Two years ago, after President Reagan’s 1984 landslide, Republican strategists saw the 1988 presidential election as an opportunity to solidify the GOP’s substantial gains in their long campaign to make the country Republican. The 1986 election and the Iran–contra scandal have not only severely damaged those expectations; they have revealed weaknesses in both political parties and in their leadership, leaving a tangled prospect for the next few years.

The takeover of the Senate by the Democrats last November was less a mandate for the party—a shift of just 26,000 votes would have left the Senate in Republican hands—than the result of a string of lucky breaks. The Democratic party has only begun the painful process of accepting that it is no longer the permanent majority party in the country. For Democrats who still don’t understand this, the Iran–contra scandal may prove a dangerous diversion, just as Watergate in the 1970s allowed the Democrats to gloss over the deep divisions between the party’s centrists, who supported Hubert Humphrey for president over George McGovern and now look to such politicians as Sam Nunn or Gary Hart, and its leftists, who were drawn to McGovern, and then to Ted Kennedy, and are now left without a clear choice after the withdrawal of Mario Cuomo.

In recent elections many workingclass and lower-middle-class whites have chosen either not to vote or to vote for Republican presidential candidates. Cuomo’s decision not to seek the nomination means that there is likely to be no Democratic competitor whose basic strategy is to mobilize such people. Instead, with the exception of Jesse Jackson, who has no chance of being nominated, the Democratic field is made up of candidates whose chief political aim has been to strengthen the party’s appeal to the middle classes, although some of the candidates are now trying to appeal to Cuomo’s former supporters.

A prominent Democratic poll taker, Paul Maslin, recently said:

From 1976 through 1984, the biggest single decline in Democratic voting has been among the lower- and middle-class white voters below forty—the Springsteen vote. If 1988 becomes a battle of elites and neither party can generate enthusiasm from the majority of Americans, the Democrats may get lucky and win, but the party will not have done much to advance a real foundation of public support. If on the other hand the Democrats start to inspire these people, at least increase voting levels, bring some back into the system, it will provide a real chance to govern successfully and for a long time.

The Democratic party will have a hard time achieving the goals outlined by Maslin, no matter who is selected from a prospective field that now includes, in addition to Hart and Nunn, Senator Joseph Biden, Representative Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. The difficulty the Democratic nominee will have to overcome is reflected in Washington Post–ABC polls in 1981 and 1986 showing a sharp decline in support for the Democratic party on the part of white voters. Among such voters from families with incomes between $20,000 and $30,000, the percentage calling themselves Democrats compared to those calling themselves Republicans has shifted from a 46–42 Democratic advantage in 1981 to a 50–45 Republican advantage in 1986. This was a devastating blow to a Democratic party claiming to represent the interests of the less powerful in society, and a reflection of continuing racial conflict within the party. Among the poorest white voters, those making less than $20,000, the Democratic margin has fallen from a strong 55–36 in 1981 to 51–43 in 1986.

At the same time, conflicts within the Democratic party itself work against the kind of cohesion essential to a presidential candidate seeking a strong mandate. As Democrats take over the Senate, for example, seven of the fourteen new Democratic committee chairmen have records of providing strong support to the Reagan administration, while the other seven have records of intense opposition. Foreign policy remains extremely divisive. This winter’s bitter fight among House Democrats over Representative Les Aspin’s chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee reveals the extent to which such issues as contra aid and the MX missile—both formerly favored by Aspin—remain unresolved. The party has yet to formulate a military policy it can sell to the public.

The Democrats’ sources of campaign money also reveal their internal divisions. In the 1984 election, for example, Democratic candidates for House and Senate received roughly the same amounts of money from union PACs, $24.4 million, as from business and trade association PACs, $28.2 million—that is, money representing opposing political interests. This pattern of contributions helps to encourage paralysis in legislation. It gives no clear sense of direction to party leaders facing difficult choices on military and domestic spending. With the national debt exceeding $2 trillion, the legislator must often make a decision favorable to business at the expense of labor, or vice versa.


The schisms facing the Republicans in the post-Reagan years appear likely to be at least as serious. The conservative wing of the GOP is full of discontent with Reagan but it has been unable to coalesce around a candidate, and it has wavered at various times between Representative Jack Kemp, Patrick J. Buchanan, and the television evangelist Pat Robertson. Vice President George Bush is running into increasing difficulty as he attempts to become an ecumenical nominee supported by both Reagan conservatives and by the GOP’s moderate, East Coast faction. Senator Robert Dole, in turn, is trying to revive the Taft wing of the Republican party, for which the principal issue is the danger of the federal deficit, the same deficit that has made the Reagan economic and military program possible. Dole seeks, moreover, to expand his constituency with support for such liberal programs as food stamps and aid to the handicapped, as well as for such right-of-center causes as opposition to abortion and to gun control, and conservative appointments to the federal bench.

