The Party Goes On: The Persistence of the Two-Party System in the United States
In the 1984 presidential election, the Republican party played its trump card—the power to combine, throughout the country, the votes of the well-to-do with solid blocks of middle-class and workingclass whites. For the first time in fifty-four years, this alliance extended beyond a presidential voting majority and produced a sustained surge in the numbers of voters who identified themselves as favoring the GOP, ending two generations of Democratic domination of the electorate. The current ascendancy of the Republican party has become the vehicle for a double-edged revolution in American politics: a shift in the balance of national power from the Northeast to the South and West, and a shift in strength from a diverse collection of voters who knew or remembered deprivation—the remnants of the New Deal coalition—to an alliance of voters dominated by the nation’s economic elite. The United States is in the midst of a political upheaval as significant as those of the 1890s and the 1930s.
During the past ten years, the two major political parties have become more important than at any other time since the New Deal. They are adapting new technologies to transform politics—through fund raising, direct mail, computerized registration drives, public opinion surveys, and television. Mastery of the political process at the technical level has led in turn to the preeminence of the political parties in deciding which issues get national attention and in determining how ideological and economic interests and classes are represented in all branches of government.
Xandra Kayden, a Democrat and a member of the Campaign Finance Study Group at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and Eddie Mahe, Jr., former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, have written a provocative book documenting the resurgence of American political parties. Kayden and Mahe challenge a generation of academics and journalists who have argued that the Democratic and Republican parties are no longer equipped to perform such basic functions as building coalitions, raising funds, or mobilizing voters, and that the parties have lost the allegiance of an increasingly independent electorate. Such arguments were put forth fourteen years ago by David Broder in The Party’s Over (1972) and more recently in Martin P. Wattenberg’s The Decline of American Political Parties (1984), Bryon E. Shafer’s The Quiet Revolution (1983), and Nelson W. Polsby’s The Consequences of Party Reform (1983).
Concentrating almost entirely on the mechanics of politics, such as money raising and campaigning, Kayden and Mahe demonstrate that the Republican party has become during the past twelve years a powerful, centralized, and highly disciplined national force, raising more money than any other political group or interest in the country. As city, county, and state political machines have declined, the Washington-based Republican National Committee has turned itself into a major electoral power, providing cash, services, and advice for campaigns throughout the country. Mahe and Kayden undermine the significance of their own work, however, when they argue that Democrats are rapidly catching up in power and sophistication with their Republican competitors, and that the strengthening of the political parties is a bipartisan phenomenon. Kayden and Mahe contend that “a two-party system has always balanced itself out. If the organization is strong in one party, it will be strong in the other.” This conclusion, as I shall argue, misrepresents the most significant aspects of partisan political change taking place in the country today.
Republican strategists in recent years have been more sophisticated than Democratic strategists in recognizing how the political landscape has been transformed. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in campaign after campaign and in campaign memo after campaign memo. Consider, for example a memo written in 1983 by Lee Atwater, then deputy campaign manager of the Reagan-Bush committee and now chairman of George Bush’s political action committee. “We have,” he wrote,
as the three main voting groups in Southern politics country clubbers, populists and blacks. The first group—the former Bourbon Democrats who controlled the South by excluding [white populists and blacks]—are today reliably Republican. The third group—blacks—are reliably Democratic. In no state does either group have the numbers to assure a statewide victory. Both groups must contend for the votes of the second group—the populists. Actually, the populists are uneasy about alliances with either group. Their resentment of the wealth and status of the country clubbers offsets their historic antipathy for blacks. The class struggle in the South continues, with the populists serving as the trump card in the game of politics.1
The South has been the driving force in the growing polarization of American politics according to income and race, although the pattern is national in scope. The changing geographic and economic contours of the two political parties can be seen in the tables on the following page.
The first—based on data compiled by Market Opinion Research, the Republican polling firm of Robert Teeter—traces the demographic characteristics of those who identify themselves as pro-Democrat and those who identify themselves as pro-Republican. The second, based on data compiled in 1985 by Martin P. Wattenberg of the University of California at Irvine, shows how, over the past thirty years, partisan identification within the two parties has increasingly become determined by income. Wattenberg’s table shows that during the last thirty years the Republican party has become even more decisively the party of those whose income is above the national median, and the Democratic party has similarly become even more strongly the party of those whose income is below it.
