Bleak Prospects for the Democrats

A number of structural reasons indicate that the Democratic party will not be able to revive itself soon in the way that liberal activists desire. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic party is likely to gain the decisive upper hand in electoral politics in the visible future. But this means by default that conservative politics will retain ascendancy, even if the Democratic party nominally returns to power. The reports of a Republican party realignment are greatly exaggerated, and so are the fantastic musings about a Democratic party realignment because of emerging demographics. A better case can be made for continued dealignment since the sixties, despite a rise in party identification among the electorate and polarized party line votes in Congress since the seventies. Although roll call voting in Congress in the last two decades suggests rising partisanship, this does not translate into enthusiasm among voters. It has been noted that the Republican party wants to depress voter turnout to keep poor voters out, and the Democratic party does not feel at ease with socially conservative poor voters. The current economic structure works against advocacy of the kind of domestic social initiatives that the Democratic party has long stood for. As the parties have come to a consensus on personal rather than collective democracy, privatization of government services is likely to be the trend of the future. The possibility of radical initiatives mostly in the foreign policy sphere favors conservatives. Continued weak party identification, low voter turnout, and both parties’ emerging consensus on privatization suggest that a commitment to the working-class is highly unlikely to come about.

The recent competition for House minority leader between Nancy Pelosi, representing the “liberal” side of the Democratic party, and Martin Frost and Harold Ford, speaking for the “conservative” side, was overdramatized. Such personalization doesn’t take into consideration the structural reasons why the Democratic party is compelled to follow a basically conservative line. Pelosi’s acceptance speech struck all the key New Democrat themes: “opportunity, community, [and] responsibility,” seeking “common ground” with Republicans on domestic issues, being as forceful as the President on defense and security, and pursuing an aggressive “economic growth” agenda. It is not simply a matter of the Democratic party getting its voice back. The progressive instinct within the Democratic party will remain a minority, and mostly unheard, voice. Domestic repression has become a necessity because of the recent transformation of the American economy. Even if the Democrats return to power, a dismantling of the domestic repressive structure – except at the margins – seems inconceivable.

The first line of reasoning to confront in arguing for a continued conservative ascendancy is the flawed notion of realignment. Both Republican and Democratic claims of a realignment in their favor rest on a theory of critical elections first propounded by V.O. Key, Jr., E. E. Schattschneider, James L. Sundquist, and Walter Dean Burnham. To the extent that this theory is dubious, we have to wonder if there have been any critical, or realigning, elections since 1932, and if there have been any momentous shifts toward either party in the 1968 and 1980, not to mention the 2002, elections. The originators of realignment theory never made the extravagant claims that followers of this genre later propounded in their name. Nonetheless, some version of critical elections theory has become a standard organizational device in American political science and history texts. Typically, three eras are considered realigning ones: the 1850s, the 1890s, and the 1930s. To the extent that we believe in the theory of critical elections, we’re likely also to give credence to periodicity in American history and major policy changes associated with such elections.

David R. Mayhew has recently taken up the fifteen central claims of realignment theory, and systematically discredited each one of them. He questions whether American elections can be neatly sorted between realigning and nonrealigning types, whether there are regular and predictable patterns of periodicity, whether good third party showings tend to be precursors of realignment, whether ideological polarization led by insurgents marks realignment junctures, whether realignments are associated with significant policy changes, whether electoral realignments bring about unified control of government by a single party and whether such unified control is even necessary for significant policy change, and whether American voters only express themselves effectively at realignment junctures. One particularly tricky problem is why there has now been a seventy-year gap between realignments, when the thirty-year-cycle predicts that it is long overdue. Mayhew even questions whether the 1896 election deserves to be kept on its canonical pedestal. These criticisms open the way to thinking not in terms of critical elections marking a before and after of a particular policy regime, but in terms of a permanent campaign. In this view, voters’ interests would be continuously expressed during all elections, thus diminishing the importance of particular elections.

Realignment theory serves an important narrative function, letting American history be neatly periodized. But it is important to shift attention away from realignment theory to locate major policy change not in critical elections but in continuous political transformation, determined ultimately by economic change. Secular changes that are unlikely to be affected by the electoral successes of either party include declining voter turnouts, candidate-centered elections, split-ticket voting, declining partisan identification, the rise of independent voters, and political alienation of the young. Crotty and Jacobson have talked about confusing, whimsical patterns in elections. The Democrats won a close contest in 1960, followed by a landslide in 1964. Richard Nixon followed the same pattern in 1972. Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1996 followed suit. But in none of these cases was the victorious party able to consolidate its gains. Beck and Sorauf point out that as issues become nationalized, third parties and regional interests fade in comparison to national consensus. The trend is entirely in the direction of nationalization, particularly since the dominance of electronic communication. It can be argued that this trend too favors conservative politics. American parties have tended to be cadre rather than mass parties, with all that that implies for interest in winning elections rather than taking principled stands on particular issues.

