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The Perpetually Collapsing Political Parties

The conventional wisdom see-saws again; now the Democrats are supposed to be doomed.

It has become a tradition in American politics to greet each party's reversals of fortunes by proclaiming that it has been smashed beyond any short-term repair, perhaps even reduced to "permanent minority" status. This week we've seen just how quickly the conventional wisdom can see-saw: After a year of editorials about the decimated state of the GOP, suddenly we've started seeing takes like this:

PoliticoPolitico

And this:

VoxVox

And you can see why! The Republicans now control Congress, the White House, and a majority of state governments, and they are about to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. The Democrats' political operation has turned out to be as hollow as a triple-A rating from Moody's in 2006. As the old cliché goes, the Dems are in disarray.

Thomas NastThomas NastBut so are the Republicans. Donald Trump won the GOP nomination because the party had slipped from its gatekeepers' grasp, and he broke with normal political behavior by continuing to blast away at his Republican rivals even after accepting the nomination. It wouldn't be true to say that he owes nothing to the party establishment—the RNC certainly gave him crucial on-the-ground assistance at the end of the campaign—but he won the election on his own terms and clearly doesn't feel obliged to pay obeisance to anyone. He could conceivably decide to focus on the issues that interest him and let the usual Republican suspects set the agenda for everything else; he could just as conceivably treat Paul Ryan (or Ryan's successor) as the head of another opposition party.

And Trump himself is vulnerable to the same sort of storm that propelled him into office. You younger readers may not know this, but in the long-ago days of 2015 Ted Cruz was seen as a bomb-throwing radical challenging the centers of Republican power. Now the GOP grassroots write him off as a Goldman Sachs puppet who tried to derail the Trump Train. If Cruz and other onetime Tea Party insurgents are already being decried as an old order to be blown aside, Trump may someday find himself in the crosshairs too. Live by the uprising, die by the uprising.

So the Republicans clearly have the upper hand in government, but the Republican Party remains weak, in the sense of not having an orderly, hierarchical structure that can keep everyone in line. The Democratic Party looks pretty weak too—and now that Trump has shown how much of a paper tiger a party's gatekeepers can be, it's entirely possible that a Trump figure will soon arise on the Dems' side of the aisle as well.

These aren't predictions, mind you. Trump could face an insurgency, or he could remake the party in his image. The Democrats could find themselves nominating Bernie Sanders or Kanye West or a sentient Facebook meme, or they could clear the way for yet another grey old pol from the club. The point is how fragile those edifices of party power are, and how much uncertainty that entails. (And how much pure contingency too. If this election had been held a month earlier, maybe Hillary Clinton would be president-elect and the Republicans would be getting bombarded with these your-party-is-a-goner analyses.)

YouTubeYouTubePerhaps this is the kind of unstable situation that just isn't tenable, and the two-party system will eventually break down. You can certainly see signs of dissatisfaction with it: record numbers of people identifying as independents, the strongest third-party results in 20 years, the very fact that a former independent with no institutional loyalty to the GOP can sweep in to take the Republican nomination and then the presidency. If more jurisdictions follow Maine's lead and adopt more pluralistic voting systems, we might finally get a party system that doesn't try to squeeze everybody into just two categories.

Or maybe not. Maine's new ranked-voting system looks attractive, but Maine is just one state. The rest of us still have a first-past-the-post system that seems to gravitate naturally toward a two-party setup whether or not those parties are institutionally strong. There's a lot of churning in the history of American politics. The parties might just keep remaking themselves, incrementally or not, in a perpetual process of reinvention that only feels like constant collapse.

Photo Credit: Thomas Nast

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  • RBS||

    this is not a typical election and Trump is not a typical president-elect. His victory itself is, in some ways, a type of assault, and people are right to feel upset about the type of behavior that has been deemed acceptable in a public figure.
  • Citizen X||

    people are right to feel upset about the type of behavior that has been deemed acceptable in a public figure

    Sure. People who don't remember Clinton, or Nixon, or LBJ, or...

  • ant1sthenes||

    Well, gosh, then I guess you're justified in beating the shit out of Trump voters, or people who are probably Trump voters because they look suspiciously white, middle-aged, and unhip. It's just, like, retroactive self-defense.