Campaign money has also created problems for the Republicans, but, unlike the Democrats’ difficulties, these spring from the party’s prosperity. The three major Republican party committees—the national, senatorial, and congressional—raise roughly four times the amount of cash that their Democratic counterparts do. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, this huge financial advantage was used very effectively to identify vulnerable Democratic office holders, and to finance challengers to run against them. Recently, however, Democratic politicians have become increasingly sophisticated in both raising money and building up local support in anticipation of well-financed Republican challengers. The Democratic committees have begun to channel what funds they have into elections where Republicans are particularly vulnerable. One might even say that in 1986 the accumulation of campaign funds reached a point of diminishing return. In a number of races including the Senate contests in Georgia, North Dakota, and Alabama, huge amounts were raised and spent but made no discernible difference in the outcome of the election.

The Republican party, during the last four years, has used its financial leverage to invest in expensive, national computerized drives to get out the vote, but these failed to increase turnout. Instead these drives, using commercial TV marketing companies and programmed telephoned messages, suggest that the Republican party faces the danger of becoming over-dependent on promotional technology. At the same time, the three Republican party committees have gotten in the habit of handing out $3,000- to $7,500-a-month consulting contracts to former White House aides and former party officials, and to the relatives of the powerful—including President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, and Senator Paul Laxalt’s daughter, Michelle.

But the pattern of contributions to Republican House and Senate candidates does not encourage paralyzing conflicts over legislation as it does for Democrats. For Republican candidates, there is a twenty-five-to-one ratio in favor of business and trade association PACs ($38.3 million, to $1.5 million for labor). This decisively probusiness bias worked to the advantage of the GOP in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the electorate was sharply divided on issues of taxes, military spending, and programs subsidizing the poor and unemployed.

Since then, however, the continuing dependence on business money has damaged Republican efforts to promote a more populist image. Pressures from business supporters and donors were a major factor behind the extreme reluctance of House Republicans to support the 1986 tax reform bill, which transferred $120 billion in taxes from people to corporations over five years. The Democrats were thus able to take much of the credit for the legislation. Similarly, opposition to appropriations to clean up toxic waste sites has been more intense among Republicans than among Democrats—and such opposition does not help to convert the Republican party into a majority party.

For the Democrats, the effect of unemployment and inflation during the Carter years has been that fewer voters trust the party to deal with economic issues. The current issue of Public Opinion magazine, in an analysis of 1986 poll data from the major networks and newspapers and from both the Harris and Gallup polls, finds that voters have strikingly different evaluations of each party. Voters said that the GOP was more likely to produce prosperity (by 10 to 18 percentage points), to cut inflation (14 to 22 points), and, by a 5-point margin, to deal with the “most important problems facing the country.” For the Democrats, the most damaging finding is that the party has lost its status in the minds of voters as the party of prosperity and of high levels of employment. According to the polls the major strength of the Democratic party is that it is now seen as caring about and protecting individuals and groups. So were the Democrats favored when voters were asked which party would better handle the problems of farmers (by 18 to 29 points, depending on the poll), the elderly (by 27 points), the unemployed (by 17 points), women (17 to 23 points), and minorities (23 points).


Population trends favor the Republicans. In presidential elections, the GOP has carefully constructed a southern and western base that will be difficult for the Democrats to break up in 1988. The 1986 victories for Republican candidates for governor in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Alabama demonstrate that this core of support remains strong. In the House of Representatives, the eighty-one-seat Democratic majority depends in large part on the continuing success of congressmen who won traditionally Republican seats in the Watergate elections of 1974 and 1976, and on victories during the recession year of 1982.

The metropolitan regions with the highest growth rates, many of them in the suburbs of the South and Southwest, are likely to vote Republican (particularly when new districts are created after the 1990 census). “When you travel through the old South and see a McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut going up, you know the Republicans are coming,” John Morgan, a GOP consultant, said recently. At the same time, Democratic strongholds in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston will have to have their election districts more and more ingeniously rearranged to produce Democratic victories.

These trends—particularly the growth of Republican-leaning suburbs in the South and Southwest—have been at work for the past two decades, however, and the Republican party has yet to translate such advantages into gains that give them a decisive advantage. After the Reagan victories of 1980 and 1984, Democrats control 259 seats in the House of Representatives, slightly more than the party’s average for the entire period from 1950 to 1986, the period when the Sunbelt was growing in population and wealth.

