The two major political parties have maintained their longevity partially because of their broad appeal. As national parties, the Republicans and Democrats represent a vast array of interest groups — even at times competing interest groups. Major party platforms are formed not just out of longstanding party ideology, but also in response to these interest groups. Many would argue that the platforms of the two parties lean toward the political center. (Bibby) While most Democrats want a more active government and are liberal on social issues, there are exceptions to the rule. Similarly, while most Republicans want a less active government and are conservative on social issues, there are exceptions. For instance, a majority party may have to moderate a bill (water it down) in order to get it passed. Or, in some cases, a minority party may embrace a majority party's bill to prevent itself from looking like obstructionists. In short, political parties are flexible to the whims and desires of public opinion to the point where they can wear the shoes of the opposing party, albeit temporarily.
Consider the 2001 Bush tax cut. At first, Democrats were adamantly opposed to any sort of tax cut. As the days and weeks went by, they started to change their tune; House and Senate leaders publicly stated that a tax cut of a substantial amount might be necessary. In this instance, the Democrats were simply being flexible with the times. They realized that it could be political suicide to oppose Bush's tax cut plan head-on. This flexibility in part accounts for the durability of the major political parties.
Another stark example of flexibility is Kennedy's education bill of 2001-02. Bush practically let Ted Kennedy write the education bill that ended up being the largest increase in education spending ever. This hardly seems like typical legislation in a Republican controlled House of Representatives and White House, and a split Senate. Education was a large part of Bush's platform during his campaign — he went as far as to say that learning to read was the next "civil right". He knew that his slogan of "Leave No Child Behind" could be turned against him if he didn't pass education legislation. This is another example of political party flexibility — a flexibility that has helped define the longevity of the two major political parties.
This flexibility of ideology is also extended to the ability to adapt to new ideas or needs as they appear on the horizon. Consider the prominent third party platforms of the last century. Most were reactions to the platforms of major parties (Bull Moose, State's Rights) or one-issue parties (Segregationists). The durability of the two major political parties is owed in part to their ability to take those third-party issues and either make them their own or make them irrelevant. Once those issues cease to interest the public, the third party disappeared and the major party survived. (Patterson, 241-42)
Durability in name only?
One could argue that the durability of the major political parties is in name only. Issues and ideologies change over time — the only real durability lies in the name given to a party. The longevity one sees is an illusion — a blanket term thrown over a varied and ever-changing collection of interest groups. For example, take the plight of the Democrat Party in the 1850s. Most Democrats of the time did not address the issue of slavery; Whigs (and the fledgling Republican party) did. (Miller, 373-378) This is one of the reasons why the Republican Party thrived as it did during the latter half of the 19th century — it kept up with the times. Later, Democrats (mostly northern) would come to embrace the ideals of civil rights; they have maintained that reputation to this day. Political durability rests not in the perfect set of ideals and the personas to accompany them, but in a perpetually pliable approach to current issues.
Richard Dunham puts it best when he describes the ideological shifts that have occurred in the parties: "The Democratic Party . . . has changed from a predominantly rural, racist, states' rights party into an organ of urban minorities, liberals and federal power. Meanwhile, the GOP has been transformed from the party of government activism, high tariffs and enfranchisement of African-Americans and women" to the party of small government, low taxes and conservatism. (Dunham. 22) Ironically, the Democrats and Republicans have remained mainstays in the political arena because they have NOT been ideologically durable.
Some of the political parties' durability may be an effect of the longevity of our system of government. Our Democratic system of government, while not perfect, has proven itself to be more than adequate in maintaining a stable body of leaders, adherence and respect for the rule of law (Bill Clinton notwithstanding), and a fairly stable set of political parties. It is not the small number of major parties that lends itself to be durable, but the form of government in which they participate.
As it turns out, our government is institutionally favorable to the two-party system. (The Thistle, 29 Aug 2000) Political parties emerged mostly to "mobilize masses of voters." (Bibby) A two-party system seemed to be the most effective way to accomplish this. (Bibby) Our single-member district system encourages candidates to join one of two parties, as seats are not awarded on a proportional basis, but on a winner-take-all basis. (Bibby) Our Electoral College works similarly — electoral votes are not earned based on a proportion of the popular vote, but on a plurality of a given state's votes. This too encourages a two-party system and perpetuates the longevity of the Democrat and Republican parties, for better or for worse.
