The Age of Independents

Here is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on the decline of party affiliations in America. Not a minute too soon.

Partisan politics and behavior have hurt the US as much as anything, if for no other reason that they exacerbate extremist positions and foment extremist factions.

wsj logo

September 6, 2008


The Party’s Over

Millions of voters have moved out of the political party system. The decline of loyalty has made politics less stable and predictable — and has resulted in close elections.

September 6, 2008; Page W1

One of the conundrums of this political year is why, at a moment when Democrats are clearly preferred over Republicans, the presidential race remains so close. But for the past 40 years, close and unpredictable elections have increasingly become the norm. The most important reason for our volatile presidential elections is a fundamental change in American politics — the birth of a post-partisan world. This may sound surprising in an era in which politics are as polarized as at any moment in our recent history — as illustrated by Sarah Palin’s slashing, sarcastic acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention this week — and in which the two major parties in Congress seem to disagree, sometimes violently, on almost everything. But what makes our politics so different from early periods in our history, and so volatile and unpredictable, is the absence of strong political parties as moderators of public life, and their replacement with sharp ideological differences.

John McCain has very openly proclaimed "country," not party, "first," and Independent Joe Lieberman was a serious candidate for the vice presidential nomination. Barack Obama has said that "we are not a collection of Red States and Blue States, we are the United States of America," and Jim Leach, a longtime Republican congressman from Iowa, endorsed Sen. Obama at the Democratic convention. Both candidates decry "partisanship," and both pledge to reach "across party lines."


Readers, does party partisanship1 have a place in contemporary American politics? What are the risks of retreating from the party system2? Will party loyalty3 be a big factor in how you decide to vote in November? Share your thoughts.

A half century ago, American politics looked very different, as the political scientist V. O. Key made clear in a short article published in the Journal of Politics in 1955, titled, "A Theory of Critical Elections." There were, Mr. Key argued, periodic elections of unusual importance that create a "realignment" of party affiliations that is "both sharp and durable" and persists for "several succeeding elections." Large social changes — wars, depressions, popular upheavals — destabilized the party systems every generation or so and produced new electoral coalitions that often lasted for several decades.

Mr. Key was not alone in seeing a predictable pattern in American party politics. A few years earlier, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. had proposed a similar, if less rigorous theory — that there are "cycles" in American politics that move from periods of progressive energy to periods of conservative stasis, such periods alternating in reasonably regular and predictable patterns. (Mr. Schlesinger’s son, Arthur Jr., continued to promote this idea into the 1970s.) Mr. Key and the Schlesingers were among a large group of scholars who, over many decades, developed a range of theories that they believed could predict how the polity would behave and thus how electoral outcomes could be decided. Almost all of these theories rested on the assumption that elections were determined by the shifting nature of strong political parties. When the balance between the parties changed, so did the outcome of elections.

[growing independents]

At the time, history made these theories seem to work. In 1896, a great shift in party affiliations led to a remarkably stable period of 36 years in which Republicans controlled the White House for 28 of those years and the Congress for 30. And in 1932, the earthquake of the Great Depression launched yet another 36-year period of political stability in which the Democrats held the presidency for 28 years and the Congress for 32.

Through most of American history, the party system was indeed the driver of American political life. More than that, it was a profound form of self-identification for almost all voters, whose loyalty to parties was often as intense as their loyalty to churches, or ethnic groups, or regions. From the 1840s to the early 20th century, voter turnout in presidential elections almost always exceeded 70% and at times exceeded 80%, less because of strong feelings about presidential candidates — who were often indistinguishable from one another — than because of fierce loyalty to parties. In the 1890s, David B. Hill, an otherwise unremarkable governor of New York, created a national sensation when he ended a speech at a party convention by momentously declaring, "I am a Democrat!" This banal statement briefly became a rallying cry for Democrats across the country and made Gov. Hill a party hero (and a briefly plausible presidential candidate). The two major parties in the late 19th century had few policy differences and, on the whole, shared a common, conservative philosophy; but that was of little importance to the way in which the political process worked. Few voters seemed to care. They were not much committed to their candidates, but they were passionately committed to their parties — in much the same way many people today care about baseball or football teams. Party loyalty, like fan loyalty today, had little to do with most people’s economic or social interests, but it inspired great passion nevertheless.

Even when interest groups began to displace parties as the focus of many citizens’ commitments in the early 20th century, the party system remained powerful and, for the most part, a stable and reliable predictor of the outcome of elections. From the election of William McKinley in 1896 to the election of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the outcome of most presidential elections were easily predictable months, even years before the voting. One of the few surprises — the unexpected victory of the seemingly unelectable Harry Truman in 1948 — reflected the durable loyalty to the Democratic party rather than support for Truman himself. Twenty years later, everything had changed.

[presidential timeline]4

Here are some of the closest races in history, based on either the electoral or popular vote.