Progressive era reforms played a key role in eviscerating the political parties as mass mobilization forces. There can never be a return to the high turnout rates before Progressive reforms. Progressive reforms that weakened parties included the Australian ballot, the direct primary, and nonpartisan elections at the state and local levels. Civil service reform, which weakened the power of patronage, dealt another mortal blow to the parties. When elections become nonpartisan, this typically favors conservatism. The direct primary weakens the national party by taking control away from party officials and activists. In fact, many Progressives were explicitly interested in striking a blow against the power of the parties by democratizing the electoral process. What the Progressives actually succeeded in doing ? and this has become more evident since the advent of television ? was to weaken national parties at the expense of investing control in the hands of the mass media, and the special interests that feed the mass media and finance political campaigns. The case in favor of presidential primaries rests on disgust with behind-the-scenes manipulations of party insiders, while the case against it lies in its tendency to generate media-oriented rather than ideological campaigns. There is no foreseeable change to this pattern. Both the Progressives and the single issue-oriented activists of the 1960s and 1970s drove machine politicians out of politics when they couldn’t compete directly with them. Neither party attempts to win elections anymore by mobilizing the millions of citizens who don’t vote; this simply will not change. On the contrary, neither party supports electoral reforms that might spur voter turnout; this too is unlikely to change.

No doubt, in the 1980s and 1990s there has been an increased degree of ideological cohesion in both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress. Nonetheless, the issues on the plate to begin with are to a great degree consensual. A look back at the 1988 party platforms shows that on every issue except the environment, women, and minorities (that is, primarily cultural issues), there has been a dramatic narrowing of the range of differences between the two parties. Even with unified Republican government in 2002, is it likely that the Republicans will maintain this hold for anywhere as long as a decade? The likely future scenario is the continued dominance of single-issue groups that splinter ideological cohesion around broader class and economic concerns. Campaign finance laws are unlikely to evolve in such a direction as to return stronger party organization. (Recall that it was the 1970s campaign finance reforms that set into motion the explosive growth of PACs.) The seminal 1950 American Political Science Association document on a more “responsible” party system called for reforms that seem even more unattainable today: biennial national conventions with greater control over the national committees, binding party platforms with permanent philosophies, elimination of congressional practices that weaken party discipline, and a redesign of American parties into forces of mass mobilization. As Crenson and Ginsberg have pointed out, citizens today tend to be interested in service, not politics; the reformulation of one’s conception relative to government as customer rather than citizen marks the end of the politics of mass mobilization.

A case can be made that in a period of voter disillusionment and apathy, it is conservative issues that hold the spotlight. This is not to say that the electorate is necessarily becoming more conservative, but that when voters don’t see the political system able to handle large problems they vote conservatively. To the extent that the parties continue to be perceived as ineffective in articulating and solving the larger issues of the day, a conservative agenda – independent of which party holds power – will continue to dominate. And there seems no way out of this dilemma, since the political party continues to decline in importance in campaigns. Rather than mass parties that offer coherent ideological platforms to keep coalitions together, single-interest groups capitalize on voters’ disaffection. It has been noted that the executive party steps in to fill the vacuum when the legislative party is not strong or cohesive. Persistent institutional trends, such as the separation between party loyalty in the abstract and individual candidate success, mean that the parties have become “executive-centered coalitions” since the late 1960s. Partisanship in Congress increased during the 1980s, but the parties in this same period turned to service-orientation; the resulting influence of PACs weakens the possibility of stable partisanship. The hope in the 1980s and 1990s that parties would be able to reclaim their central role by becoming service-oriented has not borne full fruition because of greater contradicting institutional tendencies. It is possible that a weak realignment, in favor of the Republican party, has already occurred, but it is limited in its capacity to achieve programmatic goals because of a weaker base than used to be the case in the heyday of parties. Weakened party organizational capacities to nominate and elect candidates, and weakened party loyalties among both legislators and the electorate, counter the relative resurgence of partisanship since the 1970s.

