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By Jay Cost

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No, Seriously. There Are No Permanent Majorities!

Last year around this time, as the liberal world was flush with excitement over the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama, I dedicated much of the space on this blog to arguing that the new Democratic majority would not be permanent.

I listed a lot of reasons for this, but my biggest argument was that it is very difficult for a single party to govern this country to the satisfaction of its broad, diverse populace. And sooner or later, when the majority party screws up, the other side gets its opening.

Steve Kornacki, writing on his blog this week, suggested that this is exactly what is happening in Massachusetts. He argues that Massachusetts drifted out of the GOP's reach around 1994 when it became dominated by "southern/religious-based conservatism," but now that the Democrats are totally in charge, the GOP finally has an opening. Here's his key graf:

[W]ith Republicans locked out power in Washington, swing voters in Massachusetts -- and every other blue state -- are, for the first time since 1994, ready to blame their problems on Democrats and use the GOP as a protest vehicle. And with 10 percent unemployment, voters have a lot of anger to vent.

This is exactly right. When the country is angry about the state of the union, and it feels that it's time for a change, it will vote for the opposition party as a "protest vehicle." Why? Because in our two-party system there is no place else for the people to go. They might not like the opposition, but it is a choice between them and the status quo.

This is why I'm not a big believer in the "Yeah, but the Republican brand is tarnished" meme that's been floating around out there. I think that could help the Democrats some, but the country tends to take a slightly jaundiced view of both parties to begin with. Neither party could ever credibly claim to have clean hands. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

If it's a choice between the status quo and an opposition party that has disappointed in the past, sometimes circumstances demand the opposition. Historically speaking, that's simply a true statement. There have been multiple periods in our country's history when the people have swung back and forth between the parties, casting about for somebody - anybody - who could manage public affairs competently. The most violent swings came in the 1880s-1890s as the country struggled through the latter phases of the industrial revolution, but we saw a more recent one in 1974-1982. In both periods, neither side had given the people much reason for confidence, but that did not stop them from using both as "protest vehicles."

Ultimately, this is what dooms a majority party. Sooner or later, it's going to find itself having to deal with voter anger when times turn tough. When that happens, the country will get behind the opposition. Sometimes this happens quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But it always happens. The only exception comes in the early period of the country when the Federalists were essentially destroyed, but one-party Republican rule did not last, beginning to break down during the War of 1812 as factions within the Jeffersonian Republicans began to differentiate themselves.

Plus, it's important to keep in mind the flip side. The minority party, recently pushed to the sidelines, is not content to stand still. It's struggling to redefine itself, change its strategy, find a way to acquire the majority. Why? Because that is its purpose. Political parties are engaged in an inexorable pursuit of majority status. What we're seeing in Massachusetts is a good indication of what a minority party is prepared to do for that goal. Should he gut out the victory next week, Scott Brown is ultimately going to disappoint the national Republican base. He will want to be reelected next time, which means he'll situate himself well to the left of most of his fellow Republicans. Yet he's raking in dollars hand over first this week. Republicans everywhere know that Brown will be a moderate, so why are they so giving him so much cash? Because he's one more vote closer to the majority (and, more immediately, an end to the filibuster-proof majority that party-switcher Arlen Specter handed the Democrats). Ideological diversity is a problem for a party to worry about only after its returned to the majority. Until then, few on the Republican side will complain about a little adulteration if it hastens the party's return to power.

This is not some sort of new dynamic. Indeed, if you scan the political history of the United States since 1824, you'll see it play itself out again and again. Parties in the majority have trouble hanging on while the opposition gets more crafty in its efforts to climb back to power. That's how American politics works. That's what we're seeing this year.

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-Jay Cost