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