He calls himself a democratic socialist and one of his best-known supporters, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, has said that in a European political system she and one of Sanders’ principal opponents for the nomination, former Vice President Joseph Biden, would not belong to the same political party.
Are the Republicans or Democrats or both headed for fragmentation or oblivion, and the American political system therefore destined for disruption or even chaos? In his lucid, concise, and deeply informative new book, How America’s Political Parties Change (And How They Don’t), Michael Barone provides the basis for a clear answer to those questions: No. As a leading authority on American politics and political history, the coauthor of an indispensable guide to the subject, The Almanac of American Politics, and the author as well of several well-received books about American history and politics, Barone knows whereof he speaks.
He points out that the country’s two political parties have proven to be unusually durable. The Democrats date from the 1830s and are the lineal descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican-Democratic Party, which was founded in the 1790s. The slightly younger Republicans began their formal existence in 1854, and inherited policies and members—notably Abraham Lincoln—from the Whigs, a party that began in 1833.
The two have survived in part because of American electoral laws, which favor the existence of two and only two parties by making it very difficult for smaller ones to win elective offices. They have managed to persist as well because, down through the decades, each has retained a basic feature. The Democrats have represented the interests of what Barone calls “out-groups,” who have felt themselves marginalized in, and often in some ways excluded from, American society. In the 19th century these groups sought to protect their interests by limiting the reach of the government. In the 20th and 21st centuries they pursued the same goal by expanding government’s scope. The Republicans, by contrast, have historically assembled the “in-groups,” who have felt generally satisfied with the country’s social, economic, and political arrangements but have often regarded these as under attack and in need of defending. Finally, and crucially, both parties have proven to be flexible, able to adapt to new challenges and welcome new groups to their coalitions.
They have had to be flexible in order to survive because America has changed, frequently and substantially, since the mid-19th century. Three kinds of changes in particular have reshaped the parties. Individuals have changed their political ideas and moved from one party to the other. The most prominent 20th-century example is Ronald Reagan, who as a young man staunchly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal but later became dissatisfied with the Democrats’ approach to governance and ultimately served two presidential terms as a conservative Republican.
In addition, new challenges have arisen, to which the parties have responded in ways that have both lost and gained them support. In 1920, for example, with Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for post-World War I peace based on American membership in the League of Nations shattered, with inflation raging, and with widespread strikes interrupting economic activity across the country, Wilson’s Democrats suffered one of the most crushing defeats in American electoral history. Only 12 years later, however, Herbert Hoover’s perceived failure to respond adequately to the Great Depression led to a sweeping victory for the Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt. In 1980 it was the Democrats’ turn to pay the price for ineffective economic policy as, in the face of double-digit rates of unemployment and inflation, Ronald Reagan won the presidency by a wide margin. On each of these occasions, voters shifted their partisan allegiances in substantial numbers.
A third kind of change has had long-term consequences for America’s two political parties. Over time, entire groups—or at least many of their members—have altered their political affiliations. Donald Trump and John F. Kennedy are seldom seen as similar political figures but both won the presidency by attracting votes in large numbers from northern and midwestern workers without college educations, and from white southerners. In the 56 years between 1960 and 2016, because of the upheavals in American public life, these voters had come to see the Republicans as more reliable defenders of their interests than the Democrats.
The exodus of liberals from the Republican Party and of conservatives from the Democrats count as the most significant group defections of the last 50 years. Both are usually attributed to the rising political salience of race, due to the civil rights movement, and while not denying the importance of this issue Barone cites two other important causes: In the middle third of the twentieth century liberals were Republicans, he says, in no small part because they disliked the southern segregationists, the corrupt bosses of large northern cities, and the sometimes less-than-honest union leaders who played key roles in the Democratic party. When all three either disappeared or lost much of their influence, Republican liberals felt free to become Democrats. As for Democratic conservatives, the author points to foreign policy as a reason for their switch in party loyalty. The south is the most hawkish part of the country, and during the Vietnam War the Democrats became the dovish party, driving southerners into the Republican ranks.
Through all the changes that have taken place in American history over the last 150 years, one feature of the political system has remained constant. While the two major parties have not been able to retain the allegiance of all their supporters all the time, they have demonstrated sufficient flexibility to adapt to new circumstances and thus to remain viable national coalitions. In this way they have sustained the ruling duopoly of American party politics.
Of greatest immediate interest in a presidential election year is the balance of power between the Republicans and the Democrats. Barone finds that, by historical standards, the two parties are now very evenly matched: Neither enjoys a dominant electoral position. For this reason, How American Parties Change (And How They Don’t) does not attempt to predict the outcome of the 2020 election. On the basis of the book’s survey of the nation’s electoral history, however, it is possible to make a prediction with some confidence about 2070: fifty years hence the Republican and Democratic parties will still dominate American politics, but in their membership and their positions on the issues of the day, they won’t look the way they do now.