The Future of Political Parties

Anyone witnessing the bellicose 2016 campaign would be hard pressed to envision a bright future for American political parties. American politics appears to be shaped currently by the paradoxical relationship between the decline of party organizations and angry partisanship—an unfiltered partisanship without parties, if you will, that has given rise to a contest between political opponents who not only disagree on principles but also deeply distrust their rivals’ motivations.

The Democratic Party was roiled by a 74-year-old Vermont senator, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” no less, who denigrated the rearguard of the party “establishment”—super delegates and the party professionals in the Democratic National Committee—as the purveyors of a “rigged system.” Not since Eugene Debs won six percent of the vote as the standard-bearer of the Socialist Party in 1912 has a self-proclaimed socialist candidate so disrupted American politics. Sanders, exploiting the forlorn state of contemporary party organizations, aggravated by the stubborn tumor of economic inequality, came surprisingly close to getting the nomination of one of America’s major parties.

Even though his “revolution” fell short, Sanders’ remarkable campaign had its impact on the election: Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were pushed far more to the left than would have been the case in the absence of Sanders. Perhaps the most important sign that the Democrats felt “the Bern” was Clinton’s embrace of a college plan that, by 2021, guaranteed families with incomes of up to $125,000 would pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities. And from the beginning, every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less would be able to go to an in-state, four-year public college or university without paying tuition. Clinton also promised to make all community colleges completely tuition-free and to slash interest rates for student loans provided by the government, “so the government never profits from college student loans.” This ambitious plan, which would have benefitted more than 80 percent of America’s families, envisioned a radical transformation of American higher education, especially considering that the nation’s public universities (like the University of Virginia, where I teach) are state institutions.

­­­Whereas the effect Sanders had was a surprise, 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. Just as the socialist Sanders tapped into deep economic insecurities, so Trump exploited the anxiety of many Americans—especially non-college white males—that they were losing their country due to massive demographic shifts in the population.

The dramatic growth of immigration has been the leading factor in this demographic transformation: foreign-born individuals now make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population. Like the battles over immigration at the turn of the 20th century, the border wars of our political time are aggravated by ethnic and racial tensions. Since 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed a landmark immigration law, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites has declined from 84 percent to 62 percent of the population. And if demographic projections play out, by the year 2043, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority. Although Trump’s candidacy has been fueled by the economic despair of a declining working class, a major factor in his success is the feeling of a large number of Americans that immigrants are responsible, not only for the country’s economic problems, but also for the terrible threat that “radical Islamic terrorism” poses to the security of the homeland.

As Bernie Sanders represented an unprecedented challenge from the Left, so Trump’s campaign represented the unprecedented influence of a populist rightwing strain in American politics. Previous embodiments of this strain—Huey Long in the 1930s, Charles Lindberg (the hero of the first America First movement) of the 1940s, Joseph McCarthy of the 1950s, and George Wallace of the 1960s—were disruptive figures. But none succeeded in capturing the presidential nomination of a major political party. Such rightwing populism has a strong tradition in Europe; there are parallels between Trump’s ascendency and the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom. But it is a bit startling to see this authoritarian tradition move from the margins of what was once thought to be a moderate constitutional republic to the mainstream of American politics.

So, how did a country that long has been praised (or criticized) for its pragmatism and centrist politics become roiled in a rancorous, polarizing campaign where the candidates offered such starkly different visions of America’s future? To a point, the sharp divisions can be attributed to very recent events—for example, the emergence of a new form of mass communication dominated by cable shows, social media, and the Internet—that has allowed insurgent candidates to severely challenge, or in Trump’s case conquer, the leaders and organizations of their parties. But developments that shaped the 2016 election have not been cut from whole cloth.

The contemporary battles between Republicans and Democrats represent the legacy of the breaking apart of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. famously called the “vital center” of American politics during the 1960s, that wild decade that transformed—and fractured—America. Until the late 1960s, the vital center was anchored in the development of the liberal administrative state, perhaps the most critical political development of modern American politics. The expansion of national administrative power—the rise of big government in a country that had stood out among other industrial nations for resisting it—followed from the idea at the heart of the New Deal. As Franklin Roosevelt argued throughout his long presidency, the Great Depression and World War II showed that the time had come for government, which was still dominated by local politics and a spoils system that supported a highly decentralized party system, to dedicate itself to social welfare programs and national security.