  • JayU||

    Die!

  • Crusty Juggler||

    No!

  • Free Society||

    Death threat? Is this what Trump's America looks like?!?!?!? *faints*

  • RBS||

    Well, in Trump's America, death threats are to be expected.

  • Zero Sum Game||

    Quickly scoots fainting couch beneath Free Society before he hits the floor.

    Would you like to attend the Reason cry-in? How about some therapy? Are you in school and need to take some time? We'll cancel exams if you need it.

    Would you like a binky? Is your diaper full? Who's a good little boy? Peek-a-boo. Ub-ub-ub-ub-ub. Oh, you just love tickles don't you? It's time for a bath and nappy time.

    ...
    ...
    ......uuuuuuugh.

    Fuck. I'm never performing a seance again. I didn't know you could channel the spirit of a proggie so soon after the suicide.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yes, always dying the parties are.

    Slightly off topic, but the LP for my county published a local list of endorsements this election. That's a good idea, even though most of the candidates were GOP (with a couple of Dems and LPers).

  • BakedPenguin||

    That is a good idea. After Johnson & Stratton? (LP Senate candidate for FL), I left a lot blank until I got to the amendments.

  • Gadfly||

    I think it would be interesting if the third parties made a push to repeal the laws against fusion voting, and in states where it is legal they could use it as a more forceful way to show the support they carry when they want to endorse a major party candidate. Fusion voting could also allow for coalitions of a sort, if it became widespread: a candidate for president who won using the votes from multiple party lines would know where the loyalties of his supporters lay and could divvy up his cabinet proportionally to make sure every faction responsible for his election had a say in Washington.

  • Pay up, Palin's Buttplug!||

    I noticed the other day that Trump was nominated for both the Republican and American Independents the other day and suggested the LP use the tactic of nominating a major party candidate for President or governor in order to obtain major party status and gain ballot access.

    Glad to know it has a name!

  • Robert||

    Gary Johnson got the great majority of his votes in NY on the Independence line rather than the Libertarian one.

  • Quincy Three||

    The Perpetually Collapsing Political Parties

    They can't perpetually collapse, can they? That would violate Einstein's 4th law of Thermos Dynamics.

    /Philomena Cunk

  • Bee Tagger||

    It's collapses all the way down, ya dope.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Popeye is that you? Olive Oyl's in trouble again!

  • Citizen X||

    The Democrats could find themselves nominating Bernie Sanders or Kanye West or a sentient Facebook meme

    I look forward to Pepe the Frog turning on his old ally Trump and challenging him in 2020.

  • The Fusionist||

    I keep laughing at these Pepe jokes.

  • Citizen X||

    Dicks out for Pepe!

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    Hell no, frogs eat worms.

  • MarkLastname||

    Uh, I thought that was the idea...

  • ||

    Your tears are delicious and your parties will die!

  • The Fusionist||

    Jesse Walker, Little Miss Sunshine.

  • GILMORE™||

    Republicans clearly have the upper hand in government, but the Republican Party remains weak, in the sense of not having an orderly, hierarchical structure that can keep everyone in line.

    From the POV of someone who puts a lot of faith in spontaneous order, i fail to see why 'lack of hierarchical structure' is necessarily 'weakness' or a problem.

    Re = "strength"... as you already note = they have total control of 33 state legislatures (compared to ....5 for democrats)... an almost equal number of governorships.... They have the white house and both houses of congress. That seems about as objective a measure of 'political strength' as i can imagine.

    I think the issue with the GOP is an "Identity crisis" more than anything. They're strong, but they don't know what they *are* (and maybe that's NOT a problem, because the party remains different things for different people - and always has)

    All they are is, "Not the Left". And that's not a terrible posture to have, given how bloody awful the left has become. Should a political party need more than that?

    I think the idea of the "new GOP" as a non-ideological miscellaneous bin where everyone unwilling to go along with the Left happens to get together and engage in modest-degrees of cooperation is probably fine by most voters. Most people aren't actually ideological (even many hardcore proggies are really just attracted by pathetic appeals)

  • SimonD||

    they have total control of 33 state legislatures (compared to ....5 for democrats)... an almost equal number of governorships.... They have the white house and both houses of congress. That seems about as objective a measure of 'political strength' as i can imagine.

