Strange Fruits of Victory: A Vision of The Democratic Party in 2040

In History and Politics on May 22, 2009 at 6:16 am

One of the side-effects (collateral damage if you want to be ironic) of the 2008 election, and the broader public reaction against the Bush Administration, has been a massive shift in partisan identification away from the Republican Party and toward the Democratic Party.

One example of this trend is the most recent Pew Poll on partisan identification that shows a shift from a tie of 43% to 43% in 2002 to a 53% Democratic and 36% Republican split. This follows several other polls that suggest a massive decline in Republican identification and a smaller, but still significant increase in Democratic identification.

All of which has caused a bit of speculation over whether the Republican Party will survive as an institution, and what this will mean for the future of American politics. Will the Republican Party collapse, and what will fill its place? Will there be a new second party, and what will it look like? Will the Democratic Party become the lone major party, and how long would their sole dominance last?

For the purposes of a thought experiment, I’d like follow one particular line of speculation in order to tease out some major questions about the current nature and future direction of the Democratic Party.

One of the advantages of taking a historical approach to a question like this is that American history luckily gives us examples of how this kind of political realignment has happened in the past. Unusually, the United States seems to experience major political realignment on a fairly regular basis, so we have several models that could tell us what the collapse of a political party might look like:

  • A New Second Party – in this model, the fall of  one of the two major political parties results in its place being taken by a new second party that assembles a new coalition, often borrowing from elements of the fallen political party’s coalition and adding new groups in order to forge a new and more durable coalition. The best example of this from American history is the rise of the Republican Party from the wreckage of the Whig Party. The Whig Party’s Northern and Southern coalition, previously formed on the basis of economic policy, was destabilized by the introduction of a new issue – slavery – into the political debate.  The new Republican Party brought Northern Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, Free Soilers, Nativists, and abolitionists into a new anti-slavery coalition. It’s interesting to note, however, that the Republican Party’s economic policy largely followed Whig lines: support for a national banking policy, a protective tariff for industrial goods, internal improvements (public works, usually in the field of transportation infrastructure), and nationalism over regionalism.
  • The Dominant Party Breaks Into Two New Parties – in this model, the fall of one of the two major parties results in the remaining period experiencing a long period of dominance. Ultimately, underlying tensions within the ruling party’s coalition built to the point of fracture, resulting in two new parties. Here, the best example is the emergence of the Whig Party in 1828-1832 out of the National Republicans (who themselves had emerged from the ex-Federalist New England wing of the Democratic-Republican Party). The divisions between the Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats had many causes, including personality conflicts and divisions over separation of powers issues, but chief among them were the expression of economic policy divisions that had persisted for some time, with Whigs following the more Federalist lines of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Gallatin, and Jacksonian Democrats cleaving more towards the Jeffersonian economic philosophy.
  • The Second Party Gets Its Act Together, But Changes Dramatically – in this model, one of the two parties comes close to political oblivion and spends some time in “the wilderness,” before adapting itself to suit a new coalition, new ideological position, and/or geographic or demographic changes. In some ways, this is the most frequent case – one can look to the transformation of the Democratic Party in 1932 into the New Deal Coalition after spending 10 years in the minority, the re-emergence of the Republican Party as the party o anti-communism in the 1950s following nearly 20 years of political isolation, the Cold War Liberal dominance of the Democratic Party in the 1960s, the re-constitution of the Republican Party into the party of the New Right from 1964 to the 1980s, the emergence of New Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, and so forth. In each case, the party takes on new constituents (urban workers and African Americans  in the New Deal coalition, Southern Whites in the Reagan coalition, and so forth) or new issues (anti-Communism in the 1950s, civil rights int he 1960s).

