About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Bush, Congress, and Political Power | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | From a Reader »

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Michael Barone, 2007:

Listening to the recent debates among the candidates, monitoring their Websites and reading the poll numbers, one gets the impression that the Republican and Democratic primary electorates are living in two different nations -- or the same nation that faces two very different threats.

The Republicans want to protect us against Islamist terrorists. The Democrats want to protect us against climate change. Each side believes the other's fears are largely imaginary. Rush Limbaugh regularly treats global warming theories as a "hoax." A prominent political scientist dismisses Republican candidates' appeals as sounding "like the day after Sept. 11." When asked about possible new attacks, Democratic candidates -- with the exception of Hillary Clinton -- talk about seeking international support and understanding. Asked about climate change, Republican candidates -- with the exception of John McCain -- talk about getting more information.

V.O. Key, 1952:

To assert that all men who regard themselves as Republicans or as Democrats share a common "interest" would be an absurd oversimplification as well as an attribution of a higher incidence of conscious and rational choice than actually prevails among voters. Yet each of the major parties is erected on a solid foundation of a concert of interests, if not a single interest. That interest is by no means solely economic, although the significance of economic drives in political action is not to be denied. Temperament, status, social inheritance, and every factor that enters into human behavior find their way to the political sphere.

In the America of which Professor Key made such a great study, the division of the interests of the parties was almost entirely sectional. It was so much the case that America did not really exhibit a true two-party system, but rather multiple one-party systems. He writes:

The sectionalism inherent in the American national two-party system almost of necessity dictates that many states shall have no parties for state affairs. Each of the two national parties rests on a foundation of states and districts persistent in their loyalty to its candidates. The Solid South has remained Democratic in its attachments through the party's adversities and through its lush days. Rural north-eastern areas provide the same sort of hard core for the Republican party. The development of predominance in a state by a particular national party has the con-sequence that the state is apt to elect consistently that party's candidates to state and local office

Of course, both parties are essentially competitive nationwide now. I would wager that a Republican or a Democrat could win at least a single office of significance in any state. This is not how it was several decades ago.

One would expect this to diminish the effects that Key outlined. Indeed, I think it has. Partisanship does not serve nearly the same kind of psychological function for the voter that it used to in, say, the late 19th or early 20th century. Political campaigns - especially for Congress - turn more upon voter evaluations of the candidates, and less upon unconditional partisan support, than they used to. The rise of split ticket voting is also a sign that voters are not as slavishly tied to one party or another. What is more, both parties are sufficiently organized in every state to wage a competitive campaign at least when the political winds favor their side, and very often when they do not. The sectionalism that Key outlined is still extant, for sure, but it has been on the wane for some time.

Nevertheless, the implied psychological effect of such a sectional system seems similar to what we often see in some quarters of our class of political elites. As Professor Key implies, Republicanism simply made no sense to Southerners for a very long time. Similarly, following Mr. Barone, many Republicans today see Democrats as being simply crazy; many Democrats feel the same way about Republicans. The partisan passions on both sides seem to me to be as intense as ever.

I can't but think that the segmentation of the media generally, and the rise of cyberspace in particular, has facilitated this phenomenon. Many of our political elites - broadly defined to include those who are activists and high demanders of political information - evince what might be called a cyber-sectionalism. Cyber-communities exist where it is essentially a "no go zone" for the other party. These communities remind me a great deal of the regional sectionalism that Key delineated. If our political elites have not actually become more partisan than voters were during the height of sectionalism, I would wager that they have at least not become less partisan.

Mind you, I'm not passing judgment on any of this. If anything, I endorse it as a sociological phenomenon. For my money, I prefer "hot" partisans on both sides of the aisle. Intense partisans imply parties that take clear issue positions, offer the voters distinct choices in the election, and endeavor to enact their programs once elected. These are all good things. Personally, I would much prefer the messy, "mean-spirited," politics of the late 1940s than the bland, everybody-got-along-but-nothing-got-done-while-problems-festered politics of the 1950s. Intense partisans induce strong political parties, which are - I think - a clear benefit to the American people, even if each side's partisans annoy the hell out of the average voter.

I tend to think that the mushy, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along attitude toward politics that many political elites, usually in the mainstream media, endorse can sometimes be a narrow-minded unionism disguised as a broad-minded nationalism. A world where all partisans are bipartisan is a world where the party label no longer serves as an informational cue for the voter. Guess who in that world becomes the only true mediator of political information? The media!

-Jay Cost