Change in American Political Parties

If the Republicans win back Congress in November, it will be largely unearned. But that doesn't mean that there's no incentive for change in American politics.

Alex Massie argues that a major shortfall of American politics is that the opposition party can win without a plausible alternative platform or demonstration of basic competence.   While there’s not much doubt about that, he takes it too far:

In most countries elections are a two-question examination in which voters decide if a) the government has failed and b) has the opposition done enough to deserve to be in power. You need two Yes answers to change the government. The nature of the mid-term elections mean it’s different in the United States. There, voters conclude that the party sitting in the White House (and, sometimes, Congress) stinks and it doesn’t matter that the other party stinks just as much. Regardless of who controls government, the opposition can learn nothing and do nothing and still do well.

With the single exception (in recent times) of the 9/11 2002 mid-terms the party governing the White House has been defeated (that is, lost seats) in the mid-terms. The scale of these defeats varies but the fact they can be predicted with near-certainty means there’s little incentive for Congressional leaders to rethink their views or positions on, really, any issue. Why bother when the nature of the political cycle means you’ll probably pick-up seats anyway?

One of the problems with America’s two party system (which is increasingly parliamentary in the way it operates) is that there’s no third party for protest votes. By default a protest vote – whether active or stay-at-home passive – can only benefit the other mob who, generally speaking, are little if any more appetising than the crew against whom you feel like protesting.

That makes for unhappy voters and politicians who don’t often need to have a real think about what they’re offering or trying to do. The difference in the way our respective systems are organised ensures that comparisons are only of limited use; nevertheless America’s two party system and the way it operates creates few incentives for internally-driven reform. Congress doesn’t produce a Thatcher ot a Blair or a Cameron type* of figure who will change their party to reflect changing situations or changed public views. There’s little sense of renewal in Washington, little sense that the opposition is really doing the hard work of preparing for power.

And so, assisted by the way districts are drawn and by the advantages of incumbancy, off-year elections in particular are a matter of enthusing the base. The most vulnerable members are usually, though obviously not exclusively, on the moderate wings of their party while the leadership, again mainly but not exclusively, reflect an established orthodoxy that satisfies few voters and excites even fewer.

While this is true at the margins, it’s not true in the main because it misapprehends what American parties are.  Alex is viewing the Republicans and Democrats through the lens of parliamentary democracy, where they function as unified actors, rather than as the sum of 536 disparate parts.

While he’s right that they increasingly behave in parliamentary fashion in Congress, lining up based on whether their guy is in the White House and demonstrating heretofore unseen voting discipline, it’s not how they function nationally.  The two major parties are primarily branding and fundraising vehicles with rather little control over, well, much of anything.   Certainly, the Republican Establishment would not have chosen Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell as standard bearers.  For that matter,  Hillary Clinton would have been the Democrats’ nominee in 2008 and Barack Obama would have been her running mate if the DNC had their way.  But the two parties’ candidates are instead chosen in a free-for-all based on popularity, charisma, and the ability to energize the most rabid elements of the base.

Nor is there an American equivalent of a prime minister and shadow prime minister.  The Democrats are led by Barack Obama because he’s the sitting president.  Until they choose their 2012 nominee, the Republicans have no leader.   Certainly, most Americans — and, indeed, most Republicans — have no idea who John Boehner is.  And while Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and others have the ability to attract crowds and sell books, there’s no machinery behind them in the way that there is with Milleband the Younger in England.

But, yes, the combination of electoral disaster and charismatic leadership can lead to a radical change in a party’s identity in this country. Ronald Reagan radically rebranded the GOP in 1980.   Bill Clinton did the same for the Democrats in 1996.   (Indeed, his Third Way, New Democrat playbook was copied across the Pond by Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997.)   George W. Bush and his Compassionate Conservative message in 2000 was surely as much of a tweak in the Republican message as David Cameron’s  “We Can’t Go On Like This” campaign.    And I’d argue that Barack Obama tried to position himself as a break from the tired old politics of the past in 2008.

One presumes Obama will be re-nominated in 2012.  He might still run on a CHANGE! platform but, realistically, he’ll face some constraints in that message.    Will the Republicans run on some shiny new platform?  It all depends on who the nominee is.   But a Mitt Romney candidacy would be rather different from a Sarah Palin candidacy.

Changing platforms based on voter demand and changed circumstances is not only possible in American politics, it’s constant and inevitable.    The Democratic Party of today barely resembles that of Michael Dukakis, much less Adlai Stevenson.   And, while the Republican Party has been trying to sound like Reagan since he left the scene, they’ve abandoned dozens of planks as they lost favor.

