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The two-party system

May 6th, 2007

Reading Jonathan Chait on the netroots and (belatedly) Off Center by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson,* it strikes me that the real political news of the last six months is the fact that the US now has a standard two-party system, arguably for the first time in its history. From Reconstruction until the final success of Nixon’s Southern strategy in the late 20th century, the fact that the Democratic Party represented the white establishment in the South made such a thing impossible. Under the primary system the two “parties” were little more than state-sanctioned institutional structures to ensure that voters (outside the South) got a choice of exactly two candidates.

From the 1970s onwards, though, this structure was obsolete. Having absorbed (and to some extent having been absorbed by) the white Southern establishment, the Republicans were clearly a party of the right, and started to act like one, requiring ideological unity and party discipline from its members, establishing a supporting apparatus of thinktanks and friendly media outlets and so on. As both Off Center and Chait observe in different ways, attempts by groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and the centrist media establishment to continue playing by the old rules simply ensured that the Republicans could win even when, on the issues, they were clearly pushing a minority position.

The netroots phenomenon is one reaction to this. But even more striking is the fact that the Democrats in Congress now match the kind of party discipline shown by the Republicans. After the 2006 elections, most commentary assumed that the party could not possibly hold together with its slender majorities in both houses, but they have clearly learned the basic dictum of party politics “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Its notable that the US is going in the opposite direction to some other countries where two-party systems are tending to break down (this is happening to some extent in Australia, though the collapse of the Australian Democrats has partially reversed it). The degree of partisanship in the US, until recently far less than in other democracies, is now greater than in many.

There are, I think, a couple of reasons for this. First, in an initial environment where people expect bipartisan co-operation, a unified party can achieve huge successes, so there is something of a tendency to move rapidly to the opposite extreme before equilibrium is restored.

More importantly, though, the party differences reflect underlying social differences in views that are much greater than in many other countries. Internationally speaking, there’s nothing particularly unusual about the Democrats or their supporters – their views look pretty much like those of centre-right or centre-left Europeans. But the Republican base is way to the right of the Democrats, both on social issues and on economic policies.

In these circumstances, a tightly disciplined party system makes sense. There’s no point in closely scrutinizing a Congressional candidate’s personal views, character and so on, before making a decision on how to vote. What matters is whether he or she will vote to put Democrats or Republicans in charge of Congress, and adhere to the party line when votes are close. Similarly, in political discussion, it’s necessary to be clear which side you’re on.

Reading Chait’s piece in particular, it’s obvious that he realises this, but that it goes against everything he holds dear. Hence, while conceding that the netroots are right on virtually every substantive point, he writes about them with unconcealed loathing.

* I won’t review them since I agree pretty with everything Henry Farrell said about Chait, and can also recommend his summary of Hacker and Pierson.

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  1. rabee
    May 7th, 2007 at 08:39 | #1

    The way I see it is that the US has become (temporarily) a one issue political system. The occupation Iraq now dominates politics, lexicographically, and the party discipline that we see is about Iraq. You are less likely to see party discipline in the presence of multi issue politics, especially in that kind of parliamentary system.

    One issue politics leads almost always to an agglomeration into two parties especially when there are economies of scale in this agglomeration.

  2. May 7th, 2007 at 10:17 | #2

    I wouldn’t have described the Democrats as “European center-left”. I’d think that the middle-of-the-road Democrat candidate would be closer to European center-right on many issues.

  3. jquiggin
    May 7th, 2007 at 11:49 | #3

    I agree, RM and have already changed the CT version of this post. I’ll fix this one too.

  4. swio
    May 7th, 2007 at 11:49 | #4

    Let me second Robert Merkel. The Democrats are not centre-left. For example only a fraction of the Democratic party supports government funded universal health care.

    I have to disagree that the Democrats substantially higher party loyalty since the November election is due to the long term trend towards a genuine two party system in the US. When the Democrats took charge I expected their party loyalty to continue to be fairly weak and the Republicans to remain strong. Instead we saw a complete reversal, with Democrats maintaing close to 100% party loyalty and Republican party loyalty falling substantially.

    It made me realise that alot of the famous Republican party loyalty has actually been due to their consistent majority status.

    The majority party gets to control which votes actually come to the floor and the details of that legislation. They are obviously going to avoid votes that will break down party loyalty and modify bills to satisfy as many of their caucus members as possible. This will reduce the number of potential defectors substantially.

    On top of this if you think about the relative power of the leadership of the majority and minority parties you’ll see that the minority party leadership has relatively little power. They do not control funding votes and thus have no real power to punish or reward members of their own caucus. The majority leadership do control these things and are in a position to offer bribes and threats to get votes.

    I have not done the research, but I am pretty sure that if you look back through the history you will see that the majority party, regardless of whether it is Democratic or Republican, has the better party loyalty almost all the time.

    This is not to say I disagree that the two party system is becoming stronger in the United States. I think that is certainly the case. But I do believe the recent reversal in party loyalty rates in Washington is primarily a funcition of the change in majority/minority status.

  5. jquiggin
    May 7th, 2007 at 16:22 | #5

    I’ve changed the description of the Democrats to “centre-right to centre-left” which I think is about right.

  6. jstrocch
    May 8th, 2007 at 21:09 | #6

    The US has a polarised political system because its social system is doubly polarised, by class and race. No other social system comes close to the US’s financial disparities and cultural diversities.

    These two social forces re-inforce each other, with non-whites making up most of the unter-class and whites making up most of the uber-class.

    And the race-class polarities act to further exacerbate partisan political alignments.

    The only thing that really reduces social division is national unifiers, things like public schools, broad churches and conscription. Aint gonna happens soon.

  7. jstrocch
    May 8th, 2007 at 21:39 | #7

    Pr Q says:

    Its notable that the US is going in the opposite direction to some other countries where two-party systems are tending to break down (this is happening to some extent in Australia, though the collapse of the Australian Democrats has partially reversed it).

    The Australian party system seems to be subject to strong median voter convergence tendencies which encourage major party hegemony. THis is because Australia is a fairly unified and homogenous society, with class disparity (education and property) and cultural diversity (race and religion) somewhat attenuated compared to other nations.

    For this we can thank the common sense of the leadership class and the wisdom of the masses. Menzies cut some of the taller class poppies down. Whitlam nationalised the Catholic schools system. Both parties have, apart from the looney multi-culti period 1976-96, have avoided race-hustling in immigration.

    Both the major parties seem to have massive structural oligopolistic organisational advantages, in social base and political funding. And the lower house preferential voting system locks in these structural advantages for ever.

    The psephological evidence shows that both parties respond to the same populist social pressure.

    During the fifties the L/NP moved to the Economic Left, following the ALP. And during the seventies it moved to the Cultural Left, following the ALP.

    During the eighties the ALP moved to the Economic Right, following the LN/P. And during the noughties it moved to the Cultural Right, following the L/NP.

    A minor Leftist parties – GREENs – directed its preferences towards the major Leftist party – the ALP. In return the ALP got “greener”.

    A minor Rightist party – ON – directed its preferences towards the major Rightis party – the LN/P. In return the LN/P got “browner”.

    In a sense the AUS political system is a locked-down oligopoly more or less like the AUS banking, car, insurance, telecommunications and airline industry. A good case for action by the Competition Commission.

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