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Parties over? Republicans, Democrats, and the Howard Schultz challenge

Why We Wrote This

Weaker political parties along with more extreme partisanship have made for a dangerous combination – one that experts say threatens democratic norms. This is the sixth installment of our “Democracy Under Strain” series.

Michael Conroy/AP
Former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz spoke at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Feb. 7. Mr. Schultz has presented himself as a ‘centrist independent’ and an alternative to major-party candidates.

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Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has made criticism of the Republican and Democratic Parties a central theme of his as-yet unofficial presidential campaign. He and his advisers describe the parties as increasingly extreme, migrating to the far right and far left of the political spectrum, respectively. “Are we fated to be in this duopoly in perpetuity?” Schultz adviser Steve Schmidt recently asked.

Well, maybe not this duopoly. Throughout US history, the two parties that compete to run the country have changed, combined and split, died and been reborn. Still, given the winner-take-all US electoral system, our two-party system appears likely to endure.

But what if the parties’ real problem is weakness, not strength? In the modern era, electoral reforms have hurt their organizational cohesion, outside money has weakened their hold on candidates and elected officials, and partisan media has diluted their ability to define their own policies and positions. 

At the same time, the parties as ideas are as strong as ever. Decades of ideological sorting have produced clear left/right, blue/red teams. Like rival teams everywhere, the members are ready to fight – no matter what their nominal party leaders want to do.

The defining characteristic of our age is that the parties are weak, but partisanship is strong, according to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University. That’s a dangerous combination, as it risks unmediated political combat that could burst through norms and damage the idea of legitimate opposition. And the solution might lie not in attacking the parties from without and supplanting them, as Mr. Schultz would do, but rebuilding and modifying them from within.

America’s two-party system is broken. That’s what former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says, anyway. The self-described centrist and possible candidate for president has made criticism of the Republican and Democratic Parties the central theme of his as-yet unofficial campaign.

“Both parties today on the far left and the far right are more interested in partisan politics, revenge politics,” said Mr. Schultz in a CNN town hall broadcast on Feb. 12. “I think we could be doing much better.”

On that point, many voters might agree. They’re tired of the bickering and gridlock and policy problems left unsolved. Americans’ trust in the parties as institutions is quite low, down there with phone companies, Congress, and the media. The percentage of citizens who register as “independent,” rather than “Democrat” or “Republican,” is at an all-time high. 

But what if the parties are the solution, as much as the cause, for the nation’s malfunctioning political system? After all, political scientists and other experts view them as the indispensable organizers of democracy.

In this view, the parties’ real problem is weakness, not strength. Electoral reforms have hurt their organizational cohesion, outside money has weakened their hold on elected officials, and partisan media has diluted their ability to define their own policies and positions. 

At the same time, the parties as ideas are as strong as ever. Decades of ideological sorting have produced clear left/right, blue/red teams. Like rival teams everywhere, the members are ready to fight – no matter what their nominal party leaders want to do.

In US politics, the defining characteristic of our age is that the parties are weak, but partisanship is strong, according to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. That’s a dangerous combination, as it risks unmediated political combat that could burst through norms and damage the idea of legitimate opposition.

The solution might lie not in attacking the parties from without and supplanting them, as Schultz would do, but rebuilding and modifying them from within.

“The norms that we depend on to keep democracy functioning aren’t just there or not. They are enforced by political actors, and parties play an important role in this enforcement,” wrote Dr. Azari in a 2016 analysis on the blog “Mischiefs of Faction.”

Not part of the plan

We’ll get back to Schultz and his independent presidential ambitions in a bit. First, let’s consider why the United States has political parties at all.

They weren’t part of the original plan. There’s no mention of parties in the Constitution’s elaborate scheme of branches of government with interlocking and balancing powers. Many of the Founding Fathers were suspicious of such political organizations. James Madison warned of “the mischiefs of faction” in Federalist Paper No. 10.

But when the new Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton decided to push controversial plans, such as repayment of state war debts and creation of a national bank, he reached out to like-minded business leaders and nationalist-minded citizens to form a supportive network. Almost inevitably, this solidified into a party in favor of a strong centralized government, the Federalist Party. Its success in the 1790s produced a pushback, and figures in favor of a smaller federal role in US life, such as Madison and Thomas Jefferson, coalesced into the Democratic-Republican Party.

These parties began selecting candidates for office, running the polls on Election Day, and, in general, organizing the machinery of American democracy. The two big parties of today aren’t literal descendants of these ancestors – there have been organizational zigs, implosions, and reversals along the way. But they’re constructed on the framework established 220-odd years ago.

Twenty-first century parties have expanded their scope of operation, of course. They still hold polls and vet and select candidates, but they also raise money, disperse it, emphasize and frame issues, try to promote their views to the public, and more. Defined in their largest sense, parties today include interest groups, lobbyists, factional organizations such as the Freedom Caucus, and partisan media.

