Political parties often act as informational shortcuts. Voters’ lives are busy. They do not have the time to research the political views of every candidate that runs for office. Parties fill this void. With parties, voters do not need to know who is running for city council. All voters need to know is the candidate’s political allegiance. In the minds of most voters, the U.S. Democratic Party is liberal and the Republican Party is conservative.
But what if there is no clear ideological difference between the two parties?
Two sides of a coin
This is not an entirely hypothetical question. When a report was published in 1950, there was little difference between the Republican Party and Democratic Party. Each party had conservative, moderate, and liberal wings.
This pattern persisted well beyond the 1968 election when conservative southern Democrats broke from the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party. Few political science reports are as prophetic as the aforementioned “Towards a More Responsible Two-Party System.”
It was written by the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Committee on Political Parties and was published as a supplement to the American Political Science Review in 1950. The report was prophetic not because it was visionary, but because its recommendations were followed, and those changes helped bring about the partisan brinkmanship that is prevalent in U.S. Congress today.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
The effects of that brinksmanship have been devastating.
For instance, in 1980 Democratic members of U.S. Congress included Larry McDonald and Shirley Chisholm, who were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. McDonald was member of the John Birch Society, a conservative small-government advocacy group, while Chisholm was the first Black American congresswoman and the first Black American to run for president. Yet both McDonald and Chisholm were members of the same political party. As a result, according to APSA, “members of Congress, though elected as the candidates of one party, may be sharply divided on basic national issues, and particularly upon the programs called for in their party’s national platform.”
To solve this problem, the APSA suggested in this report that the Democratic Party and Republican Party become ideologically pure. Liberals should be Democrats and Conservatives should be Republicans.
In this idealized world, the party in power would rule and implement policies consistent with its national platform. The opposition, on the other hand, would act as “the critic of the party in power, developing, defining and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice.”
Parliament or gridlock
Over time, the APSA’s recommendations were adopted. By the 1990s, the Republican Party became overwhelming conservative while the Democratic Party became overwhelmingly liberal. But the benefits of partisan parties that the APSA report predicted were never realized. Instead of producing more responsible parties, ideological purity produced gridlock, brinksmanship and a rapid decline in civil discourse.
There is nothing inherently wrong with ideologically pure parties. In fact, they have worked well in parliamentary democracies such as Great Britain. The problem is that ideologically pure parties work efficiently in parliamentary systems where the legislative and executive branches of government are fused. Unlike most democracies, the United States has a presidential system with independent executive and legislative branches. To understand why this is important, one must look at the role ideologically pure parties play in parliamentary democracies such as Great Britain.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
Partisan parties are a core feature of British democracy. When elections are held the party that wins the most seats controls the government. The party that loses the election becomes the leader of the opposition. Because the party in power controls all the levers of government, the opposition has little influence in running the government. The only way the opposition can implement its agenda is by winning the next election. Every move made by the opposition is done with elections in mind.
Because elections are the only path to power, the opposition focuses on bringing the government down. It does this by blocking bills to fund the government, passing votes of no confidence, and attacking the policy proposals of the ruling party. The opposition can criticize the government, but that is the extent of its effectiveness until the coming election.
This is not the case in the United States. The U.S. has a presidential system with a separate legislative and executive branch. In such a system, divided government becomes inevitable. In his book Why Parties: The Origins and Transformation of Political Parties in America, political scientist John Aldrich wrote that the recommendations made by the 1950 APSA report reflected an “idealization that fits more readily with a unified, essentially unicameral assembly that combines the legislative and executive branches and that is elected all at once
It fits poorly with a government designed around the principles of separated by intermingled powers, with officials elected at different times from differently defined constituencies for the Madisonian purpose of making ambition check ambition.” In short, when ideologically pure parties are placed in a system of checks and balances, the results are catastrophic.
Take the presidency of Barrack Obama.
When Obama was elected in 2008, he believed that he could end the partisan divide in Washington. Republicans refused to cooperate. They were more interested in making Obama a one-term president than in helping him succeed. At first, their opposition hardly mattered. During Obama’s first two years, the Democratic Party enjoyed commanding majorities in both the House and Senate and could govern without Republican participation.
