25 January 2006

The Demise Of The Three Party System

A Mongolian lawyer who is in the United States studying to get her MPA and learn about the American political system before returning to her home country to work for the Mongolian parliament asked me today to describe the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States. It wasn't difficult.

When I was growing up, in the 1980s, the United States was a two party system in name only. There were really three parties, the Northern Democrats, the Southern Democrats and the Republicans. Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats parted ways on defense spending and many social issues, where they joined Republicans. This is no longer true. The United States now has a very pure two party system, and in all but a handful of policy areas there are well defined Democratic and Republican positions.

Of 28 votes in the House and Senate last year, identified by Congressional Quarterly as the key roll calls for the session, majorities of the two parties opposed each other on all but seven.

In the House, the subjects that provoked disagreements included immigration rules, stem cell research, surveillance and interrogation policies, arms sales to China, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Endangered Species Act, energy, and the intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.

In the Senate, the parties split on class-action lawsuits, bankruptcy protection, CAFTA, the USA Patriot Act, the budget, defense appropriations, energy, and the nomination of John Bolton to the United Nations.

The variety of subjects indicates the broad dimensions of the parties' differences. They embrace social, cultural, economic and foreign policy issues. The only notable area of agreement between the parties was on the big transportation bill, loaded with pork-barrel projects for both Republicans and Democrats. . . .

On the roll calls where the parties divided, nearly nine out of 10 Republicans and Democrats voted the party line. The average House Republican was loyal 90 percent of the time; the average for House Democrats and for both parties in the Senate was 88 percent.

Republicans have been about that united since taking over. Democratic discipline has been trending upward, especially in the House, where it averaged 81 percent in the first four years of minority status, compared with 87 percent in the latest four years.

What once was a clear regional split among Democrats, with the Dixie contingent voting often in a conservative bloc with Republicans, has diminished if not disappeared. Last year Southern Democrats in the House were only nine points lower in their loyalty to the party position than Northern Democrats; in the Senate, the difference was eight points.

In all of Congress, only two people voted more often with the opposing party than with their own on the party-splitting roll calls. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican, and Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat, opposed their party's majority about 53 percent of the time.

Given that Democrats in both the House and the Senate are loyal to their party on average 88% of the time, and that there is a nine point spread in the House and an eight point spread in the Senate, that means that Northern Democrats are profoundly loyal to their parties, voting the party line well over 90% of the time.

MyDD has calculated slightly different numbers that more closely match my intuition for party loyalty in the U.S. House, using different votes, although many of the trends are similar:

All Democrats: 82.5%
All Republicans: 96.1%
DLC: 79.0%
Democrats, non-DLC: 83.3%
Blue Dog Democrats: 54.3%
Non-Blue Dog Democrats: 88.3%

Bingo. Caucus disunity has a name-o. Outside of the Blue Dogs, Democratic Party loyalty on the important, party differentiating votes in the House is comparable to Republicans: 88.3% to 96.1%. Further, Blue Dog Party loyalty, 54.3%, is massively lower than that found either in the DLC, 79.0%, or among non-Blue Dog Democrats, 88.3%. Overall, the thirty-five members of the Blue Dog coalition account for 44.9% of all Democratic Party defections over these ten votes / issues, even though they only make up 17.2% of the caucus.

Only half of the blue dogs are from the South. (My DDs analysis is confirmed here using a larger sample of votes and a more rigorous analytical approach).

Thus, while remnants of the three party system I grew up with remains in existence, it is ceased to be a clear North-South divide (many Blue Dogs come from New York and California), and the conservative Democratic faction is getting smaller and smaller.

The handful of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress are unpopular in their own parties, and often face challenging election battles. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, and Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman both face difficult election battles this year. Prominent Dixiecrats have, one by one, been picked off by Republican challengers in races where voters show that they want the real deal, rather than a knockoff, if they are going to cast a conservative vote. A few Rockefeller Republicans have held out in New England, but they are a dying breed. They will be replaced by Democrats no later than when the incumbents retire.

Moreover, given the extent of leadership control in the House, there is no point in bucking the party line. The majority party doesn't need the cooperation of the minority, and as a result offers nothing in return for cooperation. Furthermore, increasingly gerrymandered Congressional districts have made appealing to the base the only sensible policy in the vast majority of congressional districts. Colorado is virtually unique in having at least two out of its seven CDs (28%) that are genuinely competitive (the 3rd and the 7th), and that is primarily because its redistricting was done by a court after the legislature failed to agree on a plan since one party held the House and another held the Senate in the state at the time.