It’s only through the framework of a two-year cycle that it looks like little has changed.  On a wide variety of social issues, the George McGovern of 1972 — pilloried as a lefty radical in his day — would be too conservative for today’s Republican Party.  And plenty of the policies advocated by and even signed into law Sainted Reagan would be too left for today’s Republicans.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Some guy at zero hedge was going on about collapse and revolution. I don’t put much stock in that, but flipping back to see the two parties battle on “my non-solutions aren’t as bad as their non-solutions” doesn’t fill one with true optimism.

    What you are saying James is that neither party has to improve things, they can just count on a natrual occilation in and out of power (fund raising boths sides).

  2. James Joyner says:

    What you are saying James is that neither party has to improve things, they can just count on a natrual occilation in and out of power

    Not at all. Indeed, the whole post argues against that notion. I think it’s possible to win a lot of seats in a mid-term election, and occasionally even a presidential election, on the basis that the other side is doing a lousy job. But parties naturally adapt to changing circumstances over time.

  3. John Personna says:

    You are arguing only that parties potentially may reorganize around effective policy platforms.

    You don’t (can’t) argue that the dysfunction strategy doesn’t work for long spans.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    “But parties naturally adapt to changing circumstances over time.”

    Ultimately the light bulb does come come on but there are plenty of examples in history of parties becoming a prisoner of doctrines that exclude them from power for a long time. Cases in point: the tories in mid 18th century and late 19th century Britain, The Republicans from 1932-1970, The Democrats from 1980 etc. It’s to be seen whether the Republicans are not entering such a period because of demography and social shifts as some economists and social scientists have suggested.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Massie is peddling tripe. If the incumbent party is doing a poor job you replace them, it’s that simple. What happened to idea that good should not be the enemy of the perfect? Republicans are far from perfect but to many they are better than what we have now. There’s no two pronged test or presumption that a party out of power is the same party that lost power. His thesis fails miserably under examination.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Joe: I agree that the Democrats were in a funk for a while. Clinton and the DLC shifted their paradigm. The Republicans haven’t shifted yet because what they’ve been doing has largely worked electorally. They see the setbacks of 2006 and 2008 as reactions to Bush, Iraq, and a bad economy. And they’re about to win again. So, there’s not much incentive to make radical changes. Even so, there’s the Tea Party thing.

    @Steve: Massie’s comparing the British Responsible Government model with our disaggregated system. If we had parliamentary parties, you’d expect a systematic opposition platform. That doesn’t — and can’t — exist in our system.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    “So, there’s not much incentive to make radical changes. ”

    Jim; So you wouldn’t say the GOP has shifted right over the last 20 years? You’re also totally confident they are going to take back house and senate in November? And you’re totally confident they are going to retake the presidency in 2012? When a party looses it’s groove over a long periods it doesn’t mean they never win elections but that over a prolonged period they are more out of power than in. Given demographic and societal shifts you’d have to be rather blinkered to totally dismiss the notion that the GOP’s problems are more deep seated than Bush’s period of mismanagement.

  8. Gerry W. says:

    Steve Plunk,

    The republicans offer nothing for the middle class. Just more rich and more poor. Same old routine. Tax cuts and laissez-faire. In this age of globalization, we need to find a way to preserve the middle class instead shyly of not telling the middle class to lose their jobs or their wages, because they have no answers for the middle class.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    “That doesn’t — and can’t — exist in our system.”

    Jim, I wouldn’t disagree that we have a highly fragmented political system (the most fragmented in the world as far as I can see). But in national terms there’s a fair amount cohesion on left and right although it frequently gets blurred by the fact that at bottom the US system is driven by interest rather than principle.

  10. Brummagem Joe says:

    “There’s no two pronged test or presumption that a party out of power is the same party that lost power. His thesis fails miserably under examination.”

    Really?…there’s no such thing then philosophically as the concept of the lesser of two evils?

  11. John Personna says:

    The Republicans have an interesting message. They pretty much cop to supporting the rich. In the past the supported that with trickle-down theory. They can’t now, with the data against them. So, they go with an argument like “in theory you could be rich, and if you were would you want higher taxes?”

    Gerry’s right, their policies aren’t for their voters, but they do play off dreams.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    “They pretty much cop to supporting the rich.”

    Cantor did some interview with the WSJ ed page the other day and I had laugh when he said something like “The Democratic party has overwhelming support amongst the Jewish community because they support the underdog.” Apparently the underdogs don’t realize it because in some poll today it seems the less educated white working class prefer the Republicans. Give that dog a good kicking so he knows what’s good for him.

  13. John Personna says:

    Cannon fodder who don’t know they are.