The two political parties have thus achieved an equilibrium that is remarkable in American history: neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are a majority or plurality party. At the start of the 1980s, the two parties had seemed poised for a sharp confrontation on three central policy issues: income distribution, race, and the place of religion in public life. This confrontation was reinforced by the growing divergence of partisan voters according to income, race, and religious affiliation. Low-income voters, blacks, and relatively secularized Protestants, Catholics, and Jews largely voted for Democrats. In a country where only half the citizens are willing to vote, these divisions were working to the advantage of the Republican party, whose more affluent, white, and religious-minded constituents turned out in greater numbers than the Democrats’ most loyal supporters.

However, the recession of 1982, the recent weak performances of the economy (after three strong years), and the current Iran–contra arms scandal have all given the Democrats opportunities to slow, if not halt, the momentum behind the resurgence of the Republican party. Blacks and white fundamentalist Christians remain among the two most partisan groups in America; on the whole, blacks vote Democratic, white fundamentalists vote Republican. But the last election suggests that partisanship based on income has diminished. In 1982, those making less than $12,500 voted Democratic by a margin of 73 to 27, and those making more than $50,000 voted Republican by a margin of 63 to 37. In 1986, according to the New York Times–CBS exit polls, those with incomes below $12,500 voted Democratic by a margin of 56 to 44, a Democratic loss of 17 percentage points. Those making more than $50,000 voted Republican by a margin of 53 to 47, a Republican loss of 10 points among the well to do. At the same time, polls asking voters which party they prefer found that both parties have the allegiance of between 44 and 46 percent of those questioned. The result is a country with two minority parties.

They are minority parties partly because, as national organizations, they are amorphous. One conventional view has been that the national political parties reflect the capacity of the nation’s disparate social and economic groups and interests to form sustained alliances. A political party with the allegiance of a majority of the voters has the power to govern—to carry out a coherent set of policies—but the use of this power has been evident only twice during the past generation: after Lyndon Johnson won in 1964 and went on to enact the programs of the Great Society, and in 1981 when Ronald Reagan’s victory, accompanied by a GOP takeover of the Senate, enabled the Republican administration to enact regressive tax cuts, sharply increase military spending, and substantially reduce social welfare programs.

The more closely one looks, the more complex and elusive the shape of our political parties becomes. Parties can be seen as loosely aligned blocs of voters; as bureaucracies in Washington raising funds and making the rules for national conventions; as groups organizing Congress; or as representatives of competing interests, whether national or local.

Leon Epstein, of the University of Wisconsin, has produced in Political Parties in the American Mold the most comprehensive textbook I have read on American political parties. Written before the current partisan impasse, the book does much to clarify the extremely fluid and often fragile structure of our two major parties—parties that, in comparison with their European counterparts, have relatively weak ties to social classes and religious groups.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties, Epstein points out, are really confederations of state and local organizations connected more or less firmly to the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. The national committees have become increasingly powerful in both parties, but for very different reasons. In the case of the Democrats, the national interest groups—women’s organizations, homosexuals, blacks, antiwar activists—have pressed the national committee to impose rules on state parties that will give them more power in the national convention. The Republican National Committee has used money as a lever to force local party organizations to hire its own approved staff members and to back the programs of the Reagan administration.

Unlike many other scholarly texts, Epstein’s has much to say about money in politics, whether in the form of private contributions or of partly public financing. Most public attention has concentrated on political action committees, largely because of the often aggressive conservatism of the Republican PACs and because they are an example of a reform that turned sour for the reformers. But Epstein correctly notes that political parties spend far more money than PACs, particularly the Republican party. In 1981 and 1982, party committees spent a total of $254 million, $215 million of which was spent by GOP committees, while all PACs, including business, labor, trade associations, conservative groups, spent $190 million.

Epstein himself has few recommendations for improving the system; his book is a sophisticated primer on political parties. W. Russell Neuman’s The Paradox of Mass Politics is far more ambitious. The central argument of what he calls a “theory of political sophistication” is that American democracy works and has worked for two centuries because the population is divided into “three publics.” At the bottom are “the roughly 20 percent of the population who do not monitor the political realm at all” and “at the top of the continuum is a group of active and attentive individuals, who represent approximately 5 percent of the population.” Most people fall somewhere between these extremes. While generally only “half-attentive” to public issues, they “can be alerted if fellow citizens sound the political alarm”; they may then insist that their interests and opinions be taken into account in the decisions of the top 5 percent who have an active part in politics.