Ultimately, I’m persuaded by polling data that shows a continuing trend of declining Republican identification, which suggests that the failures of the Bush Administration have not merely damaged the reputation of George W. Bush, but have also damaged the long-term reputation of the Republican Party as well. In addition to the partisan damage, I think economic conservatism has been badly damaged by the Bush recessions, and it will take some time before the public is willing to support more pro-market policies. Furthermore, I think that surveys of political ideology – as can be found here and here – suggest that the political environment is likely to shift leftwards for some time to come, making it more difficult to establish a new second party. This evidence is especially persuasive on social issues, suggesting that cultural conservatism may be in for a more long-lasting decline, as younger generations turn against cultural conservative issues across the political spectrum.

What I think will happen, therefore, is a period of Democratic Party dominance for the next 10 to 20 years. However, I think tensions will gradually emerge between its left and right flanks over economic and social policy that may very well lead to the establishment of two new parties. What we may have in 2040 is one party that is socially liberal and economically liberal – a genuine Progressive party, although probably partaking less of the class politics of a Social Democratic Party than the “social organism” politics of Progressivism – and another party that is socially liberal and economically laissez-faire – what Europeans would recognize as a Liberal Party. The reason for this is that as moderate and liberal Republicans desert the Republican Party for the Democrats, there will be a wider base for this kind of politics – at least after expansions of the welfare state (especially in the area of universal health care) and the return of economic prosperity have given middle class and affluent Democrats the sense of economic security necessary for the return to a more New Democratic attitude towards markets, especially given the availability of corporate financing for such a political shift.

However, it’s hard to tell what will happen. It may well be that the Republican Party will jettison cultural conservatism and become a European-style Liberal Party – if that does happen, I don’t htink it will happen any time soon. At the very least I would think it would take a period of sustained losses in 2010, 2012, and probably 2014 and 2016 to really produce enough of a scare to make that happen. It would also be wrong to suggest that any of this could happen on its own – any political shifts we might see over the next 10 or 20 years will require huge amounts of political work. At the very least, we will need to see key policy victories in the Obama administration – with universal health care being the most important among them – in order to create the political climate for an enduring left shift.

– Steven Attewell

  1. […] Strange Fruits of Victory: A Vision of the Democratic Party in 2040 […]

  2. A different scenario is that the U.S. becomes a one party state where the only issue in politics is who gets goodies from the government and who pays the bill. The permanent revolutionary party in Mexico could be the best example along with Japan, and most of the old south under the Democratic Party.

    If Mass, NYC, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, DC, and LA can function with only one party, why can’t the U.S. function with a single party.

    Aso, what issue will cause blacks or Hispanics to split their votes between two parties. Unless you can see Hispanics or blacks becoming swing voters, the most likely scenario is a one party state.

    • Well, I thought you’d eventually turn up here. Hello.

      Possibly, but it’s rare that one-party states last very long in a functioning democracy, and the American case is actually rather instructive here. We’ve had a one-party state after the Federalist party fell apart after the war of 1812 (although they’d been on a losing streak since 1800), but it fell apart as early as 1824. Likewise, the one-party rule by the Republicans from the Civil War on only lasted a decade or so, with Democrats seizing the House in 1874, and the presidency by 1884 (they nearly did it in ’76 and 80).

  3. You need to find examples that are less than 100 years old. Of course those examples reinforce the idea that the U.S. can function as a one party state. Chicago has been a one party city for more than 50 years along with many other large urban areas. Mass. has functioned as a one party state. California is so one party that the Republican governor filled his staff with Democrats and adopted Democratic party policy.

    Why not write a post about how non-whites will eventually split their votes between two parties while the government maintains the voting rights act and racial set aside programs.

    • Well, there’s a reason why those examples are more than 100 years old – we don’t get one-party national governments in the U.S all that long. Local and state politics are a different matter, given how disparities in local political affiliation can make overwhelming majorities – after all, states like Utah are just as Republican-dominated as California is Democratic-dominated (although I’ll note that these affiliations can change; California was a Republican state twenty years ago). The national government – which was the subject of the post, is a different story.

