Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part IV

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

One Roosevelt, Red Roosevelt

Before we get to the next big switch, at little aside about a failed attempt to shift the two-party system: Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressive party. Having ascended to the presidency due to William McKinley's assassination, and then having won the 1904 election, he felt the honorable thing to do (and TR considered himself to be a paragon of honor) was to count that as his two terms and, as was tradition (but not, at the time, law), follow in Washington's footsteps by not seeking a third term. William Howard Taft took the nomination, and was easily elected.

But then the trouble started. Roosevelt found Taft to be unacceptable in office, and pressed for the party nomination in 1912. But he was rebuked by Taft's supporters; humiliated and unwilling to compromise, Roosevelt and his supporters walked out, and formed their own party, the Progressive or Bull Moose party. The new party seemed to survive solely by Roosevelt's force of personality, and had little if any appeal for staunch Democrats, and none for any Taft-supporting Republicans. At this point, Republicans were enjoying a rather solid and comfortable 55/45 or better advantage in Presidential elections; but the Progressives split the party almost completely down the middle. The final popular vote totals were 27.4% for Roosevelt and 23.2% for Taft; a total of more than 50%, but individually, both lost to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson's 41.8%, and by an absolute landslide in the electoral college: 88 for Roosevelt, to 8 for Taft, to 435 for Wilson.

Roosevelt apparently learned his lesson though; in 1916, when the Progressive party nominated him again, he declined, and endorsed the Republican candidate; Wilson won reelection, but only narrowly. But Roosevelt's contrition placated his party well enough that he was the front runner for the 1920 nomination; cut short only by a quick but fatal illness.

The lesson from this aside should be obvious: if all you do is split your party, you'll both lose. Neither the Republicans nor the Progressives got any appreciable support from Democratic voters. To succeed, a third party needs to divide, and then build from the pieces, a coalition from both (or as we saw in part I, the only) existing major parties. And it's not enough to build "in the middle", as Roosevelt tried; you have to be completely outside the axis of partisan identification.

Two Roosevelt, Blue Roosevelt

On to today's transition, from the fourth party system to the fifth. Economic recessions had helped usher in the previous realignment, by instigating the Populist party and the silver faction of the Democrats. And economics would play in a big way for this one as well. Yes, we're talking about the Great Depression. But there's not a whole lot to say. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Herbert Hoover insisted that he and the Republicans had it under control; but three years later, not many believed him. Instead, the put their trust in Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Teddy's 5th cousin.)

So, there's that option: hope that unbelievable economic devastation will be wrought upon the nation, and that you'll be there to pick up the pieces. Not a particularly uplifting or proactive strategy (at least I hope no one would try to cause such a thing), but one that we've seen can work.

It's also important to note that this shift didn't involve the rise of any new party (not even an analog to the aborted Populist party), only a drastic shift in support from one major party (which had dominated national politics for decades) to the other. Third parties did enjoy a startling increase in support after the crash, but not enough to even act as spoilers. Was it because of the homogenizing effect of modern communications, making what would have been strong regional third-party movements into a more diffuse national movement? Was it FDR himself, something about him that drew would-be third-party supporters to the Democrats? Or perhaps we had simply become more savvy about the inevitability of a two-party system under our spoiler-prone voting system?

Whatever it was, like the voters Bryan had brought (and driven from) the Democrats at the turn of the century, the voters FDR brought also stuck around; the New Deal Coalition, were reliable not just for FDR, but for Democrats in many elections to follow, up until the late 1960s; which may (or may not have, depending which historians you ask) have represented another realignment of the party system. But we'll discuss that next time.

