Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: America's Love Affair with the Two-Party System

The GOP elephant and the Democratic Party's donkey.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: America's Love Affair with the Two-Party System

Editor's Note

The American Founding Fathers were famously suspicious of political parties and warned repeatedly about the dangers of "factionalism." Americans, however, have long loved them. While much has been made since the November 2012 election about the "death" of the Republican Party, historian Marc Horger reminds us that there have been several major party realignments in American history. Parties may change their characters but the two-party system has proved remarkably durable.

Readers may also be interested in these recent Origins articles about current events in the United States: “Class Warfare” in American Politics; Populism and American Politics, Immigration Policy, Presidential Elections in Times of Crisis, Why We Aren't 'Alienated' Anymore, Detroit and America's Urban Woes, the Mortgage and Housing CrisisAmerican Political Redistricting, and In The Scope, a WNYUNews podcast about the history of political parties, featuring Marc Horger.

The left side of the American political-entertainment complex has passed the time since the 2012 election watching the Republican Party with a bowl of popcorn in one hand and a bourbon in the other, listening for the sounds of a cracking foundation.

Karl-Rove-vs.-Tea-Party smackdown! Intra-party moneyfights! Dueling State of the Union rebuttals! The Rand Paul Drone Filibuster and John McCain Peevish Response!

The divisions are sufficiently deep, sufficiently ideological, and sufficiently entertaining to generate speculation about the future of the party itself. How much longer can the Republicans remain old and white in a younger, browner country? How much longer can John Boehner control the superconservatives on his back bench? Science, or quackery? Immigration reform, or border fence? Whither the Republican coalition?

Some of this speculation is rooted in the pure entertainment value a fragmenting political coalition provides; assuming the coalition in question isn’t yours. Democrats are giddy about the potential long-term advantages they sense in the changing demography of the electorate, and political junkies of all types love to spin fantasies of brokered conventions, coalition realignments, and third-party challenges.

But pundits and professional liberals aren’t the only ones discussing the possibility of coalition fracture on the right. Even sober-minded Republican observers recognize real long-term problems for their political brand in the 2012 returns.

Is this just normal, post-defeat soul-searching on the part of the losing party, or do the Republicans really face a crisis? How likely is a long stretch of time in which one of the two major coalitions fails to hold the reins of national power? How likely is a serious third-party challenge from within the current political alignment? How stable is the current party system?

A brief tour of national political history suggests two insights on this question, one obvious, one significantly under-appreciated.

American party politics at the national level has been predominantly, resiliently binary. But this has not always meant a simultaneous even polarity, coalitional uniformity, and party-line discipline we associate with the post-2000 “Red States” and “Blue States” alignment.

National political coalitions have actually been internally fractured, ideologically incoherent, and contradictory almost as often as they have been coherent and unified. This includes coalitions which managed, for long periods of time, to win victories at the polls. Identity, not ideology, held them together.

The centrality of personal identity to partisan behavior, and vice-versa, is an oft ignored aspect of American politics. Narrative historians and political journalists tend to present each individual election as a fresh referendum on the issues of the day. “Undecided voters” are presumed to decide, based on the “issues” put before them. Party loyalty in the overall electorate, however, has been stickier than that, and has been based on experiences behind the voters as often as on information in front of them.

The Party Systems

Historians and political scientists generally identify six major eras of national party alignment, or “party systems,” in the United States.

The first party system – Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, c. 1792-1816 – emerged as the centralizing economic and tax policies of the Washington administration, especially the chartering of a national bank, generated significant opposition in the Tidewater South and parts of the mid-Atlantic, as well as among those who had opposed ratifying the Constitution in the first place. This opposition gradually coalesced around Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s first Secretary of State.

This broad description fails to capture the white-hot intensity of the era’s politics, however, due to two factors.

The first is that the founding generation distrusted political parties in and of themselves, and viewed their emergence as a dangerous threat to the survival of the new national government.