      And ultimately, I think as the U.S becomes a more multicultural nation, as as the GOP, which is increasingly defining itself as a party of older, white men, gradually fades away, you’ll probably see some class and other differentiations within minority communities. There are plenty of black and Latino business and middle class types who probably don’t like paying taxes and who might eventually be drawn in by a civil rights/liberties + low taxes argument, but as I’ve suggested above, that’s down the road a ways.

  4. […] Strange Fruits of Victory: A Vision of The Democratic Party in 2040 […]

  5. Your argument against the scenario in which GOP “gets its act together”, is that it would require GOP suffering sustained losses in several upcoming election cycles. However, you describe as a more likely situation the domination of Dems over the same period. Are you talking about differences in a few points in polls that would distinguish between “Dem dominance” and “sustained losses for GOP”?

    As you know, I’m no historian of politics, but it seems to me that the first scenario, that you find more likely, would require such policies from the ruling Dems that would antagonize either the progressive or the liberal (in European sense) wing of the Dems.

    Assuming that, I am not sure that economic policies are sufficient cause for the progressives to split off from the main party; perhaps unfortunately. I find it unlikely for the progressives to take hold of the mainstream Dems and liberals splitting off – I would think this is almost equivalent scenario of GOP getting it together – the result is the same: two parties, differing on economic policies, both being “sane” on civil/human rights issues, regardless of whether their names are “Progressive Dems”/”Liberal Dems” or just “Dems/GOP”.

    To sum up, I see as a more likely scenario for GOP to get its grip on civil liberties, while retaining the liberal stance towards government/fiscal responsibility/market economy. I would think the economically liberal voters would then be less attached to Dems and that they would eventually drift much easily to GOP, restoring the balance in identification.

    Outside of economic issues, do you see the flavor of foreign policy being a big point in upcoming years? Specifically, could the overt interventionist stance (as recently championed by Bushes) be a viable platform? Or will the both parties (whichever they are) adapt the non-interventionist, or perhaps covert-interventionist, stance?

    • Ironically, I had to read back through my post to remind myself what I argued.

      My argument about the GOP getting its act together is that this assumes that it will lose, and then decide to shift left. In the other, the scenario would be that they don’t, fall apart as a political force and that the new Euro-type liberals emerge from within the Democratic Party. Think of it as the difference between a Cameronized Tories or the Lib Dems being the opposition, to use a British metaphor.

      You’re right in that the two scenarios are similar, but the reconstituted GOP would still be significantly to the Right of the Euro-style liberals, in the sense that even the most conservative Democratic is further to the left than the most liberal Republican.

      Now, my argument regarding economic policy – I don’t think it will be so much a case as policy enactment leading to a split as policy standstill – witness for example the current conflict over the climate change bill, where it’s not so much the case that one side is passing something that the other side can’t stand, but rather frustration building over gridlock, and the two sides start to act independently of each other, eventually building into a split.

      Re: foreign policy. Not for some time. I think the Bush interventionism is going to be a no-go area for some time; now it may be non-interventionist versus covert-interventionist, or multilateral Wilsonianism (still committed to furthering U.S ideological goals, but through international law and institutions) versus realism (focusing on specific national interests, explicit or implicit disavowal of ideological purpose).

  6. Care to revisit this with the benefit of hindsight?

    The GOP seems to have revitalized itself by shifting right… thoughts?

    • I’m not so sure. Given the sharp conflicts now between the tea-party wing and the rest of the GOP, I think breakup is still an option.

      Moreover, revitalization is still in doubt – the GOP lost huge when health care reform passed, and I think we’ll have to see what happens
      in 2010, 2012, and probably 2014 and 2016 to be sure.

  7. […] committing to the rest of it. The end result of that is to form within the progressive movement a party of bankers who like to smoke pot who in any other country would be part of a center-right Liberal Party, and that really weakens us […]

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