Part V...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part III

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

One is Silver and the Other's Gold

Compared to the dramatic backdrop of civil war that carried America from the second party system to the third, the transistion from the third to the fourth seems mundane and almost alien (except maybe to some Libertarians); but the effect it had on US politics is no less imporant. It was about coinage; specifically, about moving the US from a currency based around gold as a standard, to one using silver. As with the concerns of slavery in the previous transistion, both major parties were internally split on the issue. But in the 1890s, mid-western silver miners (mostly Republicans), as well farmers who saw inflation as a way out of recession-caused debts (mostly Democrats), finding no outlet for their political aims, began building a coalition, which quickly grew into the Populist party. In 1892, the Populist nominated James Weaver for president... and promply spoiled the election for the Republicans, allowing Grover Cleveland's unprecedented (and unrepeated) non-consecutive presidential terms. (In addition to the 22 electoral votes Weaver won outright, he may have tipped the balance in states worth an additional 69 of the 444 available electoral votes.)

But the story doesn't end there. In 1896, pro-silver Democrats seized control of the party, denounced Cleveland, and successfully nominated William Jennings Bryan, who delived his famous "Cross of Gold" speach; the Populist party jumped on the opportunity and nominated him for their candidate as well. But what was more surprising was that the Silver Republican party, who had split from the Republicans over the silver issue, also supported Bryan. Meanwhile the gold faction of the Democrats, dejected over the result of the convention, nominated their own candidate, although he received practically no votes; instead, many gold Democrats voted for Republican candidate William McKinley. The end result was that many Republicans ended up voting for the Democratic ticket, and many Democrats voted for the Republican ticket, all over currency.

Bryan and his silverites lost, and even the silver issue itself fell by the wayside as economic prosperity returned. But the new coalitions formed in the leadup to the election lingered on, and solidified the supports of both parties. This would lead to decades of almost completely uninterrupted Republican rule.

So we see the same strategy repeated from before: Pick an issue ignored by the major parties, and run on it. The important lesson here is, it doesn't always work, at least not necessarily like you planned. Even though a major party picked up the issue, they lost the election, and the movement died out. Slavery had been an important issue in America since before the Constitution was written; maybe the gold standard just isn't something that captures the hearts and minds of voters, or maybe Bryan only picked up the silver issue to gain votes? Either way, pick your issue, and your allies, carefully.

Part IV...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part II

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

Choosing Not To Choose

When we left off, the Democratic and Whig parties were the components of the second party system. The two were nearly-equally popular in all parts of the country; north, south, and the newly-forming west. And so, both had to take care not to take sides in any regional conflicts, as that could cost them an election. Only one problem: the most important issue in the country, the focus of every debate and every headline, pitted north against south. Slavery. Neither party would take a stance on the issue. Democrats in the north were opposed, by needed the assistance of the slavery-dependent farm-owning Democrats in the south to win elections, and the story was similar for the Whigs. Everyone in America had a strong view on the issue, but with the axis of party alignment completely skew to it, it seemed a resolution on the issue would be impossible. The Whigs cracked first. Arguments over their party nomination in 1852 (and their subsequent loss in the election) shattered the party. Early in 1854, former Whigs began meeting as newly-minted Republican, Know-Nothing, and other party members.

In 1856, it was the Democrats chance for a nomination fight, settling on northerner-with-southern-sympathies, James Buchanan. That sympathy (and a southern running mate) was enough to defeat the clearly north-favoring Republican (as well as the border state Know-Nothing) candidate. As president, Buchanan's refusal to act or even speak out decisively about the rising calls for secession turned the whole nation against him, and in 1860, the Democratic party broke in half over the nomination of his replacement. The southern faction walked out, held their own convention, and nominated Buchanan's vice-president, John Breckinridge. The northern faction proceeded alone, and nominated Stephen Douglas, although many members left to join with the Republican party instead. A few border and western states, desperate to avoid war, combined the Know-Nothings with the few remaining (and still unaligned) former Whigs to create the short-lived Constitutional Union party, and nominated John Bell. The Republicans settled on a former Whig congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

The election was brutally close. Republican's didn't even bother to get on the ballot in 9 southern states. In three of the states Lincoln won—California, New York, and Oregon—he received less than half of the popular vote; in California, he received less than one third. Had he lost New York—where his margin of victory was less than seven and a half percent—then no candidate would have had the required electoral vote majority and the election would have been decided in the House. All told, Lincoln received a smaller percentage of the popular vote—39.8%—than Walter Mondale did in his 1980 landslide loss to Ronald Reagan.

