Party Power: A Peculiar American Patchwork

<i> Author and journalist Robert Conot writes about politics for The Times</i>

In 1964, American voters rejected what they perceived to be Barry Goldwater’s radical conservatism. Liberals hailed the arrival of their millennium. Four years later, Richard M. Nixon squeaked by Hubert H. Humphrey, partly because George Wallace defected from the Democrats and his American Independence Party captured five Southern states and made major inroads in four others. In 1972, voters rejected George McGovern’s left liberalism as decisively as they had defeated Goldwater’s conservatism. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan launched a populist Administration that stood traditional Republicanism on its ear.

But while Republicans have captured a majority of presidential elections since 1952, voters have even more consistently preferred a Democratic Congress. Even with the emergence of a two-party system in the South, the Democrats are more strongly entrenched in Congress than ever. After three consecutive Republican presidential landslides in the South, congressional representation is still almost 2-1 Democratic.

Responsibility for this electoral ambivalence rests largely with America’s system of government. Though the President is head of government as well as head of state, he has no assurance of a legislative majority. That the executive branch and the legislative branch should be divided between parties is virtually unheard of elsewhere. The situation is exacerbated by the division of Congress into two houses, neither having primacy. With three independent entities, U.S. government demands an unusual degree of compromise, and thus becomes centrist. Only when an Administration has a clear mandate and majorities in both houses--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson had them--is it possible for a President to function like a prime minister.

The conventional view of an election as a referendum on the policies of the party in power is undermined when, as for 24 of the past 42 years, power has been shared. During 24 years of Republican presidencies since 1952, only in the first two years of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration were Republicans also in control of both houses of Congress. If U.S. voters are satisfied with shared power, there is no reason for them to abandon ticket-splitting.


The consensus pattern of U.S. politics is strengthened further by the coalition nature of both parties. A conservative Democrat may have more in common with a conservative Republican than a liberal of his own party. Third-party movements that periodically crop up--Populist, Progressive or states’ rights--are forced to realign or form new partnerships if they are not to become impotent.

The system has helped the Democrats become the oldest continuing party in the world, and there have been only three major realignments in American political history, each a response to significant changes in social or economic conditions--in the 1850s (birth of the Republicans), the 1930s (Progressives move from the Republican to the Democratic Party) and the 1960s (fragmentation of the “solid South” and movement into the Republican column for presidential elections).

The development of the Democratic Party in the 1820s, out of Jacksonian Populism, was a manifestation of the westward movement and a growing conflict between the pioneers and the industrializing, urbanizing Northeast. In reaction, the short-lived Whigs of the 1830s were formed to represent the interests of Southern planters and the Eastern middle class. The Know-Nothings of the 1850s flourished briefly as a party opposed to immigrants flooding into the cities.

But as the American axis shifted from North-South to East-West orientation, the competition for Western lands between Northern railroad interests and Southern planters brought the Republican coalition into being. The founders of the Republican Party in 1854 included railroad entrepreneurs, former Whigs, Know-Nothings, homesteaders, public-education advocates, abolitionists and Prohibitionists. It was a coalition essentially white, Protestant, middle class and, by definition, anti-Southern. The Know-Nothings gave it a strong anti-immigrant flavor; others brought a contrasting, progressive social outlook. Most favored a strong federal government to promote their interests; the railroaders, homesteaders and public-education advocates were rewarded when public lands were allotted to finance railroad construction, settle immigrants and establish land-grant colleges.


But if the Republicans were anti-South, the glue for the post-Civil War Democrats was anti-Republicanism. In the South, the espousal of black power by Republicans in the Reconstruction era fashioned an unlikely alliance between Jacksonian Populists and former Whigs down South. In the North, Catholic immigrants never had anywhere to go but the Democratic Party, so ports of entry became Democratic strongholds.

Between the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the wrenching depression of the 1890s there was a rough equilibrium between parties. Then the agrarian-worker revolt against Grover Cleveland’s conservative policies fractured the Democratic Party and gave Republicans an ascendancy that was in turn fragmented by the temporary rebellion of the Progressives in 1912. The Progressives, synonymous with liberalism, led the way to anti-trust legislation, conservation of public lands, popular election of senators and universal suffrage.

Republicans were rewarded when women, newly enfranchised, gave the party its biggest shot in the arm during the 1920s. Middle-class women swarmed to the polls; women in working-class families followed in later years. The Progressives’ attachment to the Republicans, however, continued to be tenuous, and in 1924 Progressive Robert M. La Follette Sr. ran as a third-party presidential candidate, winning nearly 5 million votes.

Then, in the second great party realignment, Progressives infused the Democratic Party with a new liberalism. Labor, given protection to organize, abandoned its anti-immigrant stance and became a Democratic mainstay. Minorities found a haven in the party. Under the influence of intellectuals, the party turned away from a century of espousing states’ rights and began asking the federal government to shape the economy and restructure the social fabric.

But it would have been too much to expect such a diverse Democratic coalition to hold. Rebellion erupted in the South, against a strong civil-rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform. It reached boiling point 20 years later, after the mid-1960s civil-rights revolution, when only one of 11 Deep South states--Texas--went for Humphrey.

Under President Reagan the inversion of previous party positions was completed and the third major realignment consolidated. As the first populist President--a designation that once would have seemed a contradiction in terms--Reagan espoused the states’ rights posture of Jacksonian Democrats, echoed William Jennings Bryan’s conservative social philosophy and implemented a fiscal policy of liberality beyond the most radical dreams of Democratic Keynesians who, for half a century, were the targets of conservative fury. The backbone of the Republican Party continues to be white, middle class and largely Protestant--but now more a fundamentalist Protestantism rather than the earlier progressive Protestantism.

Democrats, faced with the attrition of union members, the need to reconcile internal ethnic arguments and the attempt to improve life for the underclass without alienating the middle class, have a daunting task trying to chip away the new rock of Republicanism.

But Republicans have their own dilemmas. Measured by registration, congressional representation and state elections, they remain a minority party. Blacks and Latinos, the fastest-growing groups in the electorate, vote overwhelmingly Democratic. As it was in the 1920s, the Republican constituency is heavily dependent on the economy.


Reagan’s popularity was, in fact, achieved largely at the expense of a key traditional Republican principle--fiscal responsibility. As with balanced budgets, what remains of the conservative anti-big-government philosophy is mostly lip service.

The dreaded “L” word is only a campaign argument. While 40% of Americans may identify themselves as conservative, it is a conservatism favoring the status quo of a liberal society. Few Americans would opt for return to a nation without Social Security, insured bank deposits, federal home-loan guarantees, unions’ right to organize, Medicare, environmental protection and civil rights for minorities.

For an electorate as pragmatic and devoid of strong political ideology as America’s is, both parties currently offer marginal appeal--witness the continuing growth of independents, who now outnumber the registration of either party. The presidential vote is a particularly unreliable gauge of party popularity, since Americans view the President more as a head of state than head of party. Republicans have been more successful lately because they have understood this better than Democrats. With issues as undefined as they were in 1988, it would be an egregious error for either party to interpret the results as a referendum on ideology.