These tables suggest that the Republican party has been moving in two seemingly contradictory directions. Geographically and ethnically, the party has become more diverse. Northern white Anglo-Saxons, an absolute majority of the GOP through 1976, now make up just one-third of the party. The dominance of northern WASPs has been eclipsed by the surge of identification with the Republican party among white southerners. Their share of the GOP has more than tripled over the past thirty years. At the same time, the Republican party has become almost entirely white. The Democrats, by contrast, have gained from blacks what they have lost from white southerners. For both parties the power of the trade union vote has declined as the proportion of union members among American workers has been cut roughly by half between the 1950s and the present.
However, as the GOP becomes more diverse, it has also become, by the measure of personal income, more exclusive. In 1956, there was very little difference in Republican strength among different income groups, except for the most prosperous, among whom the GOP had a clear majority. By 1984, after four years of the Reagan administration, the two parties had split to a much greater extent along economic lines reminiscent of the national division during the Depression. Robert Teeter of Market Opinion Research plausibly concludes that “income has become the clearest determinant of party allegiance.”
One of the main forces behind the economic division between the two parties is race. The 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater eliminated the remnants of black support for the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised millions of blacks who were pro-Democrat, most of them poor. At the same time, the large surge in southern white support for the Republican party that began during the Goldwater campaign was sustained with the active help of the region’s economic elites. The southern Republican party is, in many respects, a vehicle for the assertion of power by relatively prosperous whites. The party’s highest margins over the Democrats were registered in such well-to-do communities as Houston’s River Oaks, the Lexington County suburbs of Columbia, South Carolina, and Mississippi’s coastal strip running from Gulfport to Pascagoula.
The racial division between the parties has been compounded by the large-scale conversion to the Republican party of white, evangelical, and born-again Christians between 1976 and 1984. Among such fundamentalists there has been a nearly complete realignment. In 1976 white born-again Christians voted Democratic by a majority of 56 to 44 percent; in 1984 they voted Republican by a majority of 81 to 19 percent. This shift has meant the addition of eight million white voters to the Republican constituency. In surveys of the southern Baptist clergy in 1981 and 1984 James L. Guth of Furman University found that during this period the religious leaders went from being 41 percent Democratic, 29 percent Republican, and 30 percent independent, to being 66 percent Republican, 26 percent Democratic, and 8 percent independent.2
The growing divisions between the two parties based on income and race have major repercussions both for national policy and for control over the machinery of electoral politics. During the two previous, post–World War II Republican administrations—Eisenhower’s between 1953 and 1960, and Nixon’s and Ford’s between 1969 and 1976—the Democrats at no time lost their decisive advantage—ranging from 14 to 30 percent—in voter identification. Unlike the Reagan presidency, the presidencies of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford did not produce a sharp turn toward conservative economic and social policy. The presence of a strong majority of the electorate that identified itself as Democratic acted as a brake on economic initiatives from the right. A majority of voters remained committed to the principles, if not to the candidates, of a Democratic party supporting the intervention of government on behalf of those in need and out of work.
This liberal brake on conservative office-holders began to weaken between 1978 and 1980, when a 23-point Democratic partisan advantage in voter identification (53–30) fell to 13 points (53–40). By 1984, the restraint that the relatively liberal tendency of the Democratic majority was able to exercise had, for all purposes, disappeared, as the GOP pulled to within 2 points of the Democratic party. Such virtual parity masked what was in fact a slight Republican advantage because of the higher rates of turnout among upper-income voters. The electorate has now produced what amounts to a conservative brake on legislative policy. The current parity of the GOP has created a roadblock, obstructing liberal Democratic initiatives during the 1980s.
The achievement of Republican parity—a parity based on a new, right-of-center coalition sharply tilted toward the affluent—first provided the Reagan administration with the public support essential for its successful promotion of a national conservative program. In the long run, the development of a numerically strong Republican party means that within the electorate there is now a body of voters who can stop public policies from being steered in a liberal direction, just as an earlier, more liberal coalition of voters could stop public policy from being steered in a conservative direction. For a Democratic party seeking to develop legislative and political strategy, the presence of an entrenched conservative force within the electorate severely inhibits the scope of available choices, restricting, if not eliminating, many liberal policies. Excluded from current national debate are spending programs that would progressively redistribute income, including national health insurance, a guaranteed annual income, sustained federal financing for low-cost housing, and federal legislation to ensure bargaining rights for unions and create jobs for the unemployed.
At the same time, the sharp economic division between the two parties has been a critical factor in the revival of the GOP’s traditional party functions: providing cash, tactical assistance, research, manpower, and technical expertise to its candidates. Campaign reforms enacted during and after Watergate revolutionized methods of election finance, eliminating contributors of $100,000 or more, replacing them with three different sources of cash: major donors willing to give between $500 and $10,000; a large “universe,” or potential group, of small donors willing to respond to direct-mail appeals; and political action committees (PACs).