The architects of the Constitution tried to design a system of national government that would discourage party formation and minimize its effects. The dangers of “faction,” and the capacity of the new national government to mitigate them, had been one of the main public arguments made in favor of ratification, most cleanly expressed by James Madison in Federalist #10.

The Federalists, in fact, were very reluctant to think in terms of party at all, preferring to see themselves as duly elected public servants of no particular partisan identity and see the Jeffersonians as a destabilizing faction in the Madisonian sense. (Madison himself was a prominent figure in the new opposition.)

Jeffersonians returned the favor, blasting the Federalists as closet aristocrats and monarchists who sought to upend American liberty. Both sides believed the American republican experiment to be threatened by the mere existence of the other faction, irrespective of their differences on policy.

The second factor is that these emerging partisan identities were just that – identities, in which voters’ perceived economic interests overlapped strongly with their personal prejudices and worldviews.

Among the best predictors of partisan identity in the 1790s was one’s attitude toward the French Revolution. Was it an expression of the inevitable triumph of global liberty, or a monstrous attack on all forms of social order? Francophiles were strongly Jeffersonian, as was Jefferson himself; many Federalists viewed this pro-revolutionary attitude as prelude to Terror in the United States.

Such attitudes overlapped further into foreign policy, as Federalists believed in the commercial necessity of a stable, peaceful relationship with Great Britain, while Jeffersonians were much more likely to stoke the powerful Anglophobia left over from the revolution.

On the frontier, anti-British attitudes overlapped seamlessly with anti-Native American attitudes, on the grounds that British Canada supplied the northwestern tribes with guns so as to prevent American expansion. Hence, few Federalists on the frontier.

Despite its intensity, the first party system was only nationally competitive for two Presidential cycles, 1796 and 1800, after which time Federalist strength atrophied significantly. Federalists remained competitive regionally, in New England and in a few coastal cities, through the 1810s.

But after 1800, they never controlled Congress, and only once more came close to electing a President, in 1812, when opposition to the war with England held James Madison to just over 50% of the national vote. Their candidate, DeWitt Clinton, was actually a rogue Jeffersonian the Federalists agreed to endorse. After the war, which most Federalists opposed, the party died out.

Historians sometimes describe the national politics of the 1820s as the “Era of Good Feelings” due to the absence of any national competition for the Republicans – although politics remained vibrant and divisive at the local level, particularly in cities.

Party qua Party

The second party system – Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs, c. 1830s-1854 – also emerged out of national disagreement regarding the wisdom of a strong executive. But it was different in two important ways.

First of all, by the 1830s most states had either significantly lowered or entirely abolished economic tests for voter eligibility. This significantly altered the nature of political identity. The percentage of the population eligible to vote, and the percentage of the eligible population that voted, both increased dramatically.

Political citizenship was now defined, literally, as the state of being an adult white male. Participation in politics therefore became a powerful public assertion of masculine identity. That identity was now severed from economic status, but linked more tightly than ever before to race and gender.

The second party system was therefore characterized by high rates of voter turnout, strong partisan identification, and an intensely boisterous public political culture, not necessarily excluding violence.

The second party system was also characterized by the belief that political parties were not only necessary, but good, in and of themselves. They were not destabilizing factions, but important democratic institutions.

The Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs therefore built up national political organizations unashamedly, and viewed maintenance of those organizations, through distribution of patronage and spoils, as one of the basic purposes of winning an election in the first place.

Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren were ideal political partners in this new environment, and they built the Jacksonian Democratic coalition around themselves.

Jackson, the military hero of the War of 1812 and a flamboyantly self-made, violent, masculine public figure, had won a 41% plurality of the popular vote in a four-way election for President in 1824, but fallen short of a majority in the Electoral College. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where the combined supporters of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay made Adams President.

The 1828 campaign began more or less immediately, and Jackson’s easy triumph began a re-organization of American politics around, basically, whether Andrew Jackson was a good idea or a bad idea as a national leader of a democratic polity.

Van Buren, Jackson’s closest political ally, second Vice-President, and eventual successor, had constructed one of the first fully functional political patronage machines in New York state. He applied the same techniques at the national level.