  14. Steve Plunk says:

    Gerry W., The Republicans are undergoing a big change these days. The Tea Party has forced them to move toward the fundamental conservatives principles that will benefit everyone. Will they stay the course? There’s no way to know for sure but we do know the Obama/Reid/Pelosi brand has moved the country toward the left and economic disaster. In a bad economy the rich may get hurt but not nearly as much as the poor get hurt. I’d much rather see the rich get richer as long a my lot improves as well.

    I don’t see Democratic party policies yielding much for the middle class unless your part of a public employee union. Not only will your job be protected at all costs but your pensions will be funded no matter what damage is done to future generations. The private sector unions share much of the blame for their own decline. Wages that are too high, work rules that hurt productivity, pensions that have nearly bankrupted the companies they work for.

    The new middle class is made up of the small business people that is feeling the brunt of the recession and the wrath of an anti business president. Health insurance uncertainties, the specter of cap and trade driving energy costs higher, drilling moratoriums that are completely unnecessary, not only income tax hikes but fear of gas taxes going higher, all of these things hurt American business and the middle class.

    Economic prosperity is the desire of most Americans and I think both you and I want it. How we get it is something we may differ on but I don’t see the present course of action coming out of Washington as anything less than a disaster.

  15. Steve Plunk says:

    Brummagem, Massie’s two part test is not a lesser of evils question though in my opinion elections are always that. His first question is whether the party in power has failed? I say yes. His second question is does the opposition deserve power? How can they prove deserving of the power unless they have it? This is not the same party that lost power years ago and in fact is a different party than months ago. The primaries have brought a change in the Republican party. He’s wanting us to make judgments about something we cannot. What we can do is judge the current party in power and that’s what most people are doing. That’s why the chances of a change in Congress have increased substantially.

  16. Gerry W. says:

    Steve,

    The Tea Party has no answers. They have no agenda. They don’t want to pay a tax but we are running up deficits. True, spending has to be cut, but there seems to be no reasoning. I hear economists and republicans say we need to cut this and that. And that is on top of the loss middle class jobs. You have to give the middle class something in return, and all we get is more bashing. My town is ruined with closed factories and supporting small business will not work here if the factories are closed. More tax cuts means nothing to me, and to those who loss their jobs. The fact remains that there are some 2 billion cheap laborers that want our jobs and when you merge 2 billion cheap laborers to our 300 million people, there will be a clash of loss jobs and wages. Simply tax cuts and cutting spending ignores this problem and other problems.

    I can list other economic falacies.
    What widgets can be made here and not in China or some other country? And as I ask this, Apple has chosen to build their products in China. This would not have happened 30 years ago.
    Supporting small business (tax cuts) in a small town with factories closed does not work.
    The Bush tax cuts is spent money and does little for us today.
    The old economic theory of putting money in the hands of consumers does not work as half the products are foreign made.
    And both the tax cuts and low interest rates does not have the stimulative effect that it once had, as there is high consumer debt, as people fear losing jobs to globalization, as there are foreclosures, as the underemployed will need to be educated, and as there is no jobs.

    And you cannot have economic prosperity if you don’t have upward movement. And there is no upward movement as there is no jobs and 2 billion cheap laborers are dictating our jobs and wages. We had a middle class. The unions and wages helped create that middle class and it was fine when we had upward movement. Did some go too far? Perhaps yes. However, republicans have offered nothing in the way of jobs. Just more takeaway while the rich get richer. And that is not working. So, let us have some solutions instead of a widening economic inequality. Just handing out tax cuts is not a solution.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/05/AR2010100505535.html?hpid=topnews
    http://www.businessinsider.com/11-long-term-trends-that-are-absolutely-destroying-the-us-economy-2010-10

  17. […] Change in American Political Parties (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

  18. John Personna says:

    The rank and file are told “if it weren’t for the Dems, you’d all be rich.”. Never mind that the go-go decades for American wealth creation had higher tax rates.

    But, as long as it is an article of faith, facts cannot intrude.

  19. John Personna says:

    Put another way, what’s an easier sell to Joe the plumber, that he could have a business now if he’d played his cards right, or that the Dems wouldn’t let him?

    We know the answer, he campaigned on it.

  20. James Joyner says:

    So you wouldn’t say the GOP has shifted right over the last 20 years?

    They’ve consolidated, driving out the Northeastern liberals. But they’ve moved right on some issues, left on others.

    You’re also totally confident they are going to take back house and senate in November?

    The House is looking pretty likely and the Senate possible.

    And you’re totally confident they are going to retake the presidency in 2012?

    I’ve written dozens of posts — as recently as this morning – arguing that, not only is Obama likely to win re-election, but that I’m worried as to whether the Republicans can nominate a plausible candidate in 2012.