Of these three sources, PACs are the least important to the financing of the two parties, because PACs make their donations directly to candidates, not to the Republican and Democratic national committees. Rich donors who make large contributions are still significant sources of cash, but the most important source for the political parties is now direct mail, which, when shrewdly planned, provides a sustained, renewable base of financial support. And in raising funds by direct mail and from major contributors, the Republican party enters the competition for dollars with an enormous advantage: campaign contributors are overwhelmingly upper-middle-class or rich, the very constituencies that provide the highest margin of GOP voting support. The Democrats, in contrast, with their far poorer constituency, have been stuck with only two major sources of direct-mail support: well-to-do liberals from such enclaves as Manhattan; Madison, Wisconsin; Montgomery County, Maryland; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Beverly Hills; and the relatively well-off elderly, who are prompted to contribute by Republican threats to Social Security.
For support from major donors, Democrats have been far more dependent than the GOP on contributors who are seeking special-interest advantages. Prominent among these are real estate developers benefiting from urban spending programs, contractors still tied to Democratic-controlled state and city governments, and an army of corporate and trade association lobbyists—including many who were once either Democratic members of Congress or members of their staffs. The GOP, by contrast, has a far broader base of financial support from those who are in ideological agreement with the Republican party’s promises to lower taxes for the well-to-do and cut domestic spending for the poor.
The result has been a huge rightward flow of money during the twelve years following the enactment of the 1974 campaign reforms—money that has financed the explosive growth of a powerful Republican party organization. So far as the traditional functions of a political party are concerned, the Republican National Committee and its two sister organizations, the national Republican congressional and senatorial campaign committees, have emerged as formidable high-tech political machines. Replacing the functions of earlier party bosses with expanding party bureaucracies, the GOP organizations now raise $125 million annually. They conduct polls regularly in every state to anticipate the weaknesses and strengths of enemies and allies. They pull together statistics on census trends, voting behavior, and political attitudes in computer data banks. They provide a source of lucrative off-year consulting contracts for the party’s out-of-work functionaries. They conduct carefully organized voter registration drives calculated to increase the number of Republicans. They finance campaigns not just to promote candidates, but to promote allegiance to the GOP itself.
Mastery of these essentially mechanical techniques has been central to the growth of a Republican party sharing a remarkably cohesive economic vision. More than any other major party in this century, the Republican party has formed, or is coming close to forming, a conscious ideology. While the GOP has become geographically and ethnically more diverse, its relative homogeneity of income, race, and class has produced a political party equipped to reward its most loyal constituents—the well-to-do—through favorable tax and regulatory policies, and to penalize its strongest adversaries, the poor, blacks, and organized labor, through domestic spending reductions, the judicial selection process, and weak or non-enforcement of civil rights initiatives, workplace safety regulations, and collective bargaining protections.
Both the rewards and penalties have been substantial ones. The recession of 1981–1982 and the sustained economic recovery since then, combined with the enactment of regressive tax and spending legislation, have produced in the Reagan years a strikingly partisan pattern in the distribution of income and government benefits. According to the Bureau of the Census, the median income of those in the bottom 40 percent—a largely Democratic constituency—has fallen by $477, from $12,966 to $12,489, between 1980 and 1984, in constant 1984 dollars, while the income of those in the top 10 percent—a largely Republican constituency—has risen by $5,085, from $68,145 in 1980, to $73,230 in 1984. Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office has found that the net effect of spending and tax cuts has resulted in a loss of $1,100 between 1983 and 1985 for those making less than $10,000 a year, while those making more than $80,000 annually have gained $24,260 as a result of government policy.3
The most recent addition to the Republican coalition—white, born-again Christians—has not yet been rewarded with legislative enactment of the bills and constitutional changes they seek; but conservative policies and programs have been honored in the selection of judges to the federal bench, in numerous appointments to executive positions, and in the virtually countless legal and administrative decisions emanating from those appointments.
Republicans have, in effect, found that they can perform the traditional functions of a political party—rewarding the loyal and penalizing the opposition—not only through tax and spending policies but also through broad enforcement of administrative policy in all branches of government. The Democratic party, in contrast, has found that much of its own elite—composed of an affluent base of liberal donors, party activists, and a significant portion of its elected leadership—is increasingly distant from the party’s largest constituencies, those who are at or below the median income. For the GOP, there is little or no conflict between the interest of its party elite and the party’s most consistent voters on issues of tax and spending policy. For Democrats, the situation is far more ambiguous, particularly in the case of tax policy. While a substantial number of low-income Democratic constituents have seen their tax burdens increase under the Reagan administration and many others at the lower end of the middle class have received proportionately the smallest tax reductions, the generally upper-middle-class elite that leads the party, works for it, and contributes to it, has largely benefited from these same Republican policies.
