Michael Barone, How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t) (Encounter Books, 2019), 136 pp., $23.99.
THE 2020 presidential campaign may loom large, but pundits, journalists and voters continue to argue over Donald Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory. How and why did Trump win? Could he prevail again? How will his election shape the Republican Party and American politics? Should the Democrats move left or right to improve their chances at ousting Trump?
November 3, 2020 will resolve whether Trump continues—or breaks—a chain of two-term presidents that stretches back to 1992. But this future reckoning seems unlikely to answer the many other questions surrounding Trump’s election, some of which may engender debate well into the next decade, if not longer. For those seeking present understanding, Michael Barone’s book How America’s Political Parties Change (And How They Don’t) offers many useful insights into how social and economic trends have shaped the long-running battle between the country’s dominant political parties and how each party has continuously adapted to new circumstances.
ONE OF Barone’s core arguments in the book, which is in fact a collection of essays drawn from lectures, is that American political parties are extremely resilient. He suggests that those who foretell doom for the Trump-era GOP should study political history and perhaps show greater intellectual humility. Though Barone’s assertion that the Democratic and Republican Parties are respectively the world’s oldest and third oldest political parties might make some British Tories arch an eyebrow—he appears to restrict his definition to parties operating inside democratic political systems and to exclude those in constitutional monarchies but does not say so explicitly—his admonition that the two parties have endured since 1832 and 1854 certainly provides a timely reminder of their adaptability through multiple far-reaching social transitions. Barone’s brief narrative history, which comprises the book’s first section, shows how each party has rebuilt itself after crushing defeats to prove wrong the skeptics of yesteryear.
Political scientists agree that America’s majoritarian, district-based, winner-take-all elections privilege a two-party system. In contrast, election rules that create legislatures through proportional representation and party lists favor the emergence of multiple parties. America’s system, Barone notes, “is one reason why this country did not spawn a major socialist party in the early twentieth century, as most European democracies did.” The U.S. system likewise establishes constraints that go a long way toward preventing modern alternative parties like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party from gaining traction, ensuring that independent presidential candidates like Ross Perot remain spoilers rather than potential presidents, and encouraging independent-minded politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders to caucus with the Democrats despite asserting a socialist identity.
A second reason—which Barone alludes to elsewhere in the book but does not connect directly to America’s stable two-party system—is that electoral victories are almost certain to be ephemeral within a political duopoly, notwithstanding the self-congratulation of their architects or the self-confidence of political strategists and media commentators who see long-term implications in every vote. In describing the end of Republican Party dominance in the early twentieth century, Barone makes an important general observation: “In democratic nations, any party that wins by such a large margin has difficulty maintaining its dominance.”
“A very large coalition,” he continues, “inevitably contains groups with different goals” that leaders will struggle over time to reconcile. This reality relentlessly undermines either party holding a “lock” on the presidency or one or the other house of Congress. This is a point that Barone makes later in his narrative in assessing politics in the 1990s—a time when many assumed that Republicans would long control the White House and that Democrats would similarly hold the House of Representatives. They were wrong.
In fact, political enmities and ambitions create a more-or-less self-regulating structure within a two-party system. Once leaders and voters in a particular party begin to think that they have a “lock” on a particular office or institution, they become increasingly interested in fighting with their allies—sometimes at the expense of taking the fight to the other side. After all, if you “know” your party will prevail regardless, then the political battles that matter are inside one’s own party, where it is essential that the “right” people win primary elections and thus exercise political control after your expected general election victory. Since these internal battles divide a party and alienate potential voters who support one faction or the other, or are turned off by one or the other, they can swiftly erode any supposed dominance. Consider how quickly Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” crumbled as Tea Party candidates and voters slew incumbent Republican officeholders in primary elections and then fell to Democrats in general balloting. Another way of putting this is to say that people who fear losing prioritize “electability”; those who see victory as foreordained, or an entitlement, view electability as requiring unnecessary and undesirable compromises in their principles. It is fear of losing that unites parties in America’s two-party system. Heaven help those who transcend it.
Another consideration is that the Republican and Democratic parties are competing for support from distinct yet overlapping constituencies within America’s limited voting public. When some of these constituencies shift from one party to another on a long-term basis, analysts see a political realignment. But even as the winners celebrate their new support, the losers are looking for vulnerabilities—for other groups that they can split from the opposing coalition, including some that may be uncomfortable with their new allies or their preferred policies. Anyone who expects one party or the other to build a “permanent” majority is assuming that either everyone in that party will remain permanently satisfied with its candidates and policies, and/or that the competing party will never succeed in pulling away the dissatisfied. Such thinking strains credulity to its breaking point. Especially ironic is that the party strategists who predict these long-term successes—presumably to show confidence, to rally donors and base voters, and to demoralize the other side—may in fact be contributing to a mindset that will predictably divide their own ranks. This suggests a pragmatic basis for greater humility among the victorious.
In evaluating the GOP’s inability to sustain its initial post-World War II congressional majorities, Barone makes another notable point about democratic politics and about how success dialectically breeds failure. He observes that “nothing can be so fatal for a political party as the enduring success of your signature public policy initiatives: voters then turn to other issues on which your opponents may have the edge.” This was the case with Republican policy successes in 1947 and 1948, he states, presumably referring both to the Republicans passing laws like the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited labor unions’ ability to strike, and to their blocking many of President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal proposals, the latter of which helped Truman to campaign against Republicans in the 80th Congress as the “Do-Nothing Congress.” In the present day, one might view the GOP’s enduring success in limiting and reducing taxes through this lens; voters may have begun to care less about further tax cuts relative to what the federal government provides in return for the taxes they still pay, whether in health care, education, infrastructure or other areas. Such sentiments would understandably fuel populism on both the left and the right—especially among those who also saw an unfair distribution of the tax burden and/or of economic gains and pains.
DESPITE HIS attention to these structural factors, Barone clearly writes that he sees the two parties’ nature as more important than the American political environment in explaining their longevity. “America’s two political parties have maintained, over their astonishingly long lifespans, their basic character, their political dna. But each has done so only by adapting its policies and adjusting its personnel when faced with political circumstances threatening its viability.”
How does this make a difference? The two parties, Barone believes, represent something fundamental, with the Republican Party built around “a core group considered to be typical Americans” and the Democratic Party as “a collection of out-groups, of demographic groups that have not been regarded by themselves or others as typically American.” The Republican Party thus “has never been a majority of the electorate and must attract others” while the groups forming the Democratic Party can be a majority, though “it is almost always a problem holding them together.” This idea is an intriguing one, though arguing it persuasively requires more thorough and systematic analysis, or at least citation of sources that put forward solid evidence.
Barone likewise does not fully explore the implications of his argument for today’s Republican Party. He is justifiably confident that the Republican Party will survive as one of the country’s two principal coalitions and that, notwithstanding future ups-and-downs, it will continue off-and-on to win the White House, to secure control of one or both houses of Congress and “to significantly affect public policy.” But what does this survival mean for American politics if the price of longevity is “adapting its policies and adjusting its personnel” in ways that some Republicans see as the extinction of not only past principles, but also past principals? This is the central question for Republicans in the Trump era.