Because state boundaries are set in stone and larger than Congressional District boundaries, gerrymandering them beyond the status quo is impossible and given the Senate's traditions (such as the filibuster, the two-thirds majority requirement for treaty approvals, holds, reliance on unanimous consent for many procedural purposes, and the power of Senators in a state to veto judicial appointments in their state), the majority in the Senate more often seeks the support of a few Senators from the minority to ease the passage of legislation in exchange for substantial concessions, and members tend to be more moderate. It is no surprise that the most prominent moderates in Congress are almost all in the Senate. But, as noted above, even the Senate has grown more partisan in recent years.

As the process that has been called "realignment" (i.e. putting Republicans in conservative districts, especially in the South, and Democrats in liberal districts) has run its course, we are approaching in the United States, levels of party discipline historically not seen outside the parliamentary systems of countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, where failing to suport you party on key votes can lead to new elections.

Growing partisanship is not all bad. A three party system, in which neither political party has any realistic chance of truly controlling political power, doesn't leave voters with much of a choice. The mushy middle is always going to thwart really change. In a true two party system, the public has a clear choice to make, and the party that is elected can bring about real political change. Equally important, the public can assign responsibility to and depose the party in charge when it fails to send the country in the right direction.

Increasingly Democrats are looking at the political environment and saying our nation is so deeply off course that only bold change is going to be sufficient. But, this is only possible in a two party system and only when the other party is sufficiently off balance for the public to throw the bums out, and the replacement has the party discipline to carry out their own agenda. We'll see what happens in 2006.


RightDemocrat said...

Idelogical polarization of the parties leads to gridlock and certainly has not favored the Democrats. Since liberals are a minority in most of America, Democrats has lost ground by moving left. You can ridicule the "mushy middle" but it is the center that determines the outcome of elections. I do think that there should be a difference between the parties in terms of the role of government and economics, but Democrats need to move toward the mainstream on social issues and national security matters.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

As I've noted before, Democrats are in the mainstream on social issues and national security matters. Majorities favor legal abortion, leaving Iraq, universal health care, a higher minimum wage, and requiring warrants for wiretaps, to name just a few parts of the "progressive agenda" that are really mainstream.

Social conservatives are a minority of about 30% of the population. A big part of the Republican party is in it because they want low taxes and less business regulation.

RightDemocrat said...

I agree with you that Democrats should stand for mainstream positions such as expanding access to health care and a living wage. Your point that a big part of the Republican party wants low taxes and less business regulation is also correct. And you have also helped to make my point. Let's say that social conservatives make up about 30% of the population (I would estimate that the number of social conservatives is about 35 to 40 of the population and that the rest includes a lot of social moderates not just liberals) and many of these individuals are working class folks who might otherwise vote Democratic. Can we afford to write off these voters especially if there are a lot of social liberals (or more accurately social libertarians) who might agree with Democrats on issues like choice, but will never stop voting for the Republicans because of the lower tax bill ?

I think that we have devoted far too much time and effort to chasing a relatively few but affluent group of voters who are socially liberal but economic conservatives while ignoring the significant group of voters who are social conservatives and economic populists. Democrats will continue to ignore to these voters at their peril.

As for the public's views on abortion, I agree with you that a majority of the population wants abortion legal in the first trimester. The problem for Democrats who take a hard-line pro-choice approach is that most voters also oppose late term abortion, support parental consent and probably have reservations about public funding of elective abortions. I am not suggesting that Democrats should become strongly pro-life (although I do think that pro-lifers should be welcome in the party) but we have lost red America large because of being seen as the party of abortion, gay marriage and gun control. And a lot of progressives fail to appreciate that under our federalist system every state has equal representation in the Senate. That means that what folks think in smaller states like Idaho and Arkansas is as critical to Senate control as New York and California. This tends to magnify the political influence of the "30 percent" considerably.

By the way, I don't agree with the Republican propagandists that support for intervention in Iraq is the defining national security issue. I do think that Democrats are perceived as weak on terrorism and national security. Until we can convince Americans that are willing to do what is necessary to stop terrorists (and that doesn't mean giving up all of our personal freedoms) but it will mean a tough stand against nukes in Iran and giving our intelligence agencies the tools to fight terrorism - with proper oversight.

Democrats need to stress economic issues and have a "big tent" to win a governing majority - so the narrowing of the ideological base of our party is nothing to celebrate. Politics (and effective governing) requires compromise.