In his very thoughtful analysis of the 2016 election, Sidney M. Milkis asserts that “the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee and his election as President have been the equivalent of a political weapon of mass destruction.” Milkis laments this as the culmination of a divisive partisanship in which “candidates not only differ on principles and policies but also challenge the opponent’s very legitimacy,” and implores Americans to demand that politics return to the level of principles by acknowledging our common political inheritance, a common ground that transcends parties. There is, however, another way to think about the national predicament: the two extant political parties, in their current incarnation, do not adequately represent the American electorate. This election could be understood as the beginning of a realignment of partisan politics, reflecting the divisions that exist in the nation.
If the present state of things is unnerving, it is at least not unprecedented. At the outset of the 20th century, American politics was dominated by two parties with familiar names: Republicans and Democrats. The parties were at the zenith of their influence, and the country was almost evenly divided between them. America, however, was on the verge of a fundamental transformation, for this was the beginning of the Progressive Era, a time of new ideas about rights and role of government, an era of reform, and a challenge to the existing political order.
During the Progressive Era, moreover, it was unclear which of the two parties, or if either, would emerge as the Progressive party. Each had a Progressive and a conservative wing coexisting with one another, for a generation or more. The Progressive Party, which emerged briefly as a force in the 1912 election, and which Professor Milkis chronicles in Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009), was largely a splinter faction of the Republican Party. Democrats preferred to stay with their party, causing the election of Woodrow Wilson.
This has an unusual ring in contemporary ears, for if any party today were to be regarded as the Progressive party, it would be the Democrats. This reality, however, is the product of the transformation of the party system engendered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The latter Roosevelt set in motion the modern alignment of the party system by intentionally reshaping the Democratic Party as the Progressive, liberal party, and in time, the GOP emerged as a conservative alternative. FDR’s realigning work and its consequences are the subject of Professor Milkis’ seminal 1993 book, The President and the Parties.
The realignment was possible because the fractured parties of the Progressive Era could not permanently endure. The Progressive and conservative factions in each party were in constant tension, as seen in incidents like the Palace Revolt of 1910 in the House of Representatives, and FDR’s unsuccessful 1938 purge campaign against conservative Democrats. Despite efforts to argue that Progressivism is consistent with the American Founding, such as John Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action (1935), there remains an unbridgeable gap between the natural law and natural rights philosophy of the Founding and the historicism of the Progressives—between the limited government, separation of powers constitutionalism of the Founders and what Milkis calls the “liberal administrative state.” Eventually, over a period of decades, the parties realigned themselves into their present form: one avowedly Progressive, the other anti-Progressive.
It is distinctly possible that American politics is today undergoing another realignment. The Allied victory in World War II saw the emergence of a bipartisan ruling class in America, which persists to this day. Initially diagnosed by the sociologist C. Wright Mills in his 1956 book The Power Elite, the ruling class drew criticism from Left and Right alike. Richard Flacks, a leader of the New Left in the 1960s, labeled it “liberal corporatism,” which is to say, a center-conservative arrangement wherein the established political and economic elites make all the important decisions amongst themselves in a way that protects their own privileged position.
At about that time, Ronald Reagan characterized the problem of American politics (in his famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing”) this way:
Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
Today, that criticism emanates from an array of observers as diverse as Angelo Codevilla, Thomas Frank, and Joel Kotkin.
The undue influence of an elite class is nothing new. It was the impetus for the creation of the first American political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, and the modern party system itself during the Jacksonian period. James Madison argued in his Party Press essays that the reason for the establishment of the Republican Party was that the plain people required an organization, through which their voices could be heard and their numerical strength translated into effective political action. The anti-republicans, as he termed the Federalists, were a faction: their common interest in benefiting from government power and largesse, and their relatively small numbers, meant that they did not need the vehicle of a party to be effective, so long as they could prevent the people from organizing and feeling their own strength.
Martin Van Buren, founder of the Democratic Party during the Jacksonian era, succinctly articulated the problem:
Constructed principally of a network of special interests,—almost all of them looking to Government for encouragement of some sort,—the feelings and opinions of its members spontaneously point in the same direction, and when those interests are thought in danger, or new inducements are held out for their advancement, notice of the apprehended assault or promised encouragement is circulated through their ranks with facility always supplied by the sharpened wit of cupidity. . . . Sensible of these facts, the policy of their leaders has been from the beginning to discountenance and explode all usages or plans designed to secure party unity, so essential to their opponents and substantially unnecessary to themselves.
The fundamental aim, of both Madison and Van Buren, was to secure for the people a vehicle through which they could coordinate their activities and thereby secure republican government against a powerful minority faction.
The modern ruling class forms the nucleus of a “court party,” to borrow a phrase from 18th century British politics that was used by those out of power to describe those in power. Composed of several seemingly disparate groups, the ruling class includes those with political or economic power, such as elected officials, regulators, journalists, academics, corporation executives, and the very rich.