    However, the Progressives own the bureaucracy and the judiciary, which could outweigh all of these things unless an actual liberty-minded government takes a metaphorical blowtorch to them (especially the bureaucrats).

  • GILMORE™||

    Sure.

    My point was that by traditional metrics of "strength", they're very strong. Whether you think those traditional metrics ("holding lots of offices") matter in a practical sense is a different issue.

    I also think the point here would be to distinguish between

    1) "party weakness" in terms of the popular support they ostensibly wield....and
    2) "party weakness" in terms of an absent/shallow ideological center, which provides them no clear guide about how they're actually supposed to *use* that power, and therefore keep that power.

    should they be tax-cutters/starve the beasters? or bureaucratic "fixers", aiming to reform institutions rather than eliminate them? or Proggy-lite? = like the way the "right" in the UK are. Basically, learn to love behemoth/leviathan, and just promise to run it better without all the identity-politics bullshit that the Left is so obsessed with.

  • Jesse Walker||

    From the POV of someone who puts a lot of faith in spontaneous order, i fail to see why 'lack of hierarchical structure' is necessarily 'weakness' or a problem.

    I mean that the party leaders are weak. I think the perpetual-churn idea at the end of the post speaks to the concept of parties that can renew themselves despite that.

  • LarryA||

    They have the white house and both houses of congress.

    Except the Republican Party doesn't control the White House. The Donald does.

    We still have split government.

  • JFree||

    Spontaneous order doesn't apply to deliberately organized associations like political parties. But I agree with you that the top-down measures of whether these are dying/not is misplaced. The Dems and Reps are the only two parties that have 'bottom-up' built into their organizations via the precinct/district system. The top-downers may ignore those folks, piss on them, try to restrict them, etc. But in the end, when the top-downers fail and bring everything crumbling around them, it's those precinct/district folks who rebuild it all again from the ashes.

    Those bottom-up associations are the sole remnants in politics of what de Toqueville marvelled at (civic associations). And they persist - and always will - because they are the only way for atomized individuals to influence the circumstances of their lives and not just the choices. We can choose our neighborhoods but not our neighbors. So we can either wander around the world/Internet looking for the GaltGulches and sites where everyone agrees with us and would do what we want. Or we can declare home is where we are - and work to make it the place we would choose.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    So I thought I was well sated on prog tears, but then I realized my craving was not fully satisfied, because I haven't seen Bill Maher's reaction yet. Has he had any sort of public excretion on the election yet?

  • ATXChappy||

    Oh yea, that could be really delicious. He's live tonight right?

  • ||

    Bill Maher has basically admitted that it was wrong to call McCain and Romney racists and rapists who would sacrifice black babies on nights of the full moon because then no one took him seriously when he "correctly" said the same things about Trump

  • Sevo||

    Seen Tony to remind us how democracy is 100% valid and 50%+1 means you can enslave people?

  • ||

    Well, until 50%+1 produces an outcome he doesn't like, that is.

    California Proposition 8 (Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry) comes to mind.

  • ||

    Who remembers the Democratic telethons?


    In the 1970s, the Democratic party ran a series of annual telethons to pay back debts dating back to the 1968 election. They usually ran about 20 hours each and featured guest appearances from dozens of celebrities. The only problem is I've never found an account of what actually happened in these telethons. Were they mostly speeches? Was the entertainment similar to other telethons, or was they somehow politically oriented? Do you remember any specific stars, and has anything been saved on video?


    IIRC, these telethons started even before the McGovern debacle. I remember starting to watch one and one of the first speakers (who as my link notes were heavy with celebs) breathlessly saying something to the affect that if they couldn't raise enough money Democratic Party could disappear and that would be the end of the two party system.

    It's almost like everything else. At any time in America, what's happening now has happened before.

    It's almost like peoples political memories don't go back any further than the middle of the Bush II administration. Clinton, Reagan etc were all, like, last century.