The traditional argument has been that dealignment, i.e., declining partisanship among the electorate, including such reflections as third party voting and ticket splitting, is a momentary phenomenon to be followed by a new realignment. Yet, despite the mild comeback made by parties since the 1970s, perhaps we have entered an extended period of dealignment. If withdrawal from party loyalty has indeed become a permanent feature of the landscape, then new party loyalties may not develop. Walter Dean Burnham has argued that the American party system has become so weakened by loss of party control over nominations and the scheduling of many state and local elections in off-years, that it may no longer be capable of realignment. As far back as the late seventies, weakened party organizations as factors in the nomination process were said to have resulted in a “no-party system.” Another way this has been expressed is to say that the presidency has become its own national party, formed on a plebiscitary leadership model. The ascendancy of the executive as opposed to the legislature reduces members of Congress to playing the “nonpartisan” role of “ombudsmen” promising constituents an ear with the federal government and bringing home pork-barrel projects. A strong case can be made that the sociological characteristics of large parts of the electorate that led to the building of the New Deal coalition are in permanent eclipse, and that a new party system is not likely to take its place anytime soon. At the same time, too much can be made of Republican strength since the 1980s; the case for realignment in that direction is also exaggerated. The rise of “pure” independents has been demythologized by much research; yet such nominal identification by increasing numbers of voters suggests a loss of partisanship among the electorate. Independents tend to be the least informed voters, and it is no good sign of the return of partisanship that among the young perhaps half of all voters consider themselves independent. How lasting will the present Republican coalition be? Will it too succumb, sooner rather than later, to the large-scale dealignment characteristic of recent American politics?

In all likelihood, the future of American politics is toward what Ted Halstead and Michael Lind have called the “radical center.” It doesn’t matter that in fact the middle-class is rapidly disappearing, and that the working-class has pressing unmet social service needs; both parties are addressing themselves toward the mythical swing voter, because his putative needs accord best with the economic transformation occurring in America. Acknowledging the severance of the stable employment contract, Halstead and Lind offer as part of a new social compact mandatory private health insurance as the solution to the health care crisis, replacement of the Social Security system by a public pension system based on individual savings, personal development accounts of $20,000 by the age of eighteen for all Americans to meet the challenge of rising inequality, radical change in immigration policy to favor skilled over unskilled workers, ending fixed retirement ages to meet the problem of the underutilized elderly, and regulation of human germ-line enhancement rather than its outright prohibition. It is as safe a bet as any that all or most of these “pragmatic” solutions (though intensely conservative, if viewed in the traditional political perspective) are as likely to come about as any other set of policy options. The postindustrial economy ? the Information Age economy, to put a positive spin on it ? demands “pragmatic” solutions along these lines, breaking the compact that was necessary between workers and the state under a different order. Theda Skocpol has recently articulated the need for a new social compact that cuts across classes, but fails to identify the instrument of “a new popular mobilization by and for ordinary American families.” Skocpol desires social programs for working families “in return for contributions to the larger community” in accord with what she claims is the history of the most successful social programs in America. More likely, however, any new social engineering will take the turn Lind and others in his camp have recently been outlining.

The health of the parties in the nineteenth-century can never be recovered. The mass parties of the time aggregated and articulated class interests in a way that’s not really possible under the new economic conditions. Progressive era reforms fatally weakened national parties, and the thrust of modern reforms (including the newest campaign finance law) is in the same direction. The conservatives have the upper hand, since it is only in foreign policy that great initiatives can be taken; the Democrats have come to a consensus with the Republicans on deficit reduction as priority, making no new large social programs possible. In the new economic order, Social Security and Medicare privatization and some sort of a consumption or flat tax (or at least further scaling back of progressive taxation) are the kinds of policy initiatives likely to get play regardless of the party in power. An alignment of liberals with conservatives on civil liberties might be a fond hope, but the conservative libertarians’ economic agenda puts them so much at odds with liberals that this is not too likely. Since no real realignment seems to have happened since 1932, it is vain to hope that the Democratic party will offer a new social program without the strength of an electoral realignment. Weak party identification should continue to favor the conservative economic and social agenda. Conservative economic forces are really operating without much filtering by either party, Republicans or Democrats, since neither party is strong, or has a mass base of the kind seen in earlier generations. The rise of independent voters is another chimera; in practice, they tend to be weakly affiliated with either party, not ideologically motivated or informed voters who might support strong domestic initiatives of any kind.

The decline of the Democratic party is actually associated with the decline of the Republican party – the party system in general. It may seem that the latter party has dramatically gained at the cost of the former, even to the extent of almost attaining realignment, but in fact abiding institutional factors continue to emasculate both parties. Both parties have in fact moved toward a new consensus on distribution of economic resources. A conservative politics has filled in the vacuum left by the general decline of parties. If neither party gets credit or blame for economic performance to the extent that used to be the case, then character-centered campaigns become all the more important; again, this favors the conservative agenda. The advantage, in the absence of fully resurgent grassroots parties, will remain with highly organized minorities whose interests tend to be conservative (although this is presented as bipartisan pragmatism or the vital center). The return of the disenfranchised as the key component of a resurgent liberal party does not seem to be in the cards.

ANIS SHIVANI studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at:


Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism