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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.