Imbedded in a modern executive office and a growing national bureaucracy during the presidencies of Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the liberal administrative state transcended partisanship. It was embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike in the aftermath of World War II. Dwight David Eisenhower, the first Republican President elected during the New Deal regime, bestowed bipartisan legitimacy on the liberal political order. Two years after his 1952 campaign victory, he pushed through Congress, with bipartisan cooperation, an expansion of Social Security. He extended the benefits administered by this signature program of the New Deal to many parts of the society that the initial statute passed in 1935 did not cover, most notably occupations like farm and domestic workers with large numbers of African Americans and women. Just as important, against the tide of Republican isolationists—led by “Mr. Republican,” Senator William Howard Taft (R-Ohio), who believed that the GOP’s commitment to limited constitutional government applied to foreign no less than to domestic policy—the popular “Ike” sustained Roosevelt and Truman’s commitment to liberal internationalism, which is to say the view that America and her allies (particularly in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) could be—must be—a force for good in the world.

This commitment to an executive-centered administrative state was further solidified by the programmatic commitments of New Deal liberalism. As FDR argued in his iconic State of the Union message of 1941, traditional freedoms like speech and religion needed to be supplemented by two new rights: “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.” These new freedoms, representing for all intents and purposes a second Declaration of Independence, were given institutional form by the welfare and national security states. The “Four Freedoms” speech ushered in a new understanding of rights, under which domestic programs like Social Security and international causes like the Cold War called not for partisanship, but for “enlightened administration” (as Roosevelt had described his aspirations in his 1932 Commonwealth Club address). The idea was that politics was now a search for pragmatic solutions to the challenging responsibilities that America had to assume, at home and abroad, in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.

The partisan rancor that roils contemporary politics, for all its ugliness, had its origins in idealistic, insurgent assaults from the Left and the Right during the 1960s against a by-then fatigued New Deal state that appeared to insulate American government from public accountability, and to encourage massive indifference in the face of festering problems that perpetuated gross injustice. Although many commentators who lament contemporary partisan rancor blame the Republicans for fracturing America, it was leftists, especially the leaders of the civil rights and antiwar movements, who first threw American politics “off center”—who rejected the working arrangements of the New Deal state for the compromises it made with racism, with corporate greed, and with the imperial or imperial-like policies it pursued under the banner of protecting global freedom.

Although the social activists’ and antiwar agitators’ alienation from the “establishment” would be tempered during the 1970s, their crusade against bureaucratic indifference was carried on by “public-interest” advocacy groups that aimed to thoroughly reform American political institutions. Remaking the executive branch, congressional institutions, and the courts, the activists extended liberalism’s New Deal emphasis on economic security to encompass social causes and programs in the areas of civil rights, immigration reform, environmental and consumer protection, and education.

Beyond these policy concerns, the “new” liberals transformed the presidential selection process. The convention system, which empowered local and state party leaders and national public officials to nominate presidential candidates, and had been a fixture of presidential politics since the Jacksonian era, was supplanted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by a candidate-centered, media-driven primary system. The Sanders insurgency and Trump’s nomination are inconceivable without the primary system’s having replaced the national party convention, and the party leaders that ran it, as the way we nominate contenders for the White House.

This transformation was on dramatic display in Cleveland this summer, with the dismal failure of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and “Never Trump” stalwarts to challenge the results of the Republican primaries. As the Never-Trumpers learned, conventions are no longer decisionmaking bodies where party leaders broker a nominee and a platform. Instead, they are political infomercials (or reality television shows) that highlight the candidate and his or her running mate. Donald Trump’s narcissistic convention—featuring mostly Trumps—may have marked a rather weird culmination of this candidate-centered event. But it is important to understand that Trump was taking advantage of developments that had been unfolding for nearly half a century, and have now been amplified by the rise of a new medium that the New York real estate magnate brilliantly exploited.