  • ATXChappy||

    I think both parties are doomed, they just don't know it yet because the duopoly is so ingrained in people that they can't break out of it. To me it's reminiscent of cable or cell phones companies passing subscribers back and forth. People get fed up with one and switch to another, only to find out they are both pretty much the same and switch back to get that free cell phone or lower monthly rate. Lather, rinse, repeat. Once that third party seal is broken, team red and team blue are toast. The only question in my mind is, what does it take to show people that there really are more and better choices than the spares team red and team blue keep cramming down our throats.

  • SimonD||

    Perhaps, but with the winner-take-all system we have, it will soon become Team Purple and Team Teal with somewhat different coalitions, but the same authoritarian horse hooey.

  • ||

    Yes, the parties as they are now are doomed as they are. But they won't disappear, they'll just evolve into something different, they way the Democrats evolved from Cleveland's 19th century liberalism (free trade* and little or no economic regulation**) thru the populism of William Jennings Bryan to Woodrow Wilson's Progressivism.

    *low or no tariffs.

    **this was left to the states where in many cases the local Democratic machines took advantage of all the regulatory authority and police powers they could muster and of course all the opportunities for graft, corruption and patronage that attended that authority power (Republican machines did the same).

  • Pay up, Palin's Buttplug!||

    Wasn't the Interstate Commerce Commission established under Cleveland?

  • ||

    Apparently, yes, it was.

    A fact which, may indicate that the Democrats began their populist/progressive drift a little earlier than the Cleveland administration.

    However, IIANM most historians consider Grover Cleveland to be the last of the 19th century liberal Democrats who held major office.

    Making generalizations involves drawing lines however blurry the actual dividing lines might be.

  • JFree||

    That demonizing and mischaracterization of 'political machines' is a canard of Progressives and elitists and other top-downers (including all idealists/ideologues - including libertarian). The reality is that the machines did not create the 'bosses' or give them uber-authoritarian power. Those were created by top-downers who wanted to deal with ONE person in an area - for 'efficiency' purposes. And who were unwilling to accept any notions from the bottom-up that they themselves could choose/rotate the office.

    It's a long-held difference in 'how to organize things' that in America dates back to the religious differences that created the different waves of colonial immigration from the English Civil War era and that was used to structure the Constitution as well.

    The Puritan/Congregational model - where congregations choose their ministers and there is little central/institutional control of doctrine.
    The Scottish/Presbyterian model - where congregations choose elders and elders run both the churches and doctrine.
    The Anglican/Episcopal/Catholic model - where head of church appoints bishops/priests who run diocese and theologians/etc who run doctrine.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Chicken Little always grows up to be a journalist.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    From the clowns in quite some time - my guess is they are plotting something big.

    If you see something say something. Keep your head on a swivel.

  • Princess Trigger||

    Don't they know these "The Duopoly Is Dying" stories give me libertarian chubby?

  • Not a Libertarian||

    But do Democrats really believe that their party is "doomed"? Any articles that raise as much are surely just exercises in coping with their unexpected loss. Demography | Destiny etc.

    While I am quite certain that there are many GOP Leaders who believe that their party is doomed; society is doomed. This comes from the pessimistic DNA of conservatism.

  • Not a Libertarian||

    On the other hand, perhaps the UK Labour party is doomed. Galloping left to electoral irrelevance (the Tories moving leftward to mop up centre-left voters; UKIP making inroads in northern working class; etc)

    Could the Democrats move so far left that they make themselves "unelectable"?

  • Invisible Finger||

    Weak political parties are the peoples' friend.

  • Bra Ket||

    Read the Yglesias article (for the schadenfreude), and it's not really fair to use as an example of chicken little. His point was only that Democrats got beat badly this election, losing influence almost across the board in govt from federal to states. But then he goes on to say:

    "The point here is not that the Democratic Party has suffered some kind of knockout blow from which it will never return. Every bad electoral defeat is overinterpreted by some circle of pundits as signaling the death knell for one party or the other, and the loser always comes back.
  • Jesse Walker||

    I know; I was highlighting the headline. (As I pretty much said in the post, I agree with a good deal of his article's argument—it's just I don't think the GOP's problems have gone away.)