Additionally, however, support for the ruling class may also be found among those who are the beneficiaries of government largesse, including government employees and the recipients of transfer payments from programs as diverse as Social Security, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
The “court party” also includes numerous non-monetary beneficiaries, such as women and minorities covered by affirmative action programs, the LGBT community, which seeks to use the power of the modern state to impose its definition of freedom on the country, and activist groups like the Sierra Club and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Large corporations disproportionately benefit from trade agreements, bailouts, and a regulatory system that protects them from the vicissitudes and competition of the free market.
Finally, the modern “court party” is globalist in its orientation. Many elites regard themselves less as citizens of their country and more as “citizens of the world” (a concept recently ridiculed by British Prime Minister Theresa May and commented upon by Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle). They plan the world’s future in exotic locales like Davos and Kyoto. Economic elites also benefit from the other face of “court party” globalism: rejection of national sovereignty and the restrictions it imposes on mass migration. The free flow of peoples across national borders has won the support of a seemingly unnatural coalition of social justice activists and large corporations. This is more easily understood when one realizes what each gains by mass immigration: The Left obtains new supporters at election time, and large corporations obtain cheap labor for their operations. Like Madison’s anti-republicans, the constituent groups of the “court party” hope to turn the state and its policies to their particular advantage.
On the other side—and again, borrowing from British political history—one finds a “country party” comprised of Madison’s plain people: the middle and working classes, predominantly though not exclusively white, and conservative Christians. They are characterized by their lack of a privileged position within the system, lack of immediate access to the levers of power, and the fact that they benefit little from the existing arrangement, nor do they actively seek such preferment. They are also nationalistic; not in the sense of the ethnic, romantic nationalism that upended Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but in the sense that America is a sovereign nation that is different and better than other nations, and that the interest of American citizens lies in preserving American sovereignty and the American identity.
Although the ruling class is bipartisan, it finds a more natural home, thanks to the work of Franklin Roosevelt and others, in the modern Democratic Party. Roosevelt consciously sought to reorient the Democratic Party around support for the administrative state, its organization, programs, and principles. Consequently, today’s Democratic Party is avowedly the party of the liberal administrative state. That state, and the welfare state that accompanies it, are so large and complex that they require a ruling class to administer them.
Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 essay, “The Study of Administration” contained a pioneering description of who would man such a state: “A body of thoroughly trained officials serving during good behavior we must have in any case: that is plain business necessity.” Moreover, although these were to be independent experts within their area of jurisdiction, they could not be neutral about Progressivism. The Progressive intellectual Herbert Croly maintained that the expert, “as the custodian of a certain part of the social program, he must share the faith upon which the program depends for its impulse.” Around the administrative state and its ruling class are arrayed the constellation of interests which benefit from it. These are the core constituencies of the modern Democratic Party.
The “court party” element of the GOP reposes far less easily within that party than does the corresponding element on the Democratic side. The dominant impulse of ordinary Republicans is suspicion of the ruling class, disdain for its retainers, and opposition to the administrative state, which they regard as corrupt and tyrannical. They look with derision upon continual attempts to redefine freedom in a way that obscures the distinction, so clear to America’s Founding Fathers, between liberty and license.
For moral or economic reasons, or both, they do not seek the expansion of government largesse, and are resentful of the administrative state’s ever-increasing intrusion into their personal and business affairs, however much they may like some particular program that benefits them. They are also more nationalistic in the sense of being traditionally patriotic, more convinced that America is “the last best hope of earth,” more concerned about the transformation of the country through mass immigration, and more likely to be convinced that the global economy has been created at their expense. Regardless of their own party’s elites, rank-and-file Republicans are opposed to the liberal administrative state.
In 2016, the most consequential division was not between Democrats and Republicans but between the “court party” and the “country party” of whatever formal affiliation. There was a general dismay at the cronyism of bailouts and the stimulus package, a regulatory state with its tentacles in every aspect of individuals’ lives, trade deals that benefit multinational corporations, mass immigration, the imposition of same-sex marriage on a nation that had voted overwhelmingly against it, and the passage and subsequent sustaining by the Supreme Court of the Affordable Care Act.
The parties nominated candidates who reflected this non-partisan or trans-partisan divide, with the GOP captured by its “country party” wing but the Democratic Party unwilling to give a genuine voice to its “country party” wing.