The rise of Trump reveals how the great awakening of the 1960s changed not only liberalism but conservatism. Conservative activists, too, scorned the vital center. In the wake of 1964’s insurgent presidential campaign, that of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), they joined the attack on party organizations. Viewing populist insurgency as a two-edged sword that could cut in a conservative as well as a liberal direction, they sought to expose the New Deal state for its failure to uphold private property, to protect “family” values, and to effectively fight communism. Consequently, by the late 1960s, the center had fallen apart and the frame of partisanship had been transformed.

First, the locus of party politics had shifted from the cities, counties, states, and the U.S. Congress to the Presidency. Tip O’Neill, the prominent Democratic Speaker of the House during the Reagan era, had famously said, “All politics is local,” but in fact by the end of Ronald Reagan’s two terms, that refrain had landed in the dustbin of history. Democrats and Republicans would come to depend on Presidents and presidential candidates to raise funds, mobilize grassroots support, articulate the party’s message, and advance party programs.

Second, by now Democrats and Republicans no longer fought over whether there should be a large national government, tasked with extensive responsibilities. The struggle that had dominated the Roosevelt years had been replaced by a battle for the services flowing from the national administrative state. Conservatives, no less than liberals, as the political scientist Hugh Heclo puts it, became “policy-minded,” and so they have remained. Put simply, even as the conservatives have embraced the national security state, transformed into the ubiquitous Homeland Security State in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001—freedom from fear—the liberals have devoted more attention to the welfare state—freedom from want.

But this battle over the meaning of security in a complex modern society went beyond material things. The great awakening of the 1960s also unleashed deep cultural conflicts—differences over what it means to be an American—that have played out over the course of the past five decades, and have come into full realization during the 2016 campaign. Liberals came to embrace a view of America that envisioned a cosmopolitan, pluralistic society, whose government would protect the rights of African Americans, women, immigrants, and the LGBT community at home; and pursue “global” policies of trade and diplomacy abroad that would serve not imperialism but human rights. The core of this idea could be found in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, especially in the enactment of landmark civil rights and immigration-reform legislation. Johnson’s role as the steward of a new liberalism was, however, tarnished by Vietnam. With the rise of the antiwar movement, LBJ saw his leadership of a new liberal coalition pass to the likes of Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), the antiwar Democratic presidential candidate in 1972. McGovern’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that year laid out the vision for a new liberal order, one that challenged the venerable idea that America was an exceptional nation, a “city on a hill.”

Said McGovern:

It is the time for this land to become again a witness to the world for what is just and noble in human affairs. It is time to live more with faith and less with fear, with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.

Senator McGovern, of course, lost a landslide election to Richard Nixon, winning only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. But the playing out of civil rights reform combined with massive demographic shifts has led to the maturing of the new Progressive coalition during the administration of America’s first African American President. As important as economic issues were to the insurgent candidate of 2008, Barack Obama, and to this year’s revolutionary, Bernie Sanders, these concerns were imbued with a commitment to what Jesse Jackson once called a “rainbow” coalition, and what Ronald Brownstein has recently dubbed a “coalition of the ascendant”: minorities, millennials, and highly educated professionals, especially single women. To be sure, Sanders’ commitment to democratic socialism made an appeal to unionists and blue-collar workers whom the Democrats had largely abandoned since the 1960s. But his core supporters were the millennials, who were drawn to his 1960s-like assault on corporate capitalism and American imperialism. Attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, I can report that the loudest chants to be heard from the Sanders supporters were echoes of the rage of the 1960s: “No More War!”