Neuman’s idea of “three publics” is useful for describing the deterioration of the Democratic party during the 1970s. The reformist movement that arose after the 1968 Democratic convention—and was given impetus by the Watergate scandals—resulted in a party dominated by upper-middle-class liberals who had little sense of the economic pressures on the Democratic party’s traditional working- and lower-middle-class constituents. This gap between the party’s elite and its major voting blocs became most damaging during the Carter years when Democratic leaders failed to recognize that inflation was forcing working-class voters into higher and higher tax brackets, steadily eating away a larger and larger proportion of their take-home pay. Through California’s Proposition 13 and other antitax movements, the “half-attentive” mass of voters began to “sound the political alarm,” to use Neuman’s imagery; but it was Reagan and the Republican party that were able to respond to their anxieties in 1980.

Neuman’s model of a periodically aroused middle tier of voters is also useful for understanding public response to the current Iran–contra aid scandal. Public reaction is mixed. Support for Reagan has dropped significantly, according to polls by the Los Angeles Times, but hostility to the press and television is growing. Like Watergate this scandal could severely undermine the short-range prospects of the Republican party. The administration’s policy can be seen as a calculated attempt to interpose a barrier between the top and the middle of the “three publics”; to insulate, that is, a White House elite centered in the National Security Council both from congressional oversight and from a general public wary of involvement in Central America, and opposed to the sale of weapons to such a regime as Khomeini’s. Until now, the Reagan administration has been remarkably adept at controlling public perception of events as diverse as the invasion of Grenada and the collapse of the Reykjavik summit; but the current crisis has been much more difficult for the administration to manage, especially since the President’s cabinet and staff have been openly fighting among themselves over who is responsible for illegal activities and for covering them up.

While the Iran–contra controversy will work to the immediate disadvantage of the Republicans, it is not likely to alter permanently what is most characteristic about contemporary politics: the near equality of the two political parties, an equality that works to prevent either the Democrats or the Republicans from formulating a coherent program for government. The chief reason for the impasse between the two parties is the presence of conflicting pressures within each partisan coalition, conflicts that have plagued the Democrats since the mid-Sixties, and that, for the Republican party, are currently reflected in the inability of the Reagan administration to propose a federal budget that seems plausible even to members of its own party on Capitol Hill.

During the last ten years, the number of voters who say they are Republican has grown enormously, from 25 percent of the population to over 40 percent; and as a result of this growth, the GOP has changed shape, becoming far more heterogeneous. In 1976, northern, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants made up a majority of the men and women willing to identify themselves as Republicans in public opinion surveys by pollster Robert Teeter. By 1986, northern WASPs made up just under a third of the Republican constituency. Such WASPs had not abandoned the GOP; they had simply become a minority, joined by millions of white southerners and, to a lesser extent, by middle- and upper-middle-class Catholics.

In 1980 and 1981 the ideological and economic conflicts within the Republican coalition had not yet emerged. Instead, the main forces behind that coalition—a unified business community, a nascent Christian right, a well-financed conservative movement that has been gathering political and intellectual momentum for a decade, and a growing number of white voters who no longer supported Democratic welfare policies—provided Reagan with a strong base of support. His administration could therefore have its way, particularly in lowering taxes, raising military spending, and cutting benefits for the poor. Three main factors created a favorable climate for Reagan’s budget and tax cut legislation. The steeply graduated income tax rates that inflation was pushing onto working- and middle-class incomes; rising regressive Social Security taxes; and increasingly heavy state and local tax burdens.

In 1980 and 1981, then, it seemed that the combined economic, class, and social interests supporting Reagan could become the core of a new majority party. During the last few years, however, these elements have lost their cohesion, and the Republican drive to expand its base has, in fact, had the effect of dividing its supporters. The Administration’s 1986 tax reform proposal, for example, clearly had an implicit political purpose: by lowering all tax rates, eliminating many tax breaks, and shifting a significant share of the tax burden from individuals to corporations, the tax plan was intended by party strategists to give a populist boost to Republican hopes of realigning the parties. Instead of being perceived as the instrument of the rich and of corporate America, the GOP would appear as the defender of the common man.

The tax reform has not much changed the prevailing image of the Republican party, although it has prevented Democrats from taking over the issue. What the legislation has done, to some degree unintentionally, is to split the business community: manufacturing corporations heavily dependent on such now-eliminated tax breaks as the investment tax credit opposed the measure. Businesses involved in wholesale and retail sales, as well as in services and high technology production, supported the bill, having little use for the investment tax credit and gaining significantly from the lowering of the top corporate rate from 46 to 34 percent.