    When a party looses it’s groove over a long periods it doesn’t mean they never win elections but that over a prolonged period they are more out of power than in.

    That’s described the Democrats, at least at the White House level, in my lifetime. But we could be seeing a realignment.

    Given demographic and societal shifts you’d have to be rather blinkered to totally dismiss the notion that the GOP’s problems are more deep seated than Bush’s period of mismanagement.

    Although, again, that’s hardly been my issue. I’m charging the GOP leadership with that. And, thus far, they’ve been proven right. But I think they’ve overly narrowed their base, essentially confining it to a diminishing part of the population.

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    Steve Plunk says:
    Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 18:37
    “Brummagem, Massie’s two part test is not a lesser of evils question though in my opinion elections are always that. ”

    I’m not talking about Massie but your claim viz

    “There’s no two pronged test or presumption that a party out of power is the same party that lost power. His thesis fails miserably under examination.”

    You’re contradicting yourself but clearly don’t understand it.

  22. Brummagem Joe says:

    “They’ve consolidated, driving out the Northeastern liberals. But they’ve moved right on some issues, left on others.”

    And what issues have they moved left on Jim?

    “But I think they’ve overly narrowed their base, essentially confining it to a diminishing part of the population.”

    So it is potentially something deeper than Bush? And if your confident predictions of house and probably senate don’t come to pass?

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    ‘Northeastern liberals.”

    Btw Jim this is me and most of the rest of the upper middle classes and college grads who aren’t “Northeastern Liberals” who have jumped ship. These are by and large pragmatic, sensible and respect competence.

  24. tom p says:

    “And what issues have they moved left on Jim?”

    I too, would like an answer to this question James.

  25. Grewgills says:

    This is not the same party that lost power years ago and in fact is a different party than months ago. The primaries have brought a change in the Republican party.

    Ever the optimist eh Steve.

  26. Grewgills says:

    “And what issues have they moved left on Jim?”

    Since the 80s
    The rights of women and homosexuals in the workplace and the military for starters.
    You would have been hard pressed to find a Republican in the 80s that would have supported gays serving openly in the military, now it is not uncommon.

  27. anjin-san says:

    > the fundamental conservatives principles that will benefit everyone.

    What principles are those? Put obvious idiots like Palin and O’Donnell into high offices? That should help up tackle the serious problems we face. Tax cuts for billionaires? Nice if you are a billionaire…

  28. Herb says:

    “You would have been hard pressed to find a Republican in the 80s that would have supported gays serving openly in the military, now it is not uncommon.”

    Is that because the “gays, guns, and God” agenda has had diminishing electoral returns over the years or is this evidence of some kind of philosophical renaissance? I suspect it’s the former….

  29. anjin-san says:

    > Health insurance uncertainties, the specter of cap and trade driving energy costs higher, drilling moratoriums that are completely unnecessary, not only income tax hikes but fear of gas taxes going higher, all of these things hurt American business

    Interesting, because when I talk to senior executives for major corporations, these are not the things that come up. You would think that if Obama/Democrats were hurting business so badly, these folks would be talking about it pretty much constantly.

    The reality is that a large number of major corporations were on the brink of disaster as Obama took office. A lot of them are turned around and highly profitable now. I guess CEOs are too busy running their business to let the Fox News gang tell them what they think…

  30. An Interested Party says:

    “…we do know the Obama/Reid/Pelosi brand has moved the country toward the left and economic disaster.”

    Actually, only people like you think that, as you seem to imply that before these three took power, the country was in the middle of an economic nirvana…

  31. Nightrider says:

    >>>And you’re totally confident they are going to retake the presidency in 2012?<<<

    It may well be that Obama's re-election is made more likely if the Republicans take Congress, just as 1994 rescued Bill Clinton. If the Republicans were going to actually do anything constructive with new power, maybe not, but the dog and pony show of hearings and bills designed only to try to make Obama look bad could ultimately backfire in the fickle electorate.

  32. Davebo says:

    “And what issues have they moved left on Jim?”

    They now approve of Arugula whole heartedly.

    There you go James. I’ve bailed you out yet again!

  33. ponce says:

    “and bills designed only to try to make Obama look bad could ultimately backfire”

    Who says the Democrats in the Senate can’t filibuster and place holds on bills like this?

  34. Sookie says:

    I think the best we can hope for (maybe forever) is that we vote for divided government. Never to allow one party to obtain dominate status. We don’t need them to cooperate to get things done. We need them to struggle against each other and limit what they get done.