Just as the Left split off from the center in a cultural assault that targeted the Johnson administration, so the contemporary conservative movement’s cultural assault on the vital center was launched by Goldwater’s campaign of 1964. The latter crusade rejected the Liberal State as an insidious form of despotism that would destroy “rugged individualism”—individual responsibility—at home and national resolve abroad. Goldwater famously framed the stakes in the battle between liberalism and conservatism in apocalyptic terms. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he told the GOP convention in 1964. “And let me remind you also,” he continued, “that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Along with communism, a principal demon of this apocalyptic vision was urban unrest: the demonstrations and riots that had begun to break out in Northern cities during the summer of 1964, and would become a terrible, routine occurrence during the long, hot summers of the mid- and late 1960s. To conservatives, these riots—although often triggered by police provocation and brutality—threatened the very fabric of a Constitution founded on the idea of ordered liberty. “Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression,” Goldwater told the GOP delegates (and a national television audience), “is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill that purpose is one that cannot long command the loyalty of its citizens.”

Like McGovern, Goldwater lost the race for the White House in a landslide of historic proportions. But also like McGovern, his vision and the coalition it summoned eventually flourished. Richard Nixon, whose political career was seemingly dead in 1962 (he was defeated in his bid for California’s governorship and vowed that we would not have Dick Nixon to “kick around anymore”), was resurrected in the 1968 election, a victory that confirmed the Republicans’ embrace of the conservative cultural values that Goldwater had preached. Nixon, the first Republican President who promised to give voice to the “silent majority,” imprinted the “law and order” brand on his party in his address before the national convention in Miami, Florida.

“Let those who have the responsibility to enforce our laws and our judges who have the responsibility to interpret them be dedicated to the great principles of civil rights,” Nixon stated before a party whose 1964 presidential candidate had voted against the 1964 civil rights bill. “But let them also recognize,” he continued, “that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence, and that right must be guaranteed by this country.”

As the Trump campaign advertised, their candidate’s acceptance speech in Cleveland was inspired most directly by Nixon’s in 1968. Channeling his supporters’ fear of terrorism and resentment of the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump’s Cleveland speech echoed Nixon’s: “In this race for the White House,” he shouted, “I am the law-and-order candidate.” Trump, then, might not be a Republican aberration. He can claim to be building on Republican commitments that have their origins in the very birth of the modern conservative movement.

Cast against modern conservatism’s origins and development, even Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin is not so surprising. When a 2014 survey asked which president, Putin or Obama, had “strong leadership qualities,” more Republicans applied that sentiment to Putin (57 percent) than to Obama (49 percent). Still, many important Republican leaders have refused to support Trump—condemning him for desecrating the Republican brand with nativism, racism, sexism, and bellicose views on foreign affairs. There is much truth to these criticisms, and I think principled conservatives like William Kristol, the editor of the important conservative Weekly Standard, have stood tall against Trump’s bluster. As he said recently, “Of all the damage Trump can do to the American conservative movement, making it more pro-Putin rather than pro-freedom would be the most serious.”

There is a real sense, however, in which Republican conservatives have played Dr. Frankenstein to Trump’s fear and loathing. Never Trump conservatives have lamented that Trump’s reprise of Nixon abandons the more uplifting conservatism that Ronald Reagan expressed—a conservatism that insisted, in opposition to the globalism of the McGovern Democrats, that America still was a “city on a hill” (a message that Reagan heir-apparent George W. Bush projected in the wake of the attacks of 9/11). Consider that the first sentence of the 2016 Republican platform reads: “We believe in American exceptionalism,” an uplifting sentiment that Trump has virtually ignored.

But this nostalgia for the Reagan “Revolution” overlooks how, under these kinder and gentler partisans, the Republican Party had built a conservative base whose foot soldiers, most notably the Christian Right, which Reagan enlisted in his administration’s conservative crusade, and the Obama-era Tea Party, courted by conservative stalwarts like Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), were beginning to rally around their belief that liberalism had so corrupted the country that the national government had the responsibility to support “family values” (a view that permeates proposals to restrict abortion and same-sex marriage; to require work for welfare; and to impose standards on secondary and elementary schools).

Most relevant to the 2016 campaign, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession of late 2007 to 2009, the main targets of conservative statism became radical Islamic terrorism and illegal immigration. Appealing to the angry Republican base, the 2012 Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, who was to disdain Trump’s provocations four years later, embraced an immigration policy—calling on undocumented immigrants to “self-deport”—that was hardly less harsh than Trump’s would prove to be. Trump’s success, therefore, is more than a cult of personality. It must also be attributable to his giving unfiltered expression to a Republican coalition that is more than four decades in the making. Trump and his strategists view him as the steward of a “coalition of restoration” comprised of blue-collar, religiously devout, and non-urban whites who are exceedingly anxious about social change that is turning the United States into a country to which they no longer feel an allegiance.