Primary elections also encourage the two party system: "By winning party nominations through primary elections, insurgents can gain access to the general election ballot and thereby enhance their chances of election victories without having to organize third parties." (Bibby) The notion of a two-party political system is ingrained — not only in the minds of Americans but also in the institutions that govern them. To create an environment friendly to third (for forth) parties, one would first have to completely change the system. Furthermore, the Democrat and Republican leaders are opposed to any third party because they tend to do nothing but draw votes away. It is in their best interests to squelch new party opposition. The Reform Party in 1992 and the Green Party in 2000 gave the Republicans and the Democrats, respectively, excuses for why they lost the elections but failed to provide mandates.
During the last thirty years, "national elections have concentrated less on parties than on personalities and movements." (Blitz) Parties may well go the way of European monarchies — traditional institutions that hold little, if any, political power. Our current campaign finance laws may play a part in the future of American political parties.
H.R. 2356 (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) was signed into law on March 27th of that year. (Shelby) Many (including the author of this essay) concur that the bill is unconstitutional because it places limits on political speech. While its alleged unconstitutionality is a topic better suited for another essay, its influence on the political parties could be very real.
The gist of the McCain/Feingold Finance Reform legislation centers on a ban on soft money contributions. ("Summary of Campaign Finance Reform Legislation") This ban would likely decrease the political parties' influence over candidates and may signal an end to the need for organized parties. What good is a political party if it cannot raise money? Party durability, already eroding with the prevalence of primary elections, will be further eroded with the passage of a soft-money ban — a ban that would leave political parties with little financial weight. One has to wonder where the money will come from, when "… the parties' major role in campaigns is the raising and spending of money." (Patterson, 247) Another facet of the proposed law is the limitations it places on purchasing TV ads 60 days before an election. This provision effectively protects incumbents from criticism; they could use their bully pulpits to spew rhetoric and lies about an opponent, and that opponent would be unable under US law from countering said lies. One bright spot in the bill is the provision that strengthens existing laws that prohibit foreign nationals from contributing to federal, state, or local election campaigns. ("Summary of Campaign Finance Reform Legislation") "The foreign money abuses from the 1996 election that captured so much attention would be entirely shut down by this proposal." ("Summary of Campaign Finance Reform Legislation"/Limbaugh, 169-273)
The parties' political strength is derived not only from government policies that promote a two-party system (such as the electoral college and the single-member district system), but also from the parties themselves who have remained ideologically pliable and able to evolve politically to meet the needs of a changing populace. The nature of a strong two-party political system is in danger of being weakened (through finance laws and primary elections) by the same government that once helped to reinforce it. McCain and Feingold don't seem to understand that, in the words of Cato senior fellow Robert Levy, "…the government [should] not attempt to equalize the political strength of different elements in society." ("Cato: McCain-Feingold Violates 1st Amendment") "Equalizing", if any, should be left in the hands of the public, who vote with their wallets during campaigns, and at the polls during elections.
Bibby, John F. "Political Parties in the United States" Published c. 2000. Accessed: 1 Dec 2003.
Blitz, Mark The World and I. "What Price Politics?" July 1996. Published c. July 1996. Accessed: 1 Dec 2003.
Cato Institute. "Cato: McCain-Feingold Violates 1st Amendment" Published 8 July 2003. Accessed 1 Dec 2003.
Dunham, Richard S. "How the Parties Got That Way". Business Week: 24 Nov 2003. McGraw Hill: Boston.
Limbaugh, David. Absolute Power: The Legacy of Corruption in the Clinton-Reno Justice Department. Regnery: Washington, DC, 2001.
Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996.
Patterson, Thomas A. The American Democracy – Alternate Edition. McGraw Hill: Boston, 2003.
Shelby, Richard C. "Campaign Finance Reform" Published: c. April 2002. Accessed: 1 Dec 2003.
The Thistle. "Don't Vote: Act!" v. 13, no. 1, 29 Aug 2000. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 2000.
"Summary of Campaign Finance Reform Legislation" Published 21 Sept 1999. Accessed 1 Dec 2003.