The result is that, for the moment, competing with the Republican party will, for the Democrats, mainly take the form of a holding action; some Democrats hope to invade Republican constituencies by emphasizing such issues as environmental protection and the improvement of the “quality of life” aimed at attracting young, upwardly mobile professionals. For Republicans, the problems of partisan competition are more subtle, growing out of success. Victory has drained two major sources of energy from the Republican party. The first of these sources was the popular revolt against high tax burdens, leading to the campaigns that resulted in the enactment of such tax-cutting initiatives as Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts. With the decline in the rate of inflation and the recent trend toward reducing federal, state, and local taxes, public anger over taxation, which translated quickly into a deep hostility toward government, has significantly quieted.
Richard Wirthlin, the President’s pollster and head of Decision Making Information, has used a series of surveys to document a sharp decline in anti-government feelings during the past five years. While public suspicion of government remains high, Wirthlin found that the percentage of people agreeing with such statements as “Government is run by a few big interests” and “Government cannot be trusted to be right” fell by 13 to 14 percentage points between 1978 and 1986, dropping from an average of 75 percent of respondents to 61 percent. A real test of the ability of the Republican party to hold on to its current parity with the Democratic party will be its ability to transform itself from an antigovernment party into a party controlling government, when government is no longer seen as a tax-guzzling adversary.
The second source of Republican energy is more subtle: the resentment of party officials in the South, West, and Midwest toward the eastern, Wall Street wing of the GOP that just twenty-five years ago controlled the party. This internal party battle, which sustained Reagan’s bids for the presidency from 1968 to victory in 1980, has in effect been won with the defeat of the Wall Street and Rockefeller factions of the GOP. It is not clear at all whether the growing momentum behind the 1988 presidential candidacy of George Bush will provoke a revival of this bitter division within the GOP. The question raised by party strategists is whether Bush, educated at Andover and Yale, the son of a Wall Street investment banker and Connecticut senator, can capitalize on his relocation in the 1950s to a job in the Texas oil business, on his long political career in the burgeoning Republican party of the Sunbelt, and on his eight years as Reagan’s vice president in order to mend the split that continues within the party. In some ways Bush symbolizes the internal conflict within the Republican party. If he is nominated, he will be defying the successful postwar Republican tradition—reflected in the family origins of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan—of selecting as presidential candidates men born to hardship, acutely aware of the resentments, hopes, and concerns for status of the lower middle class.
A Bush candidacy would test the ability of the GOP to continue to carry out its most successful strategy—combining the votes of both middle-class and working-class whites in a durable political realignment and thus ending fifty years of minority status. A sense of the political power of that realignment is what is missing in Kayden’s and Mahe’s account of the renewed importance of both parties. It is not so much that they overestimate the ways in which the Democratic party has become more modern in its techniques, as that they fail to appreciate the full extent of the GOP’s achievement—not only in the flexibility and effectiveness of the Republican party apparatus but in its ability to exploit the economic, demographic, and cultural trends that under-pin the success of the party as a whole.
Even if the Democratic party were to capture the presidency, the Senate, or both, in the two upcoming elections, Democrats will continue to be severely constrained in any attempt to turn public policy back to the advantage of those whose incomes are below the national median. They will be blocked in no small measure by the strength of the Republican party itself in transforming both the balance of political power in America and the climate of public opinion.
Lee Atwater, memo to the Reagan-Bush Campaign Committee, The South in 1984 (April 1983).↩
James L. Guth, "Political Converts: Partisan Realignment Among Southern Baptist Ministers," in Election Politics (Winter 1985–86), published by the Institute for Government and Politics, Washington, DC.↩
See Bureau of the Census, Money, Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons in the United States: 1984 (August 1985), and Congressional Budget Office, Staff Memorandum: "The Combined Effects of Major Changes in Federal Taxes and Spending Programs Since 1981" (April 1984).↩
Lee Atwater, memo to the Reagan-Bush Campaign Committee, The South in 1984 (April 1983).↩
James L. Guth, “Political Converts: Partisan Realignment Among Southern Baptist Ministers,” in Election Politics (Winter 1985–86), published by the Institute for Government and Politics, Washington, DC.↩
See Bureau of the Census, Money, Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons in the United States: 1984 (August 1985), and Congressional Budget Office, Staff Memorandum: “The Combined Effects of Major Changes in Federal Taxes and Spending Programs Since 1981” (April 1984).↩