About a year and a half ago, I wrote a five-part series looking at the historical transitions of the American party-system. At the end, I promised a look at the future, of what the next transition might look like, and an assessment of whether or not it could happen soon. But when I started looking in to it, I discovered that it was hard to find information about voter's views that wasn't broken down first by party affiliation, and mothballed that idea. But then, just a few weeks ago, the new Pew Research Political Topology Report was released, which has precisely the information I was hoping to see.
First, a quick (and what I hope will be seen as unbiased) summary of the 5 previously-examined transitions.
- 1st to 2nd: One major party disappears in treasonous-embarrassment, it's members joining up with what is now the only game in town; one-party rule lasts 20 years before falling apart into four-way presidential race, partially along the old party lines; the winner gets just 30.9% of the popular vote.
- 2nd to 3rd: Both major parties are unable to adequately address the nations largest economic and social issue: slavery; major presidential nomination fights occur in both; one party's leadership collapses completely, the other breaks into factions; a new party is created with an explicit platform on the issue, and they win the presidency on their second try, with just 39.8% of the vote.
- 3rd to 4th: Economic arguments (over the gold standard and inflation) find split support in both parties; a splinter 3rd-party spoils the election for its parent, taking four (of 44) states, and in the next election, there is mass cross-party voting based on this issue; the crossover becomes permanent.
- 4th to 5th: A massive economic downturn permanently pushes many voters (the working poor and academics) away from the party they blame for the crisis; despite massive 3rd-party voting, a majority (57.4%) vote for the opposing major party's candidate.
- 5th to 6th: Massive social change and accompanying laws (culminating in The Civil Rights Act) permanently push many voters away from the party that enacted them, while attracting others; in the course of just two presidential elections, all but 5 (of 48) states reverse their partisan presidential leanings.
What's Your Issue?
After that first transition, there's a strong re-occurring theme in there, namely that of a major issue which cuts across the constituencies of both existing major parties. Only once did it completely collapse a major party, while the other three times it caused a major swap of supporters. And this is where the Pew Report comes in, because it examines the American electorate, and tries to break them down into a small number of issue-groups, from which we should be able to identify a nascent party transition.
The good news, if you're a third-party advocate, is that Staunch Conservatives and Solid Liberals only make up 11% and 16% of the electorate, respectively; this will jive with your belief that there aren't really that many people who are actually that devoted to the two major parties as they currently exist.
The bad news is that, to my eye at least, it doesn't seem like there's any serious cross-party split out of which you could expect to see the sort of transitions we've come to expect over the last 100 years. At least, not in the short term. For instance, Pew identifies Libertarians (10%) as one of its groups, but when you dig into the issues, they tend to hold identical views as Staunch Conservatives except for the issue of gay rights; similarly, we see New Coalition Democrats (9%), who are Solid Liberals except for the issue of gay rights. While that could be the makings of the kind of grand constituency-swaps we've seen since the creation of the Republican party, it hasn't yet risen to the level where this one issue can drive the outcome of every election.
The same story can be told about welfare, and other social safety-net programs. The so-called Disaffecteds (11%) are Staunch Conservatives, except they support (and often are supported by) these programs, while Post-Moderns (14%) are Solid Liberals, except that they would scale back these programs (which they are generally well-off enough to not need to use them, and question if anyone else needs them either.) This could also grow to become a defining issue that leads to a long term exchange of party support, but it's just not quite there yet. In both these cases, the issue at-hand would have to overcome voters' concerns on every other issue, and I have a hard time imagining, for example, that an overwhelming number of Libertarians would vote for the full Democratic platform because of its stance on gay marriage, or a Democratic candidate soften the party's stance on every other issue in an effort to attract them.
The other two groups which Pew identified were Main Street Republicans (14%; Staunch Conservatives except for their stance on the environment) and Hard-Pressed Democrats (15%; Solid Liberals except for their stance on immigration.) Expect these four issues (gay rights, social safety-net programs, the environment, and immigration) to be the top issues for the foreseeable future; but while this is what politicians will be talking about, it won't be bringing us any closer to a change in the party system.
Trying to use transitions from before the civil war as a model works no better. There is simply no issue that compares to slavery in its level of importance to voters and its ability to split both major parties. I've written before about how copyright brought me here, but while it is one of many issues which can draw support from voters for both major parties, it is also one of many issues which is not important enough to enough people to build a new, successful, major party on.
The odds don't seem any better for a "centrist" party to rise up in the current environment; if anything, groups in the middle disagree with each other more than the groups on the wings. For instance, Disaffecteds and Post-Moderns are opposed over the same issues that the Republicans and Democrats are, but while they take opposing issues on welfare from their "host" party, they still disagree with each other completely. The same with Libertarians and New Coalition Democrats over gay rights. An attempt could be made to build a pro-gay anti-welfare centrist party out of Post-Moderns and Libertarians (I read their blog), or an anti-gay pro-welfare centrist party out of Disaffecteds and New Coalition Democrats (does such a group exist?), but there is a huge systemic bias against centrist parties, and the Pew report doesn't show anywhere near enough strength for such a group to have any chance to unseat one of the two major parties.
If you accept the fact that we really do have a two-party system, and you should, then you have to accept that issues, and how the issues are tied to parties, and how the issues and the parties are tied to voters, creates an incredible knot of inertia and rigidity in the political system. And currently, that system does not seem to be near any sort of tipping point. So keep hammering away at it, you 73% of voters who disagree with the major parties on at least one critical issue; your moment isn't here yet, but maybe in another eight years, it could be.
That, or you could throw your support behind better election methods, like approval voting and score voting, which allow better support for third parties and for multiple-issue-driven campaigns; then at least we could at least argue about the issues, instead just the "two" parties.