The two Jackson administrations combined systematic use of patronage to reward supporters and punish enemies; public policies that were strongly nationalist, anti-elitist, and white supremacist; and robust public campaigns of ballyhoo and mass promotion. By 1836, the result was a stable, functional national political coalition which lasted almost until the Civil War.

Efforts to generalize about “Jacksonian Democracy,” however, flounder on how complex and internally inconsistent this coalition was.

Its most salient feature was that it was national in scope. It combined pro-slavery Southerners; northerners opposed to the expansion of slavery; northerners opposed to limiting the expansion of slavery; anti-bank ideologues and other economic egalitarians; western expansionists; the urban working class; and recent immigrants to maritime cities, particularly Irish Catholics.

Other than an aggressively expansionist foreign policy – eventually labeled “manifest destiny” – and anti-elitist rhetoric, these disparate groups shared only a common affection for the image of Jackson, the party founder, and a common interest in the spoils of victory.

The Whig opposition was even less internally coherent, if such a thing is possible.

They were very close to a pure opposition coalition, made up of anyone opposed to any significant portion of the Jacksonian coalition. The Whig core consisted of advocates of government support for internal improvements, economic development, and centralized banking, such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

But the party also contained New England and midwestern pietists, groups likely to be hostile to the expansion of slavery, and to Catholics; Southern cotton planters; northern business interests willing to support slavery in the name of national economic development; and anti-immigration nativists. Their political rhetoric and campaign techniques borrowed freely from the Jacksonian playbook of partisan identity, party discipline, and demonstrative nationalism.

During the mature period of the second party system, from roughly 1840 to 1852, both coalitions were very evenly matched at the national level and locally competitive in virtually all areas of the country. This placed a huge premium on holding the coalitions together on election day, emphasizing party identity, and maximizing turnout. They achieved these ends by organizational efficiency, and by avoiding, rather than dealing with, potentially divisive national issues that could cause their coalitions to splinter.

Both parties were nonetheless susceptible to party fracture and third-party challenge.

In an era when parties printed their own ballots, one only had to print them, and have the organization necessary to distribute them, in order to stand for election. Third parties did not have to win very many votes, if they won them in the wrong places, to throw the election to the other side.

Nor were “real” political issues, like slavery or immigration, the only possible sources of splintering. Party patronage factions had to be kept happy.

Historians and political scientists once built entire careers out of keeping straight the various sub-factions of the second party system – Hunkers and Barnburners, Locofocos, Doughfaces, Simon Pure and Silver Grey Whigs, Fire-Eaters and Free-Soilers – any of which might have tipped an election under the right circumstances.

More importantly, the issue of slavery in the territories could not be avoided forever, particularly since the Democrats successfully pursued an expansionist national policy in the 1840s under James K. Polk.

As the sectional crisis worsened in the 1850s, it became more and more difficult to be a Southern Whig or a Northern Democrat. The Whigs cracked first, in 1854, over the crisis in Kansas. In the short term, the Democrats benefitted, as no national coalition immediately took the Whigs’ place.

But in 1860, a new party, the Republicans, managed to elect a President by winning the electoral votes of all the free states, and none of the slave states. The results were Civil War and a new party system.

Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion

In 1874, the Democratic Party, most of which had either seceded from the Union during the Civil War or opposed some portion of the war against the Rebellion, regained majority control of the House of Representatives. This political achievement is more remarkable than usually realized. Less than a decade after Appomattox, the United States was back to an evenly balanced, national two-party alignment, with both parties attempting to compete in all sections of the country.

During the era of the third party system (c. 1856-1896), coalitions revolved around ethnocultural identifications rooted in the Civil War. This remained true long after the war was over, as a quick look at any electoral map from the period confirms.

Republicans continued to position themselves as saviors of the Union and stewards of the centralized national power that crushed the rebellion. They also emphasized other cultural issues of interest to their coalition, particularly opposition to Roman Catholicism.