The situation changed in 2010 when voters gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives. Determined to undo Obama’s legacy, Republicans embarked on a policy of hostage taking that was unprecedented in the history of Congress. In 2011, House Republicans gave Obama an ultimatum: support a $100 billion cut in social spending or Congress will refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Previously, Congress regularly voted to increase the debt ceiling because raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with increasing debt. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that the United States will pay its bills and not default on its debt. Failing to increase the debt ceiling is like ordering a pizza and then refusing to pay for it.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
After much arm twisting, an agreement was reached on the night of April 8th, mere hours before the April 9th deadline. In exchange for raising the debt ceiling, Obama agreed to $38 billion in budget cuts. In an interview with Fox News’s Neil Cavuto shortly after the vote, then Senate minority––now majority––leader Mitch McConnell claimed that the debt ceiling deal set the template for the future:
In the future, Neil, no president—in the near future, maybe in the distant future—is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.”
After the debt-ceiling fiasco, Republicans banked on winning the presidency and control of the Senate in the 2012 election. Instead, Obama was re-elected and the Republicans lost seats in the Senate. The only bright spot for Republicans was that they kept control of the House. Despite losing the 2012 elections, House Republican decided to employ the same brinksmanship tactics used during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis.
In the Fall of 2013 House Republicans gave Obama another ultimatum: repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or they would shut down the government. Unwilling to repeal his crowning achievement, Obama refused to compromise. As a result, the federal government shut down from October 1 through October 16. Realizing their recklessness, the Republicans ultimately caved in, but the episode did lasting damage and made America’s political system a laughing stock.
Governance in duality
The events described above may sound like the actions of a deranged, out-of-control political party. But what the Republicans were doing was exactly what any ideologically pure opposition party would do in a Westminster style parliamentary democracy.
The APSA report neglected to consider two other aspects of American government. First, the United States has a federal system, not a unitary system. States’ governments are not passive, acting on behalf of the federal government; rather, they are the implementers of federal policy. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, can make regulations on the amount of CO2 a power plant can release. That rule, however, will only be successful if the states are willing to help enforce it. Moreover, important policy is often determined at the state and local level.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
Second, the United States has midterm elections. Two years into a president’s term, all members of the House and one third of the Senate is up for reelection. In almost all midterm elections, the president’s party loses seats in Congress. Since 1842, there have been forty-four midterm elections. In all but three of them (1934, 1998, and 2002), the president’s party lost seats in Congress. Making matters worse, thirty-four states elect their governors during a midterm election, while only eleven states hold their gubernatorial election in a presidential year.
In 2010, Republicans gained six gubernatorial seats and picked up 680 state legislative seats. Since there were no liberal Republicans among those elected, Obama had no Republicans he could work with. As a result, the United States had two sets of governments that were completely at odds with each other. Republican governors thwarted the establishment of state-based health exchanges, refused to accept Medicaid money under the health care law even though accepting funds would save the state money, and, more generally, did everything in their power to undermine Obama’s agenda.
Party or policy?
Supporters of the APSA report might question the conclusion that its recommendations were deeply flawed, pointing out that legislative obstruction has always occurred. During the Harry S. Truman’s presidency, for instance, he proposed a sweeping economic program called the Fair Deal. Among other things, the Fair Deal called for full employment and the establishment of universal health care.
Truman, however, could not convince Congress to support him, and his Fair Deal crumbled. The Congressmen who most strongly opposed Truman’s Fair Deal were not Republican, but Southern Democrats. In cases like this, what does it matter if a conservative Democrat is obstructing legislation instead of a Republican? Isn’t it obstruction regardless of which party commits it?
This is a good question.
Illustration by Lyne Lucien
From the 1940s till the 1960s, conservative Democrats repeatedly blocked civil rights and other progressive legislation favored by their more liberal colleagues. But what is remarkable is that, despite the tensions between the conservative and liberal wings of the Democratic Party, the conservative Democrats never threatened to shut down the government or default on the nation’s debt.
In other words, a conservative Democrat might hold up major legislation on civil rights, universal health care, or environmental protection, but they will continue to vote for bills that fund the government. The conservative Democrat will do this because they know that elections will not necessarily lead to the election of more like-minded individuals. Democrats may gain seats in an election, but the loss of Republican seats is no guarantee that the newly elected Democrats will be more uniformly conservative or liberal than the Republicans they replace.
A broken system
Today, Republicans control the presidency, both chambers of Congress and most of the governorships and state-legislatures. Despite this, brinksmanship tactics have already entered the governing process. Recently, president Trump threatened to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, unless Congress agreed to fund his cherished border wall with Mexico. In response, some Democrats proposed shutting down the government unless Trump rescinded his threat.
Trump’s presidency is a frightening prospect, and the 2018 midterm elections will undoubtedly carry more weight than in years past. At the same time, one should worry that the Democrats will use the same brinksmanship tactics once used by their Republican counterparts. Even dislike of President Trump does not allay that fear. If the only way to run government effectively is to have the presidency and Congress controlled by the same party, then all one can say is God help us.