The Parties Are Not What They Were

The Parties Are Not What They Were

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Historically, America’s two party system worked effectively. For most of the Twentieth Century—except for Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party in 1912–there were differences between the two major parties, but we have had two major parties, Democratic and Republican, which have straddled the ideological middle. They competed for voters by positioning themselves either to the right of center or to the left of center. When either Party’s presidential candidate steered their party too far left or right—like Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972– the opposition party won the election in a landslide.  (While Ronald Reagan won election despite being considerable farther to the right than normal, his victory in 1980 could be explained both because of a lack of support for Jimmy Carter as well as the nation’s year of agonizing over the unreleased U.S. hostages in Iran.) It with this background that so many analysts and scholars are now discussing whether the two-party American political system is still viable.

Rank and file members in both parties are dissatisfied with their leaders and the projections for the future. Many of the party affiliated Democratic voters–32% of the electorate–are not aligning themselves with Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the party. They are being accused of deserting the progressive tradition of their Party. Most Democrats actually do agree with the left wing of their party, but it is precisely this faction of the party which is repudiating the traditional norm of being a left of center party straddling the center of the political spectrum. They may find a true voice for their views, but there is an insufficient portion of the American public which is prepared to move in their direction; among Independents, moderate Republicans; and even Democrats.

For the reported 23% of Republican voters the problem is more critical and complicated. Trump has clearly exposed himself—certainly after last week—that he has no loyalty or fealty to the Republican Party; either a moderate wing, a conservative wing, or even and an extreme wing. As has been evident in his personal style, Donald Trump is loyal to himself and to whatever views are critical to and for him. As President—rather than as a candidate—Trump has clearly demonstrated that he is willing to lead in any direction where he believes he can win. This may well help him for the moment, but it is a clear recipe for an electoral disaster for the GOP in 2018 and for any interest he might possess in a re-election campaign in 2020.

Accompanying this repudiation by many Americans of the two major parties must also be factored in the growth of independents now in America; almost 40% of the public.  This faction is the most important one in the American electorate today; the unaffiliated or non-affiliated voters. Not only are they the swing voters but they hold the key to any presidential victory. Whichever party ultimately will revert to the center may well hold the key to attracting this huge block of voters.   

Neither party at this point appears ideologically prepared to reach out to the swing voters. If they do not recognize the consequences of such a failure, it will be very difficult to reestablish their party as a majority or near majority force in American party politics. If this indeed is a realigning time in American party politics, as some are suggesting, it is likely also to be a moment when the realigning party will be conceding victory to the other side. Both parties ought to remember what Coach Vince Lombardi preached to his football players: “Winning is not everything, it is the only thing.” 

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