The Democrats rebuilt themselves as a national coalition by emphasizing tolerance of immigration and religious diversity in the North and white supremacy in opposition to “black Republicans” in the South.

Voter preference depended much more on ethnic, cultural, and religious identification than on economic or other policy differences. This was especially true in the South, where questions of race and citizenship persisted well into the 1890s.

The third party system in the South was defined by the Republican attempt to enfranchise, and the Democratic attempt to suppress, African-American men as voters. Democrats eventually won this battle, but not until the turn of the century.

In the meantime, Republicans established themselves as the “party of Lincoln” among African-American voters, and competed for white voters in parts of the region that had opposed secession and/or resented the pre-war power of the large planters. Democrats responded with assertions of white supremacy and, particularly in areas with substantial black populations, voter intimidation and manipulation.

Even the national issue which seemed the most based in economic policy – a high tariff to protect domestic manufacturing, versus a low tariff to keep imported goods inexpensive – dovetailed with the extended ethnocultural Civil War. Southern Democrats viewed the high tariff as a regionally biased tax, as it made Southern goods more expensive in order to subsidize Yankee industry. Republicans spent the resulting budget surplus on disability pensions for Union war veterans.

This alignment of the third party system was even more finely balanced on a knife-edge than the second, particularly between 1874 and 1896. No presidential candidate won 50% of the popular vote between 1880 and 1892. Grover Cleveland won three popular votes in a row, but it only made him president twice, non-consecutively.

The same party controlled the all three branches of government for only two Congressional sessions, the Republicans the 51st (1891-93) and the Democrats the 53rd (1893-95). A few large, evenly-divided swing states, especially New York, Ohio, and Indiana, held the balance of power.

As with the second party system, third-party issues or splintering party factions could cost either party an election. Upper-class Republicans in favor of a professionalized civil service, as against Federal patronage as pure spoils, were a swing group with outsized influence.

Opposition to alcohol also proved a problematic issue for Republicans. Most natural Republicans supported the emerging Prohibition movement, but the issue cost valuable votes in swing states like Ohio, which contained “drys” in the Western Reserve and beer-drinking German Republicans in Cincinnati.

An injudicious supporter of James Blaine, the 1884 Republican Presidential nominee, caused controversy, and perhaps cost Blaine the election, by labeling the Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” at a Republican rally a week before election day.

The strength of these cultural identities is not surprising, given the conflation of citizenship, race, masculinity, and identity throughout the nineteenth century. But these coalitions bore little relationship to the emerging economic issues generated by the explosive industrial growth of the late nineteenth century, and new economic issues – particularly those related to credit, debt, commodity prices, and deflation – began to cut across the old coalitions in the 1890s.

Go Ahead, Throw Your Vote Away! Third Parties, Realignment, and the Solid South

No major American political party has been removed from the battlefield completely since the Whigs in the 1850s. But the long-term balance of power between Democrats and Republicans has shifted several times, and the makeup of their coalitions has changed, sometimes significantly. Some of these realignments have led to long stretches during which one of the major parties had very little hope of capturing a national majority without some sort of unusual intervening event.

One of these realignments took place in the mid-1890s, creating a fourth party system (1890s-1932) during which the Republican coalition held a structural advantage in national politics.

A major depression, beginning in 1893, punctuated a period of economic development during which American manufacturing grew rapidly, large business enterprises consolidated power, and commodity prices fell.

One result was the emergence of a significant third party in the South and west, the Populist, or People’s Party. They advocated inflationary economic policies, government regulation of big businesses, and a restoration of commodity producers to the center of American political identity. They fielded a Presidential candidate in 1892, earning 8.5% of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes from western states. In their areas of greatest strength, they functioned temporarily as the de facto second party, displacing the atrophying Republicans in the South and Democrats in the west.

In 1896, one of their main issues – free coinage of silver currency, which would have inflated the money supply significantly – was co-opted by the Democratic Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan barnstormed the country, attacking the growing cultural influence of cities and comparing the gold standard to the crucifixion of Christ.