Before Lincoln could even be sworn in, the Civil War had begun. When it was over, the Republican and Democratic parties would be the two to emerge from the ashes, nominally the same two parties we have today; although a lot has changed between then and now.

So, what do we learn from this? Another way to disrupt the two-party system is to find an issue both major parties are split over, so strongly that you can cause nomination fights in both in rapid succession. Then, while the parties fracture you can promote one of the pieces as your new third party, building it on a coalition from both parties that support your issue. Abusing the weaknesses of plurality election with more than two strong candidates, as well as the specifics of electoral rules, you can game the system just enough to slip your unpopular candidate in to office. But watch out for war. This is painful lesson on the inevitable, almost predictably periodic failures of a two-party system. The important issues were ignored in order to secure electoral victories, and they were ignored because they fell outside the domain that served to originally define the existing major parties. A new party was necessary in order to address the issue, but the two-party system held back its emergence, until it burst forth, violently.

On to Part III!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part I

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

Back in June, Bill Maher was railing about the lack of options in the voting both, hyperbolically pointing out that "We don't need a third party, we need a first party." (Exaggeration aside, what he meant was we desperately need third parties.) He then went on to describe his ideal platform and driving principles for such a third party. Oh, if only such a thing as he desired existed! The thing is, what he described does exist. But Maher's complaint echoes often. Everyone seems to be asking, "Why doesn't someone start a third party that matches my goals?" And the answer, when one if given, is often the same: "Someone has."

For instance, most people—even those clamoring for "a new third party"—don't even realize how many candidates there were for president in 2008. Sure, everyone knows about Obama and McCain. But there were four other candidates who were on the ballot in enough states that they could potentially get the necessary 270 electoral votes to win. There were eight more who were on the ballot in at least one state. And there are dozens more parties in the country that didn't nominate a presidential candidate last election, but have recently nominated candidates for other offices. The problem, therefore, is not simply a lack of choices.

Bill Maher knows the Green party exists. But he also knows that they don't matter. It's a two-party system, and when people are railing how "someone" should just make a new party, what they really are crying out for is a change in the two-party system. The way I see it, there are two ways to meet that goal: the one I advocate for is a spoiler-free election method, which I believe would, by avoiding Duverger's Law, cause and end to a two-party dominated system. The other? History.

A Brief History of Political Parties in the United States

To know where you're going, first you have to know where you've been. Since the 1960s, political history in the US has been examined through a framework called the "party system", numbering periods of stability, separated by short spans of realignment. In other words, the times when the two parties at the forefront of American politics changed. There have been at least five such stable periods. There is debate to whether we are still in the fifth or are now in the sixth; or perhaps we are in an unstable realignment period, in which case the lessons to be learned are all-the-more valuable. (The following are chock-full of Wikipedia links, and I encourage you to read up on aspect which you find particularly interesting.)

First Cabinet Fight through Nomination Failure

The first party system, which solidified early in George Washington's first term from disagreements between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, ended when, after twelve years of one party rule (Hamilton's Federalist party having become irrelevant after the War of 1812), the Democratic-Republican party split over a failure to settle on a single nominee for president in 1824, and so four candidates split the electoral vote. One faction, backing Andrew Jackson (who had led the popular vote and the electoral vote, but lost the election (if you thought Democrats were pissy about Al Gore, you ain't seen nothin')), became the Democratic party (from which the modern Democratic party draws its lineage). The other faction, backing John Quincy Adams and made up of many former members of the Federalist party and some long-time D-R members who opposed Jackson for their own reasons, became the National Republican Party (no relation to the modern party), which shortly reorganized as the Whig party.

So that's one way to shift the two-party system that's been shown to work; take an existing major party in wide-spread popular decline, resign to 12 years of defeat, during which you infiltrate the opposition, then use parliamentary shenanigans to exacerbate "intra"-party resentment, and be re-born with a slightly new direction. This also perfectly highlights one of the big drivers of the two-party systems: when there are more than two strong candidates, vote-splitting leads to unexpected (and unpopular) results.

More to Come in Part II!