Sunday, March 17, 2013

Parties don't get to choose their own adventures

I've been thoroughly enjoying the recent Thunderdome-esque smackdown between Greg and Hans over just what a party is. Rather than jump in the middle of these two seasoned gladiators, I thought I'd weigh in to say what a party is not. This one's easy: a party is not what Jennifer Rubin thinks it is.

In Sunday's Washington Post, Rubin joined in the chorus of political observers saying that the Republican party needs to change what it stands for in order to become more electorally competitive. This isn't an objectionable statement; the problem is that she suggests this is an easy thing to accomplish:
The idea that a party can remain static in its component parts and belief is daft. If the country is evolving and changing in demographic, economic and cultural ways, how can a national political party remain fixed in a set of policy prescriptions and in its component parts? Huge shifts are the norm, not the exception. Recall that the Democratic Party went from being the pro-Jim Crow party to one embracing 90 percent or more of African Americans. [Emphasis added]
Huge shifts are the norm? On the contrary -- they're incredibly rare! The Democrats' shift from being the party of white supremacy to the party of civil rights was pretty much a singular act in American political history. Parties rarely pull off a major shift on a hot-button issue (that's what killed the Whigs in the 1850s), and indeed it was a very costly shift for the Democrats, breaking their electoral lock on the southern states and ultimately ending their four-decade run of controlling the House of Representatives. To be sure, parties do evolve slowly on some issues, but the parties are much better defined by consistency than change. This is one of the major findings from John Gerring's wonderful book Party Ideologies in America. As an example, note this quote:
[The President] has lost faith in the American people. Just look at the men surrounding him. They are cynics who scoff at our simple virtues. They think that the people are too dumb to understand democracy. Their idea is that they, the intelligentsia, can govern us with catch phrases and sleight-of-hand.... Give our country back to us. We want it. We love it.
That is classic modern Republican rhetoric. But it wasn't uttered by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, or Sarah Palin. It came from Wendell Willkie, running against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Indeed, Republican rhetoric and party platforms have been strikingly resilient resistant to change since the 1920s.

Why is there so little party change? (This is where this plays into Greg and Hans' debate.) Because parties are dominated by the major issue activists and donors who get involved in party nomination contests. They won't tolerate candidates who don't care about the issues important to them, and they'll find themselves a candidate who does.

Here's more Rubin:
So what does the GOP do to remain a national party based on a core belief in liberty? One approach would be to become the reform party on entitlements, education, health care, employee unions and even the Pentagon while being agnostic on social issues.
Or the party could go fully libertarian leaving hawks and social conservatives adrift but gaining urban and suburban professionals and social liberals.
Another formula would be to embrace pro-life, pro-immigration, strong-on-defense conservatives with a Tory welfare state that loses business conservatives but takes on working class and minority voters. [...]

The combinations are endless.
No, they're really not. The party really can't just nominate candidates who are, for example, "agnostic on social issues." Anti-abortion activists, gun rights activists, evangelical Christians, etc., care deeply about the sorts of candidates the GOP nominates, and a candidate who shows no interest in their priorities will not get very far in Republican politics without their money, labor, and time. Sure, you can try to talk to the leaders of some of those groups and explain to them that they should just play ball so the party can win, but, as Hans notes, winning is not their only priority. In some cases, they'd rather see their party lose than win by betraying everything they care about.

Yes, there are exceptions. Colorado Democrats nominated the pro-life Bill Ritter for governor in 2006, calculating that a more typical Democrat wouldn't win. California Republicans accepted a pretty moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor in 2003, figuring that they were unlikely to control a branch of the state government with anyone else. But these exceptions are very rare and really not business as usual, particularly when a party is seen as competitive. (Remember that, despite the talk of Republicans being unelectable today, they still control the U.S. House, and they held the White House just five years ago).

Part of what made George W. Bush a successful candidate in 2000 was that he portrayed a moderate demeanor and had a record of bipartisan achievement in Texas, but also knew how to communicate in subtle ways to business groups, foreign policy hawks, and social activists that he shared their priorities. That's a difficult balance to achieve, and parties prize candidates who can pull that off. Try to upset that balance in the name of electability, and the party will usually reject you in favor of someone else.

[h/t South of the 49th]


  1. The Wilkie speech was pretty bland, and I was expecting you to reveal that it was given by a Democrat! Wilkie himself (and how in blazes did he get the nomination?) was pretty similar to FDR, and after he lost the election dedicated his political efforts to supporting FDR's internationalism.

  2. How accurate is it really to say that the Democrats changed from being "from being the party of white supremacy to the party of civil rights"? It seems more accurate to say that the Democrats included a large faction (outside the South) which was fine with civil rights for blacks, wedded to a faction (in the South) which opposed them. And the latter was part of the party strictly for historical reasons.

    When the Southern Democrats left the party, what remained simply went with the views that it already held. Which suggests that a party can change . . . by having one faction leave, taking their ideas with them and leaving those remaining free to go with different ideas which they already hold.

    So, for example, the Republicans could change position on military intervention in Iran if the neoconservatives left. (Or on gay marriage, once most of those most opposed die off.) How a particular position gets dropped depends less on how its enthusiasts depart than on their departure.

    1. The modern Democratic Party goes back to the Jacksonian coalition of the early 19th century. This coalition included not only Southern working people, mostly small farmers, but northern working people, farmers, but also big city immigrants and other low paid workers. This coalition, which was brought together on class lines, divided on regional lines in 1860, with northerners voting for Lincoln and Southerners for Breckenridge or Bell. But, unknown to most Americans, this coalition came together again as quickly as the election of 1876 when Tilden actually defeated Hayes, carrying New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the process. Tilden of course surrendered his claim to the presidency in the Compromise of 1876.

      As a result, when the Democratic Party wanted to move away from its racist past, it still had a base of support in Northern, and by that time western, working people. This is why the party did not break up as the Whigs did, or the Federalists before them. The support of the Democratic Party was broad based enough to withstand the loss of an entire region for a generation.

  3. This is a _very_ good point wj. Northern Democrats wanted civil rights, even when they were not able to get it on the agenda. So supporters of the new position were in the party from the beginning.

    But Southern conservatives didn't just leave the Democratic Party. They were slowly and agonizingly pushed out. They didn't want to leave. It was a long and contested process. And they had a natural home in the Republican Party, largely because it wasn't just race that they were conservative on -- they agreed with Republicans on labor issue, communism, women's issues, etc. So they had somewhere to go (as part of a larger transformation in both parties).

    So it would be a big deal if neoconservatives simply left the Republican Party. Where would they go? Democrats won't take them. If they simply "die out" (as those who oppose gay marriage may), that's one thing. But it's hard to imagine conservatives as a whole movement just disappearing, even if opposition to, say, gay marriage fades away.

    1. Which is why they've been so stubborn to get rid of. The big thing is fiscal conservatives are not going keep funding the Republican party if social conservatives keep losing elections for them. Take Paul Singer. The billionaire hedge fund manager is one of the largest individual funders of gay marriage legalization efforts across the country. (He has a son who is gay.) He's also a large contributor to Republicans, and was a large contributor to the Romney campaign (who incidentally supported a federal constitutional amendment banning that same right to marry).

      They're not going to keep funding both sides of the war. Nor are they going to keep throwing good money after bad. The fiscal conservatives are funding this thing. Scaring old ladies that "dem gayz are a comin' for ya" out of their Social Security checks is only does so much, and will stop once the checks stop (we all gotta go sometime), or the message stops scaring.

      "Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them." - Barry Goldwater

  4. WJ, I agree with what Hans said above. Also, one of the main thing that was pushing southern conservatives out of the Democratic Party was increasing Democratic support for the enfranchisement of African Americans. As Southern black voting increased dramatically in the 1960s, those voters were increasingly voting Democratic. So it's not that the Democratic Party of the 1980s was just the Democratic Party of the 1950s minus white southerners. Those white southerners had been replaced, to some extent, by much more liberal black southerners. That's a pretty historic shift.

  5. What people fundamentally fail to understand (that this article did a very good job of explaining) is that politics is nothing more than a function of the population involved in it. Let's use gay marriage as an example. Twenty years ago, the idea of gay marriage was so laughable, politically speaking, that it wasn't even necessary to ban it. By the time it was, there were enough supporters for it to be taken seriously for the first time. Then came the backlash from the right on the issue, against which the left has been chipping away for probably about a dozen or so years. The fact of matter is that the political and legal considerations at play involving gay marriage were directly correlated to the underlying attitudes of Americans, and as those attitudes shifted, so did the political calculus.

    I doubt that this is ever going to fully become a country of leftists, but I detect a very subtle shift from center right to center left in the coming decades that will accelerate as more baby boomers die off. The US is never going to fully abandon conservatism, but as the hot button issues of the culture wars are determined by demographic forces that are beyond the control of any party leader or strategist, conservatism is, by its very definition, going to be more concerned with economic issues. I think we'll see some sort of consensus emerge to replace the New Deal at some point in the next ten years or so, and then we'll just ride that until it falls apart and we start all over again.

    Politics is, if nothing else, cyclical. We keep following the same script over and over again, we're just using different lines to get to an ever more perfect union.

    1. Ideological bent is extremely stable. The liberal and conservative counties in the U.S. are almost identical to those of the 1800s, and the overall ideological leanings of the states dates to the American Revolution or before. But, the political parties that carry those issues change over time and the issues themselves change.

      MLK, Jr. deliberately avoided pressing the issue of interracial marriage despite his position to the far left on civil rights (and in general) in his day. Forty years later, even former segregationists had accepted this policy position even though they were still on the regressive side of race issues like affirmative action for blacks.

      Yesterday's opponents of judicial divorce laws were succeeded by advocates for "covenant marriage" which is in substance a call for fault based judicial divorce.

      Supporters of the silver standard and gold standard are fringe at the moment and have been replaced by ideological successors who want balanced budgets and low taxes.

      Medical marijuana and civil unions have gone from being major liberal reforms to half measures. Nobody is out there advocating for alcohol prohibition anymore. Likewise, there are no Democrats out there advocating to legalize infanticide which was the hot liberal v. conservative issue in ancient Rome.

      Republican budgets call for national sales taxes and propose income taxes with 15% rates when once those would have been consider absurdly high levels of federal taxation.

      Ideology determines which side of an issue you are on, but the issues evolve over time, with lots of conceded winners and losers.

  6. "Resistant to change," not "resilient to change." Being the Word Police is seldom worth the effort, but in this case you're saying exactly the reverse of what you really intend.

    Things that are resilient are limber and supple, flexing easily. The whole point of your otherwise great article is that parties are anything but resilient.

    1. Thanks, Peg. Duly noted, and edited accordingly.

  7. What's forgotten about Schwarzenegger is that he wasn't picked by Republicans: He was picked by the general electorate. He won a recall race against Gray Davis, and therefore never had to go through the primary process. In addition, he's quite vilified by the Republican Party, seen as too pro-gay, too pro-environment (he signed AB32, some of the most expansive climate control legislation ever), and also pro-choice. In other words, he's the only kind of Republican that could rule California, and never would go further than that (assuming someone with his positions could run for President, which constitutionally he personally can't).

    So it wasn't a change in the party. It was a change in the circumstance. Even Meg Whitman, who spent $200 million of her own money, couldn't beat an old Democrat in his 70s. The party just wouldn't let her.

    1. Joe, I'm going to disagree with your characterization of Schwarzenegger somewhat. Yes, he was picked by the general electorate, but only after the larger GOP establishment in California rallied around him and drove a lot of other viable candidates out of the race. (I have a paper on this here.) Now, you can argue that the party only did this because they figured he was going to win anyway, but they could have opposed him (as many did in 2002) or just sat aside and let his election happen in 2003. Instead, they came out actively for him.

      Also, I don't agree that Meg Whitman couldn't beat Jerry Brown because the party wouldn't let her. She couldn't beat Jerry Brown because mainstream Republicans have a very hard time beating mainstream Democrats (or whatever Jerry Brown is) statewide in California, regardless of expenditures.

  8. "The Democrats' shift from being the party of white supremacy to the party of civil rights was pretty much a singular act in American political history."

    The near complete reversal of the relative positions of Democrats and Republicans ideologically from Reconstruction to the present is singular. But, the evolution of political party coalitions and issue positions is constant and routine; not singular. But, that came through piecemeal movement. The New Deal and World War II put a lot of historically Republican people in the Democratic column. The Civil Rights era into the 1980s seemed to be creating a three party system Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Republicans. Only in the last couple of elections has full realignment of Southern Democrats to the GOP finally run its course.

    The thinning ranks of moderate elected Representatives and Senators in Congress in each of the two parties illustrates their transformation as well and is only tangentially related to the Dixiecrat realignment.

    Other examples abound. Urban Democratic party machines initially dominated the Southern European immigrant Catholic vote, but the descendants of people in this demographic, white Catholics are now more evenly split between the two parties than almost any other demographic.

    One of the leading coalition fights over the late 20th century and early 21st century has been the struggle for the loyalty of blue collar white men, especially those in unions. Former union President Ronald Reagan won over Reagan Democrats despite ties forged to the Democratic Party in the New Deal and post-war Boom Years. Clinton won many of them back. Wisconsin's recent political dramas have highlighted their role.

    Democratic dominance with Jews has slipped a bit, but an emerging non-Christian left coalition that is responsive to the strongly conservative white Christian coalition in the GOP has moved many people like American Muslims with conservative political beliefs in the Democratic party column. "Bomb Mecca" comments keep away Muslims who otherwise agree with lots of the GOP platform.

    As a political party, the Progressive Party of the late 1800s and early 1900s was a failure. But, almost all of its platform was eventually absorbed into one of the major party platforms.

    Welfare reform was implemented by a Democrat. A huge expansion of Medicare (prescription drugs) and of the federal bureacracy's scope (TSA) came on a Republican's watch.

    The pro-choice movement didn't exist in the Democratic party in a meaningful way in the 1950s, and back then, gays and Hispanics and Mormons barely had any home in either party in most of the U.S. Now, gays and Hispanics (except Cubans) are Democratic party allies and Mormons and Cubans have joined the Republican coalition (but the pitched battles of Democrats to win Cubans over to them are showing some positive results for them).

    Parties are stable in the short and medium term, but are never entirely static.

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