After a series of Presidential election cycles focused on re-fighting the Civil War, the election of 1896 turned into a referendum on what should or should not function as money, and whose sense of cultural identity money should serve.

The resulting Republican victory looked deceptively similar on the map to their wins from the 1880s. But they won an outright majority of the popular vote for the first time since 1872 and gained majority control of Congress. These gains turned out to be structural, and lasting. No Democrat won a majority of the Presidential popular vote again until 1932, and Republicans failed to control Congress for only eight of the intervening years.

The 1890s also saw the systematic disfranchisement of African-Americans in the former Confederacy through a series of discriminatory voter registration restrictions and “Jim Crow” laws rigorously segregating public life on the basis of race.

Democrats championed these restrictions in the name of white supremacy, and were rewarded with political domination of the region for over half a century. With the exception of parts of the upper South, the former Confederacy functioned as something close to a one-party state-within-a-state until well after World War II. Voter turnout dropped significantly. This was the Democratic “Solid South.”

The fourth party system can therefore seem even more obviously the consequence of the long, long tail of the Civil War than the third. The Republicans dominated the former Union, except for urban areas in which effective Democratic machines organized working-class and immigrant voters.

The Protestant-Catholic divide remained highly predictive outside the South, as did attitudes toward Prohibition. Inside the South, no prediction was necessary. In some areas, the Democratic primary functioned as the “real” election.

Unless this balance of power was ruptured by an unforeseen event, the result was a national Republican victory.

Of course, the fourth party period happened to contain one of the most charismatic and entertaining unforeseen events in American history: Theodore Roosevelt. The split he created in the Republican coalition between 1910 and 1916 corresponds with the only period of Democratic political success during the fourth party period.

Roosevelt became President in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley. In 1904, he was comfortably re-elected. In 1908, he engineered the nomination of William Howard Taft as his successor.

Taft had held a series of appointed positions, including Governor-General of the Philippines and Secretary of War, but he had never stood for election in his life. He nevertheless won the same 51% of the vote that McKinley had won in 1896 and 1900 (and against the same opponent, William Jennings Bryan).

Roosevelt was measurably more popular than other Republicans of the period. His 1904 re-election margin, for example, was about five percentage points larger than the McKinley-Taft totals. His vigorous support of Progressive regulatory reform, however, cut across the ethnocultural coalitions of the fourth party system.

Roosevelt’s choice of Taft as a successor had been based in the assumption that Taft was also a Progressive, but by 1910 Roosevelt and his allies were so convinced that they had made a mistake that Roosevelt re-entered national politics. The split cost the Republicans control of the House in 1910.

At the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt attempted to wrest the nomination from the sitting President he himself had anointed. When he failed, he walked out of the convention and ran for President anyway.

The Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, coasted to victory despite winning less than 42% of the popular vote. Congressional majorities came with him. Roosevelt came in second, and the incumbent President came in third, with only 8 electoral votes.

1912 remains the paradigmatic example of a third-party candidate altering the outcome of an election by dividing a potentially winning coalition.

Such was the long-term resilience of the ethnocultural coalitions of the fourth party system, however, that the Roosevelt fiasco did not realign national politics in the Democrats’ favor. Wilson narrowly won re-election in a two-way race in 1916, but he failed to clear 50% of the popular vote, and the Democrats nearly lost control of the House.

In 1918, the Republicans regained Congress. In 1920, Warren Harding coasted to a Republican victory more convincing, and more obviously based in the regional isolation of the Democratic Party, than any before. Harding’s campaign call for a return to “normalcy” was intended as a reference to American involvement in World War I, but he also had the political science right.

The fate of the Democratic Party during the 1920s is the kind of worst-case scenario contemporary pundits have in mind when they speculate about irreconcilable party coalitions and long periods of irrelevance. The Democratic nadir came in the 1924 and 1928 cycles.

By then, the Democratic Party contained two centers of gravity: big-city political machines and the racially segregated Solid South. They agreed on very little.

