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Political parties are an essential and often puzzling element of American politics. They consist of individuals with varying degrees of attachment to a party trying to gain representation of their concerns. Officeholders and prospective officeholders hope to attract enough voters with diverse concerns so they may control government. Although this interaction seems simple, parties are often puzzling. They pursue policies and constituents in ways that often leave us wondering: Why are they trying to advocate for specific groups and win their votes? Why are they supporting a position that we might think does not make sense? Why are they pursuing a particular strategy in a particular election cycle? Then about the time we figure out these various interactions, something changes, leaving us puzzled again.
At various points in our careers, each of us has experienced such puzzlement. We also share the experience of reading James Sundquist's The Dynamics of the American Party System and finding the book enormously helpful in providing a broad overview of parties and their constituencies and why both changed over time. Sundquist wrote the book in the 1970s, a time of enormous change in American political parties. Each party was seeking and incorporating new constituencies and changing its bases of support. He finished that book at a time when it was very difficult to see where that change was headed. It is now clearer.
The 1968 election shook the Democrats' confidence in their liberal policy agenda. It began a lengthy period of grappling with charges that the party had moved too far left in its efforts to advance an activist government agenda. For Republicans, the 1968 elections provided a vague sense, amid considerable political chaos, that a more conservative message could be presented to the public. However, it would take some time for that possibility to fully emerge. In reality, 1968 was just one of several fitful efforts by conservatives to push the GOP in a more conservative direction, efforts that moderates consistently opposed. The origins of conservative efforts began much earlier than the late 1960s and took a considerable amount of time to come to fruition.
The story of how conservatives made a comeback in American politics is a long one. It is a story of belief, persistence, organization, failure, and setback, overcoming doubts, making renewed efforts, and eventually realizing gains among voters that conservatives had to attract to achieve electoral success. It is a process in which conservatives were often dismissed and moderates argued that a conservative appeal would not work. It took weaving together a coalition that many doubted could be assembled. It is, moreover, a perfect example of the model of gradual realignment as a party searches for a majority.
Political parties face a continuing challenge as they seek to create a majority. American society is always changing and they must respond. Yet fundamental issues endure and they must represent them. Parties have an existing base but they may need to seek new constituents as society changes. The challenge is to retain as much of the older base as possible while adding in new constituents. It is not an easy balancing act.
The enduring concerns have been economic, involving issues of promoting economic growth, fairness, and opportunity. Over time, the Republican Party has been the conservative party, arguing against government activity. Republicans believe that individuals can and should make it on their own. Too much government intrusion is bad for the economy and stifles growth. Democrats argue that class background, inequalities in opportunity, and the condition of the economy often affect the ability of individuals to succeed. They believe the government needs to take steps to increase equality of opportunity and provide some protection to individuals from the harm that could be done to them by corporations that often give a low priority to working conditions and employee well-being. Other issues, such as immigration, race, and moral and cultural concerns, have flared periodically, creating pressures for both parties to respond and address these concerns as well.
The challenge in understanding American political parties over time is to sort out how there could be continuity of many concerns while at the same time the composition of each party's electoral base has shifted significantly.
The New Deal dramatically changed the role of the federal government in the United States. The Social Security Act of 1935 established a national program to provide for the elderly and the disabled. For the first time, the federal government assumed some responsibility for the unemployed by making it attractive for states to implement unemployment insurance. Federal expenditures on and responsibility for public works programs of all shapes and sizes increased exponentially. Regulation and oversight of financial markets and other important segments of the economy expanded significantly, and in a long-sought victory by labor activists, the federal government used its coercive power to ensure workers the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Taxation expanded as well in order to fund all of this new government activity. Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow Democrats in Congress responded to the Great Depression and made federal government action legitimate and even desirable, at least to most Americans. World War II further expanded the role of the national government. Tax levels increased again, and still more federal agencies were established. To many it seemed clear that the political dialogue, and indeed the public mood itself, had shifted to the left. Government was not a destroyer of freedom, but rather a source of assistance and an actor to make sure that no interest had undue influence and that no American was unduly left behind.
Political parties must continually assess their situations and determine if they need to adjust in order to achieve their goals. When a party is in the majority, there are concerns about what must be done to maintain the majority. Is there a coherent coalition in place, or does the party have to worry about balancing competing and potentially conflicting needs that could result in the fracturing of the party's coalition? During the era of the New Deal coalition, Democrats consistently faced this latter scenario with a Northern, urban contingent that wanted more government programs, and over time, greater action on civil rights. The Southern delegation was much less receptive to more government programs and was vehement in opposition to any civil rights legislation. Republicans in the early 2000s had a coalition of antigovernment economic conservatives and social conservatives that wanted to use government to encourage particular personal behaviors. In both cases, maintaining a coalition to keep a majority involved satisfying competing and potentially conflicting needs and desires. With Democrats, the coalition eventually ruptured. With Republicans, the balancing act is ongoing.