Many things fell apart in the late 1960s — racial, sexual and social norms; patterns of deference and authority; and, not least, political parties. At the time, many political scientists and historians identified the election of 1968 as a signal of a new political "realignment," through which voters would once again shift party loyalties and create new and lasting coalitions. Kevin Phillips’s influential 1969 book "The Emerging Republican Majority" was a prescient analysis of the immediate aftermath of 1968, but its predictions of a long, stable period of Republican dominance never materialized. Instead, it soon became clear that 1968 was not a realignment at all. It was, rather, the beginning of a massive de-alignment — the movement of millions of disillusioned voters out of the party system altogether. By the early 1970s, nearly a third of the public identified themselves as "independents," affiliated with no party. Many of them ceased voting entirely. Others began to pick and choose candidates on whatever criteria mattered to them at a given moment. Serious third party or independent candidates, a rarity through most of the 20th century, have siphoned off significant numbers of voters from the major parties in five of the last 10 elections. Turnout in presidential elections, rarely below 60% in the first seven decades of the 20th century, dropped dramatically after 1968, and dipped below 50% in 1996. Party loyalty, in short, is no longer a strong factor in the decisions of voters, and with its decline has come a less stable and less predictable political landscape. By the late 1970s, political scientists and historians were no longer paying much attention to parties and were focusing on social movements instead.

The parties, of course, still survive as essential vehicles for organizing our political life — managing primaries and elections, organizing nominating conventions, determining leadership in Congress. And in state and local elections, citizens still give serious attention to party affiliation when they make their political decisions. The less voters know about a race, the more likely they are either not to vote at all or to choose on the basis of party. But in presidential elections, during which almost everyone knows a great deal about the major candidates, parties have increasingly little meaning to voters who, whatever their formal affiliations, cross party lines often and without hesitation. One result has been the end of the once-strong connection between the election of presidents and the election of members of Congress. In only 10 of the last 40 years have presidents and the two houses of Congress all been under the control of the same party at the same time.

Rarely has this post-partisan world been more visible than in the campaign of 2008. Sen. Obama has few ties to any party leaders or organizations and nevertheless edged out one of the most famous, well-connected and well-funded candidates of recent decades. For a time, at least, many supporters of Hillary Clinton appeared likely to vote for Sen. McCain. In the Republican race, the nominee is a man who has spent much of his career as a self-proclaimed maverick, crossing party lines on many issues. In 2004, he was so faintly identified with the Republican party that he was even considered as a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate; and in 2008 primaries, he nearly lost the race for the Republican nomination because conservatives in his own party did not trust him. Since clinching the nomination, he has been repudiating some of the Bush administration’s policies and embracing ideas that were once taboo in the current Republican party. Not surprisingly, some of the most ardent Republican supporters of George W. Bush have claimed they will not vote for McCain in the same way that some Clinton voters say they will not vote for Obama — although the selection of the extremely conservative Gov. Palin as McCain’s running mate might change this dynamic.

[electoral map]5

Two maps show whether a state’s voters tended to stick with one party for president and members of the House of Representatives

There are, of course, enormous differences between the two candidates, but they are not all differences that fit neatly into the announced goals of their parties. And why should they? What do the parties do for them today? Trumpeting party loyalty may have been a valuable political tactic a century ago. But today most Americans see partisanship not as an integral part of the political system, but as an obstacle to progress and honest government. Sen. Obama expresses such sentiments himself sometimes and rarely refers to the Democratic party’s past or present. And he appears to have paid no price for it. The Internet now makes it possible for candidates to reach voters entirely independently of the party apparatus, and no one has done so more successfully than Sen. Obama. He has raised more money on his own than any presidential candidate in history, while the party’s national committee had difficulty even collecting the funds it needed to stage its convention. Sen. McCain jettisoned his identity as a loyal Republican partisan almost the moment he clinched the nomination and — at least until the Republican convention — appeared sometimes to be putting more distance between himself and President Bush than between himself and his Democratic opponent. The 2008 election is not typical, of course. It occurs in the midst of an unusually dark moment both domestically and internationally, and it reflects the great disillusionment Americans feel about many of the policies of recent years. Even so, this campaign is not radically different from most others in recent decades — with presidential candidates seeming almost to invent themselves on the spot so as not to appear to be beholden to their parties’ establishments.

What difference does this make to the workings of government? To answer that question, we should look at the success rate of recent presidents. Since 1968, we have seen one president driven from office, two presidents discredited and defeated after single terms, and two others badly weakened by scandals (one of them impeached). Our current president is approaching the end of his term as unpopular as any leader in our history and is facing a growing chorus of critics calling (implausibly) for his impeachment as well.

Strong party systems created problems of their own, and during their heyday many reformers yearned for a time like our own when the parties would have little power. But a political world without effective parties risks the creation of the kind of anarchic factionalism that the authors of the Federalist Papers warned against in the 1780s. "The friend of popular governments," James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, "never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates…the instability, injustice, and confusion [that factions] introduced into the public councils…the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished." The framers at first feared political parties for this reason, but within a generation they began to champion parties as a bulwark against factional anarchy. Broad and robust party organizations, they argued, would be capable of containing and taming disagreement. Today, untethered from the party system, many voters seize increasingly not on issues that affect their lives, but on whatever simply catches their interest — inflammatory social issues, personalities, and even lapel pins. The post-partisan character of our politics is not only a reason for the difficulty in predicting electoral outcomes. It is also one of the reasons our government has worked so poorly and has lost the confidence of so many Americans. Leaders who get elected without strong parties behind them often find themselves without the allies they need to achieve the goals they have embraced. But going it alone has increasingly become the norm in our fractious, unpredictable political world.

Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history and the provost at Columbia University.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

related posts

post a new comment