Thursday, October 10, 2013

Is The Realignment Nigh?

Ari Kelman (via Facebook) noted some similarities between the current struggles between the parties and those that occurred during the 1850s, and he's wondering if we might be seeing the beginning of a realignment. Is it possible that the Republican Party will actually tear itself apart? That a new party (the Tea Party?) might emerge to oppose a new coalition of Democrats and RINOs? That the parties will align themselves along a different set of issues than the economic split we've basically had since the New Deal?

I'm skeptical. To be sure, some of the portends are there. Note, for example, yesterday's interesting New York Times piece arguing that business groups no longer feels welcome in the GOP. Interesting quote here:
“We are looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” said David French, the top lobbyist at the National Retail Federation. “We have come to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines is not good enough.”
The question is, what do business groups actually do about this? If they see the party in which they have invested so much time and treasure driving off a cliff, how do they steer it back?

One way would be to fund more traditional business-friendly Republican candidates in the upcoming primaries for state and federal races prior to the 2014 midterms, perhaps even running some more moderate challengers to existing Tea Party incumbents. If that's the kind of action we end up seeing, then this is simply an internal factional struggle within the party. These do happen from time to time. In the mid-20th century, there was a struggle between the Reagan/Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans, with the former winning out. (This was arguably an "internal party realignment," but I'm uncomfortable with such terminology, and the literature on realignments gets pretty murky on this stuff.)

Could we be seeing the beginnings of an episode on par with what happened in the 1850s, when the rise of the slavery issue caused the Democrats to become an almost-totally Southern party while the Whigs collapsed and the anti-slavery Republican Party arose? For that to happen, we'd need to see a serious ideological rift emerging among modern Republicans. My impression is that the current rift is more tactical than ideological in nature. On a broad swathe of social and economic issues, Tea Party and other Republicans do not really disagree.

Is there some real chance that business groups would actually bolt the Republicans and join the Democratic coalition? I strongly doubt it. A party coalition that contains both the bulk of big business groups and major labor unions will not last long, especially in an era when economic issues are so central to the political discourse. Remember, it was once possible for African Americans and Southern white supremacists to exist in the same party, but only as long as the party could keep racial issues off the table. Once racial issues came to the fore in the 1950s and 60s, the Democratic Party had to pick a side, and the enormous New Deal Coalition began to crumble.

Obviously, it's hard to know how the current rift will play out. There seems to be a consensus emerging that the current Tea Party-inspired crisis over health reform, the shutdown, and the debt ceiling has been an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party, costing it in terms of policy and popularity. If that is the dominant interpretation a few weeks and months from now (especially among Republicans), Tea Party affiliates will get much of the blame, and this may represent an opportunity for the more traditional establishment types to reassert themselves and to ignore Tea Party demands in the future.

So I don't think the modern Republican Party is in any existential peril.

Then again, I probably would have said the same thing about the Whigs in 1852.


  1. I agree that a realignment is unlikely. I think the struggle and concern people feel will cause more people to contribute even more money more often, which will make politics even more hysterical. The American people will become more disillusioned, feel more helpless, and tune out even more. Guess that makes me a party pooper.

  2. The key, I would think, is whether the Democrats reach out in serious ways to the business faction. In many ways they been doing that since the 1990s and, despite claims to the opposite, still are doing so (think the bailout). But at the end of the day, this faction of the GOP is practical--their money and support goes to the people in office--which will stall or prevent any great shift. At least that's how seems to me.

  3. If the odds of a realignment are long, how about the odds for a third party? The Dixiecrats did it in 1948, and Wallace did it in 1968. I think a third party would hurt the Repubs more in 2016 than it did the previous times, but otherwise, there is an awful lot of alienation and rage within the GOP.

    1. You could spin out a scenario in which the GOP leadership makes deals with Obama on the shutdown, budget, etc., that the Tea Party folks find totally unacceptable. Some of them bolt and run as third party candidates in 2014. That could certainly cost the Republicans a number of seats. I'm not sure how likely this is, especially since a) the GOP leadership is aware of the scenario and does what it can to avoid it, and b) Tea Party members can actually be pretty strategic and don't want to throw the House to Democrats.

    2. This whole shutdown and debt ceiling debacle tells me that a good portion of the Tea Party are not good at strategic thinking.

  4. "Tea Party affiliates will get much of the blame, and this may represent an opportunity for the more traditional establishment types to reassert themselves..."

    Which could lead to the Tea Party taking it's toys and leaving the GOP. The reasons why the "traditional types" never fully rebuke this faction is that it needs their votes to win elections. The conservative base has shown itself less and less willing to be controlled. The "establishment" is trying to ride a bucking bronco. It doesn't want to let go, but it might not be able to hold on for much longer.

    It would have been interesting to see how a Romney presidency might have played out. Would the Tea Party have continued to make trouble or would the unifying leadership that a president can provide to a party have brought them to heel?

  5. Nice post, Seth.

    Two things I'm surprised you didn't touch on:

    1. The relative legal and institutional insulation of the two major parties now relative to the 1850's. Everything from ballot access to campaign finance makes it harder for bolters to make late-breaking credible moves away from the major parties.

    2. The existence of the a moderately successful 3rd party in the run up to the dam breaking in 1854 --- the Free Soil party --- that was ideologically similar to the eventual realignment. The 2nd party system collapse after the K-N Act, but the cracks were visible for a long time. I suspect we'll see *much* more agitation of this sort before we see an actual division/crack=up.


  6. Matt's point is important. There were no ballot access laws until 1888. Nowadays we have severe laws, including Georgia, which has kept all parties (other than the Dem & Rep Parties) off its ballot in regularly-scheduled elections for US House since the current law was written in 1943). Also we have Connecticut's public funding law for state campaigns, in which the Dem and Rep nominees automatically get public funding if they have a small number of donors, but independent candidates and the nominees of new parties, besides needing the same number of small donors, must submit a petition of 20% of the last vote cast to get full public funding, and 10% to get any public funding at all. Lowell Weicker testified in court that if this law had existed in 1990 (when he won as a new party candidate) he could not have won.

  7. The teabaggers won't split from the GOP, because it would expose how little support they actually have in the general population.