Perhaps most importantly, they serve as brands. Politics is complicated, issues are numerous, normal life is demanding. Who can be an expert in mayoral politics and state issues, as well as the whole range of national questions, from taxes to foreign policy? Party brands are a shortcut – they serve as a general indication of what voters should think about particular candidates or proposed issue solutions. 

“Americans do not have time to sit there reading an entire candidate’s platform. So the parties perform an important function in serving as this heuristic,” says Samara Klar, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona and a scholar of individuals’ political identities and behavior.

A permanent duopoly?

This is the system Schultz and his advisers want to blow up. They describe the Republican and Democratic parties as increasingly extreme, migrating to the far right and far left of the political spectrum, respectively. In such a situation, what should a poor centrist do?

“Are we fated to be in this duopoly in perpetuity?” said Schultz adviser Steve Schmidt.

Well, maybe not this duopoly. Throughout US history, the two parties that compete to run the country have changed, combined and split, swapped places, and died and been reborn. The period prior to the Civil War is notable in this regard. The Whig Party went under, to be replaced in large part by the new Republican Party. The Democratic Party split, with slavery as the wedge. Some Democrats, notably northerners, stayed loyal to the Union. Some, notably southerners, became Confederates.

But the machinery of the US electoral system just isn’t set up to encourage multiple party presidential bids. For one thing, the winner-take-all nature of (almost all) US elections herds voters into two parties. Duverger’s Law, named for the late French scholar Maurice Duverger, posits that electoral systems where individual races are decided in favor of whomever has the most votes inevitably produce two-party coalitions. That’s because citizens are loath to waste votes on candidates with no hope of winning.

“The brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated,” Duverger wrote.

Nor is there a pool of persuadable independent voters in which a third-party candidate could fish for support. True, “independent” is a category in many major political polls, and surveys indicate that 30 to 40 percent of Americans now describe themselves as independents. But political scientists long ago determined that most of these voters are hidden partisans.

About one-third of independents vote no differently than committed Republicans, and a similar percentage are Democrats in all but name. The remaining slice, representing about 10 percent of all US voters, is truly independent. Generally speaking, these are the least-engaged citizens in the country, with below-average interest in political issues and the lowest propensity to vote.

Dr. Klar, co-author of “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction,” says her research shows that voters who decline to identify as Democrat or Republican disproportionately don’t want to talk about politics or do anything that betrays their tilt, like post a lawn sign.

Labeling oneself an independent “is a social presentation,” Klar says. “It’s a frame that people like to use.”

For these reasons and more, the US remains a largely two-party country. It’s been more than 50 years since a third-party candidate won a state in a presidential election (that was George Wallace, who in 1968 won five states and 46 Electoral College votes).

But third-party candidates have swung elections to someone else: ex-President Teddy Roosevelt, running as the choice of the Bull Moose Party, drew votes from GOP President William Howard Taft and helped put Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Some Democrats still blame consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s run as a Green Party candidate in 2000 for Republican George W. Bush’s razor-thin 2000 election.

This doesn’t mean a Schultz win is impossible. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 has taught a generation of pundits never to dismiss possibilities just because they are outside their normal frame of reference. Many American voters don’t yet have any idea who Schultz is – 46 percent of respondents to an early February CNN poll said they’d never heard of the coffee entrepreneur.

Still, Schultz’s early numbers are brutal. That same CNN poll found only 4 percent of voters said they were very likely to back him. And that number was steady across Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. He appears to have no natural base of support from which to build.

Schultz would have been better off running as an independent voice within a party, says Klar. In essence, that’s what Mr. Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (an independent who caucuses with Democrats) did in the 2016 campaign. Neither seemed beholden to party orthodoxy. At times, they seemed to be running against the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.

“If you ID yourself as a post-partisan candidate within a party ... you can have this image of being an outsider, nonestablishment type,” says Klar.

Gatekeepers no more

But the success of outsiders such as Trump and Senator Sanders inside the system may be a sign of trouble in the modern US party structure. It could mean the ability of party leaders to police renegade political behavior is declining.

One of the fundamental purposes of a political party is to serve as a gatekeeper for potential candidates. If it weakens in this regard, its ability to shape what the party is for and about lessens, too.

Democratic Party leaders squashed a fast-rising Henry Ford for President movement in 1923, for instance. (Ford was a virulent anti-Semite.) They moved to marginalize segregationist George Wallace within the party, forcing him into an independent presidential bid in 1968.

The importance of back-room deals and party bosses has been undercut by the rise of binding primaries and post-Watergate party reforms, however. The good news is, that’s made candidates more reflective of voter choice. That’s the bad news, too. The Founding Fathers worried about the possibility of demagogues and the fickleness of popular choice.

“Binding primaries were certainly more democratic. But might they be too democratic?” write Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, “How Democracies Die.”

Today, the ability of party establishments to act as gatekeepers appears to have ebbed. In decades past, would Sanders, a self-declared independent, have come as close to winning the Democratic nomination as he did in 2016? Would Trump have been shut out of Republican consideration altogether? Many GOP leaders didn’t want him to win; by the time they recognized the threat he posed to them, it was too late.