    In other words we need them to check each other and that only happens in our form of government (probably any form) if the minority is strong. Retains the power to stop, if not the power to make happen. They have to be the brake. Governments always need a braking mechanism.

    The thing is we are/were at a crux. Once enough of the electorate are dependent upon the government, then only the party(s) that continue to support that dependency will be victorious. People will vote their own self interest over the country’s interest.

    Yes there will still be a 2nd party and perhaps more in our system, but they will nearly always be in the minority. Europe has already past this pivot point. We’ve been approaching it for quite some time but may have passed it now. This president will be seen from an historical perspective as pivotal, regardless if that’s why some people voted for him or not. Many voters only voted not Republican in the last election, which is why Obama doesn’t have the mandate that he thought he came in with. They voted against Bush. Not for Obama. And that may well happen again in 2010 & 2012 with Obama.

    Vote divided government. Vote them out after they’ve been a while, 3-4 terms. These 2 approaches by voters will bring some balance and some ability by the voters to check their elected officials.

    That’s what the founders set up. A mechanism that leads the players to struggle against each other… checks and balances. The voters are an important component of this process and we continue to give up our role in the process.

  35. James Joyner says:

    @Joe: Is that because the “gays, guns, and God” agenda has had diminishing electoral returns over the years or is this evidence of some kind of philosophical renaissance? I suspect it’s the former….

    The beauty part is that it doesn’t matter! Indeed, my thesis — and it’s not mine, it’s basic catch-all party comparative politics theory — is that parties in a two-party dominant system constantly transform themselves based on the changing mores of the voters.

  36. John Personna says:

    So James, that wonderous transformation is what put us in this position?

    Talk about apology for something below mediocrity!

    You whole thesis would make a lot more sense with a non-dysfunctional government.

  37. John Personna says:

    BTW, did you notice (some) Republicans opposing Prop 25 in California?

    That’s the reversal of the 2/3 vote rule that breaks our budget. These conservatives are choosing broken over majority rule, simply because they fear (know?) they are not a majority!

  38. James Joyner says:

    So James, that wonderous transformation is what put us in this position?

    A decided lack of consensus. Not a new thing and hardly a disaster.

  39. John Personna says:

    I just said “defense of sub-mediocrity”, calling this “hardly a disaster” doubles down on that.

  40. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:
    Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 06:17

    I didn’t say this btw I just asked you to let us know the issues on which the GOP has moved left. Since you haven’t replied I take it you havent’ found any.

    “is that parties in a two-party dominant system constantly transform themselves based on the changing mores of the voters.”

    But this can take a long time. When you’ve invested immense effort in convincing your base supporters of a series of propositions (eg. Gays and Immigrants bad, guns good, govt bad, wars good, universal healthcare bad, tax cuts good, social security bad, etc etc) they tend to remain convinced for awhile and regard reversals as a betrayal thus leading to schisms, tea parties, RINO’s etc. There then occurs the race to the right as various players attempt to outflank each other and this is what is happening structurally in the GOP at present. You seem to be in denial about it constantly producing headlines about nuts being nominated as GOP candidates and yet favoring their ultimate election. It’s a form of political schizophrenia it seems to me.

  41. Gerry W. says:

    ***I have to leave for the rest of the day***

    Anyway, I feel the government is not representing the Midwest. Obama talks about relying on exports, but it doesn’t make much sense when factories are closed, or that middle class wages are built into the product. There are some products, of course, CAT, Boeing, Deere that are exporters. Heck, my company exported products, but in the end, our jobs were exported to Mexico. And in the end, China wants to get into the high tech and high end products.

    I know that I am a perfectionist with the economy, but there is so many things that could be done and the politicians heads are someplace else. If you look at the plain states with farm subsidies and further north with energy, we see that unemployment is very low. And yet, for the Midwest, our jobs are going overseas. I was not aware of the housing building in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California that came to a collapse. Sort of interesting that one sector was overdone, and the other (manufacturing) is underdone. I feel we do not have representation. We see with the plain states just where the money goes and the legislation. And it makes a difference.

    Here is something Mohamed El-Erian said:

    “The biggest glaring failure is stimulus, which was meant to bring unemployment down to 8%. Instead we have 10% unemployment.
    But, at least tthe stimulus helped avoid global depression.
    As for current stimulus? If you’re going to do it, also do it by addressing structural problems: education, retraining, labor mobility.”

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/mohamed-el-erian-on-cnbc-october-5-2010-10#ixzz11fyl8fVu

    http://www.businessinsider.com/mohamed-el-erian-on-cnbc-october-5-2010-10

  42. mantis says:

    There you go James. I’ve bailed you out yet again!

    No more bailouts!!!!!11!!