The two-party system
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.