At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, they spent days arguing about whether the Ku Klux Klan should be condemned or affirmed, as millions listened on the radio. The Klan won. In 1928, the urban wing prevailed, nominating Al Smith, Governor of New York and the first Roman Catholic to head a major party ticket. They lost both elections by wide margins.

Fear Itself: The New Deal Coalition

The Democratic Party was saved by the Great Depression. The fifth party system (1932-1964), which historians sometimes refer to as the New Deal coalition, was characterized by a new majority alignment within the Democratic Party generated by Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the international economic crisis.

Roosevelt took office at the very bottom of the crisis. The American unemployment rate was 25% and the banking system was near collapse. Roosevelt responded with a series of unprecedented Federal interventions in the private economy.

New Deal legislation established multiple flavors of work relief; regulation of private capital markets; farm subsidies; real estate subsidies; regional economic planning; disability and retirement insurance; and significant changes in Federal labor law favoring union organization.

The political result was a new Democratic coalition representing a clear majority of the electorate. Existing Democratic advantages among urban, Catholic, immigrant, and working-class voters grew stronger. The Solid South remained solid.

To these were added unionized workers; farmers who benefitted from price supports; self-conscious “liberals” who supported regulation of business and use of Federal resources on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged; and African-Americans.

Union loyalty to the Democrats proved particularly lasting, as the major manufacturing unions became important long-term sources of Democratic financial and organizational support as well as a key voting bloc.

The shift of African-American voters out of the party of Lincoln and into the party of the white supremacist South was partly a product of their shift out of the South itself. African-Americans moved to northern cities in large numbers during first half of the twentieth century, where they encountered significantly less voter discrimination than in the former Confederacy. They became an important component of a winning Democratic vote total in key industrial states like Illinois, Ohio, and New York.

This coalition may have been more contradictory than the rump Democratic Party of the 1920s. It only functioned as a majority if questions of race and civil rights could be kept out of national electoral politics. The Democrats largely managed this before World War II. Southern Congressmen controlled key committees through which any important legislation passed. Most New Deal programs were segregated and/or discriminatory, though work relief did reach some African-Americans.

These issues could not be kept off the table after the war, however.

The 1948 Democratic convention prefigured what might happen to the New Deal coalition if forced to deal directly with racial justice. Northern liberals, led by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, demanded a strong pro-civil rights plank in the platform. Southern segregationists threatened to walk out of the convention if liberals prevailed.

President Truman, who had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces the previous year, sided with the liberals, and the segregationists kept their promise. South Carolina governor J. Strom Thurmond mounted a third-party “Dixiecrat” campaign, depriving Truman of 39 electoral votes.

Truman survived, barely, but the Democrats spent the 1950s dancing awkwardly around the fact that their coalition contained the Americans both most likely and least likely to support civil rights. The 1952, 1956, and 1960 Democratic tickets were “balanced” between Northerners widely believed to support robust action on civil rights and Southerners widely believed not to.

The postwar Republican coalition contained a similar, though less severe, division between northeastern moderates and western and midwestern conservatives. Political analysts in the 1950s occasionally spoke of a “conservative coalition” of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans as the real center of national political gravity. Legislation during this period could be moved, or blocked, by a variety of unusual coalitions.

The Long Goodbye

The current party alignment is clearly different from the New Deal order. It is less clear, however, when the realignment moment between the fifth and sixth systems took place.

In fact, some of the assumptions about “bipartisanship,” “independents,” and “undecided voters” commonly made by contemporary pundits might be explained by the fact that this realignment process was unusually long, and that many Americans spent most of their political lives inside it.

The shift clearly began in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson committed the Democratic Party to civil rights at the national level by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Support for this legislation tracked more closely with region than with party; many northern Republicans supported it.

But when arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Act as a Senator from Arizona, captured the Republican Presidential nomination, the shift of conservative Southern whites out of the Democratic Party began. Goldwater was wiped out nationally, but he carried the deep South. African-Americans voted for Johnson by about 9 to 1, and have remained aligned with the Democrats at or near this level ever since.