There was a time when scholars debated whether the hyper-partisanship and bitterness of American politics was a Washington Beltway phenomenon, implying that most American voters occupied the proverbial center of the bell-shaped curve. This may have been the case once— perhaps until the Bush 43 and Obama presidencies, when Bush’s contested victory over Vice President Gore, the 9/11 attacks, and the Great Recession arrived to exacerbate the divisions between Red and Blue America. Recent public opinion polls show that the partisan divide has become all-encompassing.

Not only has political rancor increased inside the Beltway, but Republicans and Democrats also have become anchored in distinct regions, states, and communities: the Republicans in the Southern, border, and mountain states, especially in small towns and exurban enclaves; and the Democrats along the East and West Coasts, especially in the major metropolitan areas. In fact, with Donald Trump winning states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan; and Hillary Clinton winning states like Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia (and coming very close in North Carolina, and even being competitive in Texas), this sharp cultural divide between Red and Blue America has become more pronounced. Red areas are becoming redder and blue areas bluer: notably, one-third of the 700 counties in the country that voted for Barack Obama twice (mostly white and outside of major metropolitan areas) flipped for Trump in 2016.

Even as most Americans have been pulled into the vortex of partisan combat, a small but potentially pivotal group of independents, pundits, and scholars have lamented the ferocious battle for the soul of American democracy. I have not readily joined this anti-partisan chorus. After all, every major transformation in American democracy, beginning with the Jeffersonian Republicans’ vanquishing of the ruling Federalists—led by the hip hop star Alexander Hamilton—has witnessed intense partisan conflict, fundamental constitutional struggles where literally everything has been up for grabs.

These events have truly been “refoundings,” where popular, polarizing elections have redefined the social contract: the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and its relationship to the Constitution. Cast against the polarizing episodes to expand popular sovereignty during the first three decades of the 19th century, the conflagration over slavery, the violent combat aroused by industrial capitalism during the turn of the 20th century, and the struggles to come to terms with the Great Depression and World War II, the current partisan fight over the nation’s future seems to be another passion play in the never-ending story of what Thomas Jefferson exalted as America’s “living Constitution.”

As the brilliant French commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, saw very early on, the great threat to American constitutional government was not partisan rancor but apathy—the sort of indifference that is bred by the bureaucratic state, and that, in fact, anchored the vital center of the New Deal. As Tocqueville said:

The longing to be elected can momentarily bring certain men to make war on each other, [but] in the long term this same desire brings all men to lend each other a mutual support; and if it happens that an election accidentally divides two friends, the electoral system brings together in a permanent manner a multitude of citizens who would have always remained strangers to one another. Freedom creates particular hatreds, but despotism gives birth to general indifference.

Nonetheless, civic engagement and refoundings are not born of polarizing democratic passion plays alone. Given the high stakes of this election, We, the People—whether liberals, conservatives, or independents—ought to demand that partisan battles be waged more on the field of competing principles rather than personal recrimination. If nothing else, Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border makes painfully clear what has been true for at least five decades: the struggle between Democrats and Republicans is not truly about whether to expand or dismantle government. Instead, it involves a battle for the services of the large and powerful national government that has been forged since the 1930s.

Recognizing this fact makes possible a debate over the fresh, bracing question of what objectives American government should serve. But since the 1960s, with the advent of a culture war, a churning, combative, 24/7 media, and prolonged and bitter presidential primaries, partisanship has been joined to a politics of recrimination, where candidates not only differ on principles and policies but also challenge the opponent’s very legitimacy. Because our democracy has become so presidency-centered, this partisan combat has focused especially on the occupant of the White House. The animating factor in mobilizing Democrats and activists during the Bush years was their hatred of the Republican President; by the same token, the animus for rabid GOP partisanship during Obama’s two terms has been contempt for the Democratic President.