Meanwhile, the definition of “party” is broadening in modern America, with the rise of partisan interest groups, lobbyists, and right- and left-leaning media organizations. The Democratic and Republican Parties today might be seen not as hierarchical quasi-tribal groups so much as conglomerate blobs. 

At the same time, the party structures have become as polarized as they’ve ever been. Democrats and Republicans used to be big-tent coalitions, with substantial numbers of moderates in both. But a big sort begun in the 1960s is now virtually complete. Southern Dixiecrat Democrats are today almost all Republicans. Rockefeller Republicans are Democrats or powerless members of the GOP.

This polarization didn’t come about by accident. It was a deliberate process pushed by activists, politicians, and experts across the political spectrum, says Sam Rosenfeld, an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University and author of “The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.”

In 1950, the American Political Science Association even produced a report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” which advocated for more ideologically distinct parties as a way to give voters a real choice and produce competing approaches to solving postwar America’s big problems.

“There is a lot to be said for political parties that are organized around actual, distinct, substantive agendas, and that clarify the stakes,” says Dr. Rosenfeld.

But there were some important flaws in the polarization plan. Those who thought it a good idea didn’t foresee how often government power would be divided in the future, with one party holding the White House and another Congress, or at least one congressional branch. Supporters thought polarized parties would be more likely to produce unified, parliamentary-style, efficient government. Instead, the US has too often faced gridlock, brinkmanship, and chaos.

Nor did they appreciate how powerful party identity would become in a polarized era. Republicans and Democrats are increasingly culturally, socially, and racially distinct. The GOP is predominantly white and Christian; the Democratic Party is largely a coalition of minorities and some whites with college degrees.

That’s a recipe for each side to see members of the competing party as the “other” – people you don’t want to talk to or live with, a separate tribe.

“A benefit of that old system was a kind of basic level of functionality of governing,” says Rosenfeld. “Today’s polarized system has a brittleness to it, a tendency toward grinding dysfunction and systemic crisis that is a real problem.” 

Legitimate opposition

This is the situation that Marquette’s Azari defines as “weak parties and strong partisanship.” Party organizations don’t have any real power over officeholders or candidates. Meanwhile, the rank and file is eager to defend itself against those people on the other side of the ideological divide. The result is a decaying sense of legitimate opposition, or the realization that the opposing party will win one day, in a continuing cycle of exchanged control.

The chants of “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies in 2016, referring to Hillary Clinton, were good examples of this loss of a legitimate opposition norm. In 2020, who thinks there won’t be Lock him up!” chants at some Democratic candidate’s events?  

Colgate’s Rosenfeld prefers “hollow” to “weak” when discussing the state of party organizations. Party structures in Congress remain quite effective, he points out. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their own ways, have both proven this point. At the national level, the parties remain skilled at raising money. But at the state and local levels, they’re far from the vital institutions they used to be.

Improving US governance in today’s polarized world might involve reducing the places in the system where individuals or small groups can exercise veto power and bring normal operations to a halt, Rosenfeld says. That could mean getting rid of filibusters, or the need to vote to raise the debt limit, or vote to keep the government open.

“Getting rid of supermajority requirements like the filibuster would not be a solution to polarization, but it would allow for a single party, when it had power, to do more,” he says.

It’s also true that viewing the state of US political parties in 2019 in the broader context of US history can make the current state of affairs seem less fraught, if not exactly stable.

Schultz, for example, insists that both parties are moving toward the extremes of their respective ends of the political spectrum. He’ll offer a centrist choice, he says, more comfortable to voters.

But extremism is in the eye of the beholder. Polarized politics has come and gone in the US over the years, notes Simon Gilhooley, an assistant professor of political and American studies at Bard College.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, his disparagement of minorities, and his anti-intellectualism are all longstanding elements of US politics, says Dr. Gilhooley. At one point, socialism was, too.

Between 1900 and 1915, 140 towns in America elected a socialist mayor, according to Gilhooley. “Oklahoma was a very vibrant area for American socialism,” he says.

A more expansive political spectrum has a storied history in the US. To some extent, today’s ideological transformation of party politics, with the GOP moving right toward Trumpian populism and Democrats shifting left toward Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, could be seen as a return to the future.

“As the parties have become more sorted and polarized, the candidates that appeal to the base in both parties are moving away from the center to try and secure nominations,” Gillhooley says.

In that sense, the period following the end of World War II might be the real anomaly – a time of relative centrism and overlapping parties driven by the need to stand together against the perceived existential threat of cold war communism. Today’s robust debates, about things as far apart as Medicare for All and The Wall, might just be a reflection of the true American political ethos.

Other parts of the “Democracy Under Strain” series:

Part 1: A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks? 

Part 2: Neutral no more: Can Supreme Court survive an era of extreme partisanship? 

Part 3: Amid complaints of a rigged system, one woman’s effort to end gerrymandering. 

Part 4: Risk of a new civil war? Today ‘us’ and ‘them’ differs from the 1850s. 

Part 5: The deep roots of America’s rural-urban political divide

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