The permanent shift of Southern conservatives to the Republican Party didn’t happen overnight, however. As two-party competition returned to the former Confederacy, Southern politics were volatile and unpredictable for a while.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally enfranchised African-Americans throughout the South. Some opponents of civil rights switched parties; some remained Democrats for a few more election cycles; some Democrats accommodated the changes and began competing for black votes.

Southern Republicanism returned, particularly in the rapidly growing suburbs. While Richard Nixon’s campaigns of 1968 and 1972 were more moderate than Goldwater’s had been, they nevertheless introduced the so-called “Southern strategy” of appealing to disgruntled Southern whites on cultural issues while rejecting overt segregationism.

As the civil rights movement turned north in the late 1960s and began addressing issues of real estate discrimination and “white flight” to the suburbs, these techniques began to attract northern voters as well.

Meanwhile, the Democratic landslide of 1964 proved to be an outlier rather than a realignment. Johnson used his victory to pass a package of transformative “Great Society” legislation – Medicare and Medicaid, immigration reform, anti-poverty and anti-discrimination legislation, health and safety regulation, and the Voting Rights Act. He also sent half a million combat troops to Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that rendered racial segregation unconstitutional, strengthened First Amendment protections against religious establishment, strengthened due process rights for accused criminals, re-drew legislative districts, and reshaped the legality and constitutionality of reproductive freedom.

The short-term political response was Republican recovery in the 1966 midterms, national division over Vietnam, and the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Examine the preceding paragraph closely, however, and a realignment does emerge. But it emerged in 1980, in the Republican Party, around Ronald Reagan, in opposition. It took additional spurs to achieve, such as Roe v. Wade, which gradually united conservative Catholics and white evangelicals, the decline of industrial unionism, and the anti-tax revolts of the 1970s.

Complete realignment in Congress took even longer, perhaps until 1994. Today’s “movement conservative,” however, can be identified fairly efficiently by gauging the intensity of their opposition to the Warren Court and the Great Society. Did the cause of human liberty advance during the 1960s? Bill Clinton and Rick Santorum approach that question differently.

The long timeframe of this realignment helps explain the unpredictable coalitions, split-ticket voting, volatile landslides, and apparent decline in partisanship characteristic of national politics between 1964 and 2000.

Jimmy Carter’s 1976 electoral map, for example, seems particularly difficult to characterize, especially given that it came between the Nixon landslide and the Reagan landslides. So-called “Reagan Democrats” voted the new coalition at the top of the ticket and the old coalition down-ballot. Self-reported partisanship declined.

If this period is your frame of reference for “normal” politics – if you are, say, a Baby Boomer – the Red State-Blue State polarity of the 2000s seems unusual and counter-productive in its partisanship. But as with so much else in American life, the Boomer experience may be the outlier, not the norm.

Can I Finish? Or, the Myth of the Independent Voter

Before 1992, the vast majority of significant third-party candidates in American history came from disgruntled portions of the existing party alignment.

Three of them – Martin Van Buren in 1848, Milliard Fillmore in 1856, and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 – were former Presidents. Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 unabashedly represented the fear that white supremacy was insufficiently respected inside the New Deal coalition.

But H. Ross Perot seemed to parachute in from the moon, and, to the extent that he had a strategy at all, he attempted to position himself as the very absence of politics. His support proved to be remarkably uniform nationally, and his supporters difficult to generalize about. He won almost 20 million popular votes in 1992, but no electoral votes; his presence in the race allowed Bill Clinton to win an electoral college majority with only 43% of the popular vote.

After a second, less successful run in 1996, he disappeared again. Perhaps he is back on the moon.

What was H. Ross Perot?

Some political scientists believe he had real impact on party realignment, despite his non-partisan public stance. His signature issue – the immorality of government indebtedness – is now a conservative Republican talking point, and Congressional districts in which he over-performed were disproportionally likely to swing into the Republican column during the 1994 Congressional realignment. Others disagree; one has called him a “voter-supported ego trip” of little long-term consequence.

The Perot type, however – non-partisan, socially moderate and fiscally conservative, allegedly speaking to a presumed angry, presumed non-partisan, alleged middle – has remained a surprisingly popular fantasy figure among pundits and commentators.