Donald Trump’s unsettling roar that the election was rigged against him—that he might decide not to accept its verdict—was only the most dramatic expression of the people’s deep distrust in their leaders and political institutions that has emerged from the breaking apart of the America’s vital center. His victory will not completely quiet the challenges that have been lodged against the legitimacy of the election. The view that the system is rigged is more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats; but as the surprising Bernie Sanders insurgency made clear, this message resonates on the Left as well, especially among young people. That the Democrats won the popular vote and witnessed what looked to them like the devastating intervention of the FBI in the campaign will only fan the flames of their discontent with America’s governing institutions. The widespread demonstrations the day after the election might be an important signpost of just how bitter the recriminations against the Trump presidency will be.

I suspect, then, that even if a better-behaved Donald arises from the ashes of his scorched earth campaign, he will face a ferocious opposition party that will keep its faithful engaged by means of heavy doses of personal invective directed at the White House. Trump and his supporters have “huge” plans for his first year—a program, as one important Trump advisor put it, dedicated to erasing Obama’s legacy, starting with the Affordable Care Act. But as the former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Donald Trump will enter the White House next year as the first President without any military or public experience. It will be interesting to see whether the rough-and-tumble world of business has prepared him for the fights that lie ahead. Unless something dramatic changes between now and January 20, 2017, he will be governing in a war zone; and given his combative temperament, he is likely to respond in kind.

Yet, I would like to conclude on a more optimistic note. My hope is that the polarization of the past decades, culminating in the car wreck of this election, will awaken us to the perils of fear and hate; that both Democrats and Republicans will reject the ferocious partisan combat of recent American politics, and begin to dream again, as they have in previous great moments of our history. During the primaries and general election, it has been Trump who has been the principal fomenter of toxic rhetoric. He has, in fact, been practicing the politics of demonization since 2011, when he led the notorious “Birther” movement that challenged the constitutional legitimacy of America’s first African American President. So too he has incited ugly recriminations against the first woman to be nominated for President by a major party, dubbing the former First Lady, senator, and secretary of state “crooked Hillary” and inciting his followers to chant “Lock Her Up” at the Republican Convention, and at his general election rallies.

But any fair assessment of the presidential campaign of 2016 has to acknowledge that Clinton and the Democrats have been far from blameless in launching ad hominem attacks. I certainly understand Clinton’s indictment of Trump as lacking the temperament to be commander-in-chief, and her calling him out for bringing the “Alt Right” from the margins to the very center of his campaign. At the same time, relegating many Trump supporters to a “basket of deplorables” only added to the poisonous atmosphere of the politics she claimed to abhor.

Mired in such “negative partisanship,” as the political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have describe current party battles, both parties, I think, would benefit from a careful study of presidential leadership during the most perilous chapter of American history. Facing the gravest domestic crisis in the nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, appealed “to the “better angels of our nature.” Trump’s attacks on his political opponents, joined to a dark view of America that often misrepresents the true state of affairs regarding trade, crime, immigration, and the unsettled state of world affairs, have often appealed to the worst instincts of his followers. Playing the demagogue—a populist leader who appeals to the people only to betray their interests—he took his Republican opponents during the primary season and Secretary Clinton in the general campaign down to his level, and American democracy has paid a price for it.

As Trump moves into the White House, the task of the American people is to summon once again what is best in us: to recognize that most Americans—most Democrats and Republicans—love freedom, and that their battles are essentially lover’s quarrels, where they disagree about the meaning of and most effective path to fulfill our rights. The Declaration of Independence, as Lincoln recognized in his Gettysburg Address, is our common ground. But Lincoln also recognized that protecting the “jewel of liberty” required strong party organizations and adherence to constitutional principles, without which an appeal to public opinion was impossible.

At a time when Americans make ever more demands on government and trust it less, it remains very uncertain that they and their representatives might once again come, as Hugh Heclo has put it, to think “institutionally.” Only when they come to such a realization, however, will the time be at hand for a “new birth of freedom” in the nation.