Parties in the minority face a different challenge. They must assess who they are currently attracting, determine which groups they might be able to add, and try to figure out whether existing supporters and potential supporters could be cobbled together to form a winning coalition.
As the Democrats reflected on the results of the 1892 election cycle, they had reason to be relatively pleased with themselves. They had captured the presidency, and although Grover Cleveland's three percentage point margin in the popular vote is not large by historical standards, it was larger than average in presidential elections from 1876–1892. Cleveland's 133-vote margin in the Electoral College was also a healthy one for this period. In addition, the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. Although the party did lose seventeen seats in the House because of the 1892 elections, it still had a comfortable ninety-one-seat edge over the Republicans. The Democrats recaptured the Senate for the first time since 1878, turning an eight-seat GOP advantage into a four-seat edge for themselves. All in all, Democratic Party leaders and officeholders likely were relatively pleased with their performance at the ballot box in 1892.
This satisfaction, however, was short-lived for the Democrats. Change was in the air, and a combination of events and decisions made by the Democratic Party was about to transform the relatively balanced partisan battle of post-Reconstruction nineteenth-century America into a prolonged era of Republican domination at the national level.
A TIME OF TROUBLE: THE DEMOCRATS IN 1893 AND 1894
When he was inaugurated for his second term as president in March 1893, Grover Cleveland was already being warned by some of his economic advisors and various business leaders that trouble was brewing in the nation's economy.
Dynamics of American Political Parties examines the process of gradual change that inexorably shapes and reshapes American politics. Parties and the politicians that comprise them seek control of government in order to implement their visions of proper public policy. To gain control parties need to win elections, and winning elections requires assembling an electoral coalition that is larger than that crafted by the opposition. Uncertainty rules and intra-party conflict rages as different factions and groups within the parties debate the proper course(s) of action and battle it out for control of the party. Parties can never be sure how their strategic maneuvers will play out, and, even when it appears that a certain strategy has been successful, party leaders are unclear about how long apparent success will last. Change unfolds slowly, in fits and starts.
While Democrats continued to search for direction, Republicans had their own struggles. By January 2001, political trends and events appeared to have put them in their best situation in decades. Then, following the 2006 and 2008 elections, the party was clearly in trouble. Republicans had to decide if voters did not like their party and its policies or if anti-Republican sentiment was simply a reflection of the thoroughly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush. If it was the latter, then the party could wait for the memory of Bush to fade away. If it was the former, then Republicans had some serious reassessment to do. Determining which of these explanations was more likely was not an easy task.
The George W. Bush presidency represented the first unified Republican control of the presidency and Congress since 1953. The primary question was what the GOP would do with its power. Republican success had been gradually increasing in recent decades, and the early 2000s was the party's best chance to implement the policies they supported. With the attraction of more conservatives to the Republican Party and the loss of Northeast moderates, the party now had less internal diversity and its best opportunity to enact a conservative agenda.
There was little doubt that Congress was primed for such an agenda. Conservative Republicans had a stranglehold on the majority in the House, and although conservative prospects were not as bright in the Senate, Republican leadership in that body was also clearly conservative and they had high hopes of finishing what Ronald Reagan had started twenty years earlier.
In the mid-1960s, the Democratic Party had a sizeable majority in Congress and held the presidency, just as they had for most of the previous forty years. They enacted a wide array of legislation to address a variety of social problems and established new social welfare programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Yet by 1969 Republican Richard Nixon, a presumably washed-up politician, was sitting in the Oval Office, and Democrats were being widely attacked as the party of social disorder and undeserving minorities, and the party that could not or would not support traditional American values. The 1968 presidential nominating process had torn the party apart, and many were uncertain about how the Democratic Party could possibly reconcile its conflicting factions.
As gloomy as things appeared in 1969, the reality is that it was only the beginning of their struggles. In 1972 with a new set of rules for nominating presidential candidates, the party selected South Dakota Senator George McGovern as its candidate. McGovern was quickly labeled as very liberal (Nixon went even further, regularly calling McGovern a radical) and he suffered a crushing defeat in 1972, taking many congressional Democrats with him. The implosion of the Nixon presidency with Watergate gave the party a temporary reprieve in 1974, and the party significantly increased its majorities in both chambers of Congress in those elections.