Another member of this genus is Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. The similarity in their backgrounds, in fact, is striking. They both grew preposterously wealthy by founding companies that organized information in innovative ways; they both grew convinced that their wealth insulated them from the corrupting effects of political fundraising and that their “problem-solving” experience made them ideal non-partisan executives.

Bloomberg, it turns out, has been able to combine executive success with real personal popularity and serial contempt for the partisan identifier behind his name. A few other figures have had similar success as non-partisan parachute candidates at the state level, such as Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

But pundits are probably wrong about there being a large, untapped market for such non-partisan candidates in the national electorate. Political scientists are deeply suspicious of the idea that the current electorate contains large numbers of genuinely persuadable “independents” smack-dab in the middle.

Most self-described independents, when actually in the booth, vote in predictably partisan ways. Nor are they necessarily all moderate. Since 2008, a significant percentage of “independents” appear to be conservatives declining to identify with the Republican brand name.

Old Identities, New Issues

Which brings us back to the present: how stable is today’s Republican coalition?

Despite the current infighting, the odds of a catastrophic coalition fracture during the 2016 cycle are probably quite low. One reason to discount the possibility of a real Republican crack-up is the likelihood of electoral success in 2014. The out-party tends to make gains during midterm elections, an effect likely to be enhanced by the fact that midterm electorates tend to be older and more politically engaged.

Both these dynamics favor Republicans, who are therefore likely to go into the 2016 cycle with more confidence than they have now. The same phenomenon played out in the 2010 midterms.

Furthermore, the current systems of party nomination and ballot access make a 1912-style, late-game, kamikaze third-party run very unlikely. Robust third-party challenges are hard to mount at the last minute in a fit of pique, thanks to candidacy-filing deadlines and other barriers to ballot access.

Since Watergate, party nominees have been chosen in a fashion that minimizes the likelihood of producing a candidate wildly unacceptable to major coalition partners, as could occasionally happen before the nominations were openly contested nation-wide in primaries and caucuses.

That is not to say that realignment is out of the question. But party identities at the moment are much stickier than the myth of the “independent” voter suggests.

Transformative realignment is more likely to come from the emergence of new issues not presently central to either coalition identity than from the movement of “independents,” or from older fault lines.

For instance, the recent fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act produced pro- and anti- coalitions wildly at odds with partisan identification. Drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and online privacy issues hold similar potential.

The current party alignment was not constructed with reference to American attitudes toward ones and zeroes any more than the third party alignment was constructed with reference to American attitudes toward industrialization. How long will that last?

Younger voters skew Democratic, socially libertarian, and hostile to the old culture wars. They have also never lived in a world without near-universal access to everything ever digitized – or a world without a corporate tracking device in every pocket.

Rand Paul, for one, thinks he has something new to say to these voters. We are likely to find out if he is right.

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Suggested Reading

The historical literature of American politics is more or less endless, but a good start can be made with Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy, which traces the nation’s political evolution from the beginning of the first party system to the collapse of the second. See also his The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, on the development of the current political coalitions.

Two books by Paul Kleppner, The Third Electoral System, 1853-1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures and Continuity and Change in Electoral Politics, 1893-1928 outline the parameters of the third and fourth party systems and emphasize the importance of ethnocultural factors to political identity.

Charles Calhoun’s From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age is an excellent recent survey of late-19th century party politics.

Recent interpretations of the New Deal which emphasize its impact on the party coalitions, and vice-versa, include David Kennedy,Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, and Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

Two books by Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America trace the un-making and re-making of the Republican coalition in the 1960s and 1970s.

Readers with a special interest in specific political parties are encouraged to seek out Lewis Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans; Jules Witcover, Party of the People: A History of the Democrats; Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism; and Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Howe’sWhat Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, is an excellent companion piece to Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy.

Contemporary political junkies are urged to follow, if they aren’t already, the historically-minded political science blogs Mischiefs of Faction and A Plain Blog About Politics.