Sidney M. Milkis

Sidney M. Milkis is the White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics and a Faculty Associate at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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Partisanship, Parties, and the Snake that Eats Its Own Tail

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…

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    This essay surveys more that “political parties” in such a comprehensive format that calls for careful comment.

    From this one would suspect that Professor Milkus is one of those better “leaders of learning” (at Miller) than a “teacher” at U.Va. where The late Robert A Taft (Not W.H.) famously announced that he was happy to be able to visit “Charlottesburg” and speak at the Law School (where I was in my final year) during his primary contest with Ike in 1952.

    There is much to digest here. More later.

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    The title of this essay is somewhat misleading.

    “The Future of Political Parties” would seem to require some consideration of:

    The (past, recent, current and possible future) functions of political parties.

    The nature (centralized or regional, e.g.) of the organization of the respective major political parties.

    The impacts of the social reactions and rejections (usually termed “populism”) on the fracturing ( “Tea Party”) or fragmentation (interest coalitions) on the forms of party organization and their “establishments.”

    While there is some consideration here of political movements (such as centralization), the relationship of that historical trend to its current set of effects on political party organizations (and their “establishments” [oligarchies]) that may affect party futures is not discussed.

    Surely there is some evidence that the functions of political parties, as electoral factions, have changed and evolved over time in correlation with identifiable social trends and particular historical events (wars, economic disruptions, demographic shifts, etc.). Since most of the changes in functions can be correlated to previous events, we might look at how various cumulative events may shape the future functions of political parties; taking into account the ongoing developments of social and demographic changes.

    Can we get some scholars to expand upon what Professor Milkus has begun?

    • Scott Amorian says

      “Since most of the changes in functions can be correlated to previous events, we might look at how various cumulative events may shape the future functions of political parties; taking into account the ongoing developments of social and demographic changes.”

      I was thinking the same thing as I read the essay. I would also take into account the ongoing changes in the operation of government and elections such as the change in the way presidential candidates are chosen–a topic touched on briefly by Milkus.

      Perhaps a better understanding of these things would lead us to better understand what must be done to right the system and restore actual (not partisan) republican government from the democratic mess it has become.

  3. gabe says

    I would, as does Scott, look to the changes in the *functions* of government that have arisen / been implemented over the course of the last 8 decades.

    It is this monumental growth of what was intended to be a government of specific AND limited powers, i.e., the ability to intrude into the everyday lives of its citizens, as the primary cause for the current “unquietude” as Tocqueville termed it.

    He was also correct regarding the danger of both apathy and despotism. It is, however, today, a different manner of despotism than the one that Tocqueville explicitly critiqued, although one can find an implicit critique of the newer form of despotism, i.e., “soft despotism” of an over extended state dedicated to promoting in FDR’s terms general welfare and happiness. In the attempt to achieve this “happy” state, government has suppressed the energy of the people, has diminished the citizens confidence in his / her ability to a) understand their own civic association, b) induced a sense of powerlessness and a fatalism regarding the ability to change or correct the effects of “expert” administration and c) left in its wake the most sublime feelings of both impotence and anger over the course plotted for the civic association by its leaders.

    In a sense, rather than bemoaning the crudeness of The Trumpster, perhaps we should be celebrating it’s most salutary effect – waking the citizenry from the stupor and timidity imposed upon it by 80 years of *expert* ministrations.
    Perhaps, we may celebrate the long awaited recognition, by a sizeable segment of the population, that it is the very *functions* of government, newly divined / conjured by the modern clerisy of both parties, that is at fault and that an opportunity has arisen to not simply “re-direct” these functions to the State and Municipal level as the author mistakenly takes for a panacea, but rather to *REDUCE* the functions of government to something approximating what the original grant of powers was intended create and sustain: a self governing citizenry.

    As Richard suggests, some of the fault for the present state of affairs may be attributed to the “expanded” functions of the parties as those political entities seek to garner votes and exercise power. Yet, the Parties themselves are helpless to so radically affect / disrupt the epistemology of the citizenry: For that it takes the mechanisms and institutions of power!

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