The division over taxes in many ways coincides with deep divisions among American corporations over trade policy. Many of the heavy industries that are hurt by the loss of the investment tax credit are also those most threatened by foreign imports: they consequently support varying forms of trade protectionism. In contrast, many of the retail and wholesale companies seeking lower corporate rates deal in imported goods, and are adamantly opposed to tariffs and other restrictions on trade.

Some Republican strategists are privately considering an attempt to develop a base of corporate supporters among the “winners” in the current competition among various industries—a perilous tactic because of the difficulty of predicting economic success. The independent oil industry, for example, was central to the 1980 Republican coalition. Flush with cash from oil deregulation and rising oil prices, independent oilmen from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana provided much of the early financing for the campaigns of successful conservative Republicans running in states and districts throughout the country. By 1986, however, the independent oil industry had become a “loser,” and many of the industry’s leaders are seeking support for a protectionist oil import fee.

Another Republican alliance coming under strain is that between the country-club Republicans who have controlled the party organizations in most states, and the increasingly restless conservative Christian political community. This alliance has been of prime importance to the GOP: between 1976 and 1984, white fundamentalist Christians accounted for a shift of at least eight million votes to Republican candidates, according to The New York Times–CBS polls. No other single group in those years did more to create a strong Republican coalition.

Conservative Christian political leaders, including Pat Robertson, have, however, become increasingly intent on gaining direct political power. They are sponsoring campaigns to take over numerous state and local Republican party organizations, and running their own candidates in GOP primaries. For example, in Indiana in 1986, fundamentalist Christian candidates defeated candidates backed by the party for Republican nominations in two congressional districts, severely embarrassing one of the strongest state Republican parties in the country. Similarly, fights between Christian groups and party regulars occurred in Republican congressional contests in South Carolina and Tennessee. In three out of four of these districts, the Republican would normally have been favored to win. In fact, Democrats won all four districts. Republican party regulars, dismayed by such activities, are having increasing difficulty maintaining control over nominations.

The GOP is in the midst of a balancing act, trying to hold together a great many divergent groups—including well-to-do East Coast Protestants, anticommunist Asian and Hispanic refugees, southern rednecks drawn to the hard right views of Jesse Helms, the new entrepreneurs of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, urban Catholics, embattled farmers, and evangelical Baptists. For the Republicans the arms-for-hostages scandal could not have emerged at a worse time—just when they were beginning to plan for the 1988 elections. No matter what the political atmosphere may be less than two years from now, the scandal has impaired Reagan’s ability to hold together the GOP coalition by his personal popularity while waiting for a successor to emerge. The controversy has also clearly damaged the ability of the Republican party to recruit strong candidates for 1988. And it threatens to weaken the ability of the three Republican party committees to continue to raise the vast amounts of money useful in smoothing over ideological and economic conflicts within the Republican hierarchy.

The rise of the Republican party has been at least temporarily brought to a halt. Democrats seem for the moment unlikely to increase their long-term share of the vote, although they may be in a good position to capture the presidency in 1988. With both parties showing roughly equal strength in the electorate, and with a substantial bloc of voters feeling little or no allegiance to either party, political competition becomes a kind of trench warfare—a prolonged engagement along an extended battlefront, with the resources of each side spread thinly along the entire line of the conflict. Each seeks to gain specific pieces of the other’s territory, sometimes a House or Senate seat, sometimes a governorship, sometimes control of a state legislature, and sometimes the office of county sheriff. Each party chips away at the other’s terrain, seeking to make incursions and to hold ground at every contested point.

For Democrats and republicans attempting to build stronger parties out of fragile contemporary alliances, the coming years will be overshadowed by the two-trillion-dollar national debt. The inhibiting pressure of the debt and deficit may be more damaging to the Democrats, traditionally the party of expanded government services. They will have to struggle to balance a number of competing claims, including the claims of those hurt by Reagan’s attack on the welfare state, those who demand that the party maintain support for the military, and the claims of fiscally conservative suburban voters. At the same time, however, the Republican party faces a parallel dilemma. Rural politicians from the Sunbelt to North Dakota foresee significant defections to the Democratic party among farmers demanding additional federal support. Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest are insisting that education and job training programs vital to their constituents be restored. Political life during the coming years will turn on bitter disputes over cuts in spending that the affected groups will resent, and tax hikes that many will resist. Neither prospect offers much hope for a political party seeking to expand its base of support and to obtain a decisive majority.

This Issue

March 26, 1987