  • David Emami||

    Recycled from a Facebook comment of mine, a few hours ago:

    Yeah, after almost any recent election, people are proclaiming the death of whichever party lost. Yet neither of them ever stay dead.

    1976 - Carter winning proved that Watergate doomed the GOP.
    1980 - Reagan winning proved that the Democrats were doomed because the GOP bounced back so fast after Watergate.
    1982 - The GOP was doomed because they lost so many Congressional seats so quickly after Reagan's landslide in 1980.
    1984 - Mondale getting eviscerated at the polls proved the Democrats were doomed. OK, this seemed plausible at the time.
    1988 - The Democrats were doomed because the GOP had now won three straight elections.

  • David Emami||

    ...

    1992 - The GOP was doomed because Bush lost even after having such huge approval rating due to winning the Gulf War.
    1994 - The Democrats were doomed because the Republicans had won back Congress for the first time in forever.
    1996 - The GOP was doomed because it couldn't turn their Congressional win into a Presidential win.
    2000 - The Democrats were doomed because Gore lost even though the economy was superficially doing well. (Not that Democrats want to admit he lost).
    2004 - The Democrats were doomed because they lost even though Bush had such low approval ratings.
    2006 - The GOP was doomed because the Democrats had taken back Congress and Bush's approval ratings were low.
    2008 - The GOP was doomed because Obama was the next Jesus.
    2010 - The Democrats were doomed because the Republicans took back Congress so quickly after losing it in 2006 and despite Obama being the next Jesus.
    2012 - The GOP was doomed because the Tea Party was dead and it hadn't enabled Romney to win.
    2014 - The Democrats were doomed because the Tea Party turned out not to actually be dead.
    2016 - The Democrats are doomed because they couldn't defeat Trump even though so many people hated him, and because their bench is so weak.

  • Nunya||

    No Gerald Ford? I has sad.

  • David Emami||

    My memory of political events doesn't go back that far.

  • 0x90||

    Yep. It's the internet, so it should be possible to search and find lots of extreme progressive gloating from 2008 on how the GOP was completely destroyed, forever, over, done, finished, never, ever coming back.

    You can find video of Libertarian Comedian Bill Maher saying, recently, how Romney wasn't so bad, McCain was an honorable foe, even W -- W! -- wasn't an actually evil fascist... and how they shouldn't have been demonized, because that was crying wolf, and that was a mistake, because this time -- THIS TIME -- it's different; THIS TIME it's for real, and if TRUMP gets in, he'll be president forever and ever and ever.

    Every time things flip, half of them get exactly what they deserve, and the other half forget that it had been their turn the time before, and will be, the time after.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Richard Nixon using the IRS to buy votes for the entrenched looter Kleptocracy is still the Law of the Land, and what pays for the single-party, two Kleptocracy system. But Gary's bagging all them spoiler votes is going to really help ditch a lot of crappy laws. I thought this was the best, most exciting and most productive election ever.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Howabout that. One Reason column debunks 6 months worth of Reason columns! Progress!

  • Ken Shultz||

    "the Dems are in disarray.

    But so are the Republicans. Donald Trump won the GOP nomination because the party had slipped from its gatekeepers' grasp, and he broke with normal political behavior by continuing to blast away at his Republican rivals even after accepting the nomination."

    I think Mr. Walker is missing the point that if the GOP is in disarray over Trump, it's because the GOP has been inundated with former Democrats--who are fleeing the progressive and social justice warriors in the Democratic Party.

  • MarkLastname||

    It seems curious that the two notable examples cited predicting dire times for the Dems seem to be Democrats. The cynic in me thinks this may be deliberate melodrama meant to drum up support in order to forestall Republican End Times.

    At this point, it must be clear to all but the most oblivious Republicans that the Dems not only are not on their way out, but are poised for a backlash that may exceed even 2008, depending on how bad Trump really turns out to be.

  • GoldenLibertarian||

    I think the first step to dismantling the two-party system is to introduce and implement ranked-choice voting (or "instant-runoff voting") into each of the states electoral system. This theory argues that ranked voting will promote candidates that appeal to a broad group of people rather than a typical divisive candidate with an already strong base. Maine championed this approach on a ballot measure this year and it was approved in a 52-48 percent margin.

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