Donald Trump won by portraying himself as a man who understood the concerns of the “country party.” His signature issues included opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, open immigration, and the acceptance of large numbers of refugees, foreign policy adventurism, and the general attitude of unconcern for the needs of the “country party.” One by one, his Republican competitors fell by the wayside as they came to be perceived by GOP primary voters as too tied to the establishment. In the general election, Trump convinced large numbers of “country party” Democrats, particularly from the Midwest, to vote for him. This was evident in election night returns from rural and working class counties in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which all flipped from Democratic in 2012 to Republican in 2016.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was arguably the embodiment of the ruling class. Republicans highlighted the expensive speeches she gave to private gatherings of Wall Street financiers, a popular target for anti-establishment sentiment this election year. During and after her tenure as Secretary of State, she employed the Clinton Foundation as a vehicle for influence-trading with foreign governments. She defeated a challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), whose criticism of cronyism and the ruling class was in some ways similar to Trump’s. The way defeated Sanders reflected her ruling-class status. Thanks to the Democrats’ super-delegate system, Clinton could lose a give state’s primary in a state yet secure most of its delegates. The establishment media and the Democratic Party colluded with Clinton to help her prevail in the primary debates. She had the active backing of many celebrities, corporate executives, and media outlets. These same institutions overwhelmingly backed Clinton against Trump in the general election, as did the clientele groups of the liberal administrative state.
This realignment theory is not without difficulties. The first and most obvious is that Election 2016 may be an anomaly, a product of particular circumstances and the candidates themselves. Trump’s electoral coalition may prove evanescent. The Republican Party has a strong ruling-class component that might reassert control. Then, too, working class Democrats could return to the Democratic fold, and the demographic trends upon which Democrats pin so much hope may yet work in their favor. These factors are mitigated, though, by the fact that the administrative state will likely still be here in four years. Even the most thoroughgoing reforms would take time, assuming that they are implemented at all. The basis, therefore, for “country party” resistance should perdure.
A more immediate problem lies in ascertaining what will become of those groups that do not fit neatly into the “court party” versus “country party” framework. Some are easier to assess than others. It is very possible that the neoconservative movement, for instance, will drift back to the party and politics of Franklin Roosevelt. There are already indications of this. Recently the neoconservative editor Bill Kristol coauthored a declaration with William Galston of the Brookings Institution calling for a return to the “vital center” of New Deal liberalism.
Another group consists of core supporters of Bernie Sanders, such as millennials, who are hostile to Clinton-style Democratic politics but certainly not conservative. Eventually, young Americans must reconcile themselves to the idea of a ruling class given that their expectations require the liberal administrative state, which in turn requires the existence of a ruling class. This was the incongruity of Sanders’ campaign: Opposition to the ruling class was the campaign’s motive force, but Sanders advocated more of what created the problem in the first place—more regulations, more bureaucracy, more redistribution of wealth.
Finally, there is a group of conservatives whom one might call “Garrisonian Republicans,” after the radical abolitionist leader. This group is dominated by public intellectuals and pundits such as George Will, Robert George, David French, Ross Douthat, Glenn Beck, Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, and Max Boot, and conservative Christian leaders like John Piper, Russell Moore, Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, and Albert Mohler. All were unable to bring themselves to support Trump, even as the lesser of two evils, citing his moral turpitude, his lack of conservative bona fides, or both. The alternative, Hillary Clinton, would have been unpalatable to these conservatives under any other circumstances. It will be most interesting to see how they reconcile themselves to Trump, even if only on an issue-by-issue basis. They will certainly find parts of Trump’s presidency appealing, such as his promise to roll back Obamacare or to appoint conservative justices.
Professor Milkis closes with an appeal to Americans to rediscover the “common ground” of the Declaration of Independence that unites us, and his point is well-taken. He refers to Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address in making this appeal, but it would also be helpful to look to Lincoln’s House Divided Speech. In it Lincoln describes a nation, founded on a moral principle, which is driven to the brink of destruction because half of the country has abandoned that principle. Lincoln said that a situation in which half the nation believed in the principles of the Declaration and the other half rejected them could not persist indefinitely: “it must become all one thing or all the other.”
Today the common ground to which Milkis appeals is no common ground at all, because a significant portion of the country has rejected it. The liberal administrative state, and the principles of the Founding as expressed in the Declaration, are mutually exclusive and incompatible. Government of, by, and for the people cannot be reconciled with government by a ruling elite for the sake of themselves and their retainers.
Since the earliest beginnings of the administrative state, America has been a house divided. As a nation based on a moral principle, this situation cannot obtain forever. Either the liberal administrative state will triumph and America will be fully converted to its principles, or we shall return to the principles of the American Founding. Election 2016 may turn out to have been a painful but necessary step in resolving the divided soul of the nation by making clear the issues that underlie the division.
In response to: The Future of Political Parties
Sidney Milkis represents the finest tradition of American political science. His research on the presidency and the parties has always been topnotch, and his broad understanding of political history gives his analysis of contemporary affairs special weight. Best of all, the University of Virginia’s White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics is interested in the big…
In his excellent Liberty Forum essay on party politics, Sidney Milkis mentions Richard Nixon’s role in shaping the party system that we have today. The point is worth exploring in more detail. President Nixon’s story tells us a great deal about where the parties have been since the middle of the 20th century, and whither…
I am very grateful to Richard Reinsch, the editor of Law and Liberty, for inviting me to write an essay on “The Future of Political Parties” and for enlisting three perspicacious critics to respond to it. It is gratifying that my frantic attempt to place the madcap events of 2016 in historical perspective resulted in…