Why Democrats and Republicans?

An Editorial

It’s April of 2019, so naturally, everyone is gearing up for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Already. I’ve discussed before why our presidential election cycle here in the U.S. takes forever, but today, I wanted to look a little deeper at an often-overlooked aspect of American politics that we often don’t appreciate, until something happens that reminds us about it.

See, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is currently looking at the possibility of running for president, but not as a Democrat or as a Republican. He is looking at pursuing an independent run for office in 2020. This got me thinking about the fact that America has been politically dominated by the same two political parties since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Party is the oldest continuously-existing political party in the world, and the Republicans are also among the world’s oldest. Why those two parties? What has kept them in power for so long?

Well, I think there are a couple of factors at play. The first one being:

How Americans Vote

Most elections in the United States are decided by the oldest, simplest, and easiest to understand election system in the world, known to political scientists who study these things as “First-Past-the-Post” or FPTP. Under this rule, whoever gets the most votes, wins. Simple, right? That sounds fair.

Or it does, until you consider this scenario:

  • You have three candidates running: Jill, Jane, and John. Jill is liked by faction “A”, Jane is liked by some people from faction “B”, and John is liked by other people from faction “B”.
  • When the votes come in, Jill wins 40% of the vote, Jane wins 30%, and John wins 30%. Under FPTP, Jill wins.
  • Notice, though, that 60% of the votes cast were for candidates supported by faction “B”. This means that even though the majority of people support “B”, they are now going to be ruled by “A”. In essence, the minority won.

This is called the spoiler effect, and it is a major factor in the logic of voters when they go to the polls in countries, like the U.S., that use FPTP. Voters don’t want to “waste their vote” on the candidate that they actually support if he or she has no chance of winning, so they will instead vote for the candidate who is most likely to win that lines up most closely to their political beliefs.

Now, I personally think that the spoiler effect is a bit overstated. Clear-cut scenarios like the one I presented are rare. People are complicated, politics is complicated, and voters’ political agendas are very personalized and not likely to overlap neatly. A more realistic scenario is that of Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996, both times as neither a Democrat nor a Republican. His message was popular with a wide swath of Americans, and he pulled in liberal, moderate, and conservative voters. I have heard people argue that he “swung the election” to Bill Clinton in each of those races, but that is a really hard claim to prove. If he hadn’t run, who knows how many people who ended up voting for him would have instead voted Democrat or Republican? Perhaps Clinton would have won regardless, perhaps not.

Still, the spoiler effect does matter, as it matters in the minds of voters as they decide for whom they should cast their ballots. In this way, FPTP creates an environment that favors a two-party system: one big party on the political left, and one big party on the political right. Third-party and independent candidates in an FPTP system like Perot (and perhaps Schultz) have a much more daunting challenge, as they have to break voters out of the mindset of worrying about the spoiler effect.

So, that’s part of the answer. However, FPTP does NOT guarantee that the same two political parties will remain the “big two” indefinitely. In the FPTP-using United Kingdom, the Labour Party overtook the Liberals as the main party of the left in the 1920s. More recently, Canada, which also uses FPTP, saw their main party of the right, the Progressive Conservatives, completely collapse in the 1990s, eventually replaced by the Conservative Party of Canada. Even here in the United States, there were a number of political parties that rose and fell before we Americans settled on the Democrats and Republicans. So, how did those two manage to solidify and entrench their power so completely?

The Civil War

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the first-ever president from the new, antislavery Republican Party, was elected. Almost immediately, the country broke apart into a war between the states, north vs. south. When the war ended in a Union victory, the Republicans claimed credit for abolishing slavery for good and reunifying the nation. That’s why their nickname is “the Grand Old Party”. Many Union veterans, freed slaves, and former abolitionists remained faithful Republican voters for the rest of their lives, as were many early feminists, as Republicans led the way in winning the right to vote for women.

Meanwhile, Reconstruction in the south was, to say the least, controversial. The more radical faction in the Republican party wanted to protect the rights of African-Americans while punishing white southerners for daring to rebel. Democrats, on the other hand, argued for reconciliation with white southerners and turning a blind eye to discrimination and violent attacks against the African-American community. As for why America didn’t try reconciling with white southerners while also protecting African-Americans, well, the only man who advocated for such a plan had been shot in Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth.

White southern voters remembered the Republicans as the party of the Union, the party of the war, the party of Reconstruction. So, they became the most reliable Democratic voters in America for generations. The southern states were known as the “Solid South”, as it was said the Democrats could nominate a dog or a lamppost and the south would vote for it. In many parts of the south, the local Republican Party organization simply ceased to exist. For generations, the divide set by the Civil War became the main divide in American politics, as the Republicans and Democrats coasted off of the feelings towards their respective parties by those who had been most directly impacted by it.

That’s why, in 2016, 89% of African-American voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump… wait, what?

Hang on. Left me look at the 2016 election map by state:

Looks like someone has some explaining to do.

The New Deal and the Southern Strategy

One of the side-effects of the divide between the Democrats and Republicans being based on the Civil War, was that both parties had liberal, moderate, and conservative wings. The divide between the parties was NOT based on ideology, at least at first.

Then, the generation that had lived through the Civil War started to grow old and pass away, and their children started to grow old and pass away as well. Over time, as the memory of the Civil War faded, people just weren’t as married to the political parties of their parents and grandparents anymore.

The first sign of a major shift came during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of his New Deal policies brought economic aid and benefits to impoverished African-American communities. This brought hope to a large section of the population that had been denied it for generations. FDR also appointed African-American leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune to important political positions. Gradually, the younger generation of African-American voters were pulled toward the Democrats.

This caused some tension within the Democratic Party, which was still the party of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Yet President Lyndon B. Johnson, himself a white southern Democrat, pulled together a cross-party coalition that passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many conservative white southern Democrats were so upset by what they saw as a betrayal by their own party, that they formed a new political party, the American Independent Party, that ran the outspokenly pro-segregation Alabama Governor George Wallace as their candidate in 1968.

Many see this as the tipping point, the final break between the former Solid South and the Democrats. But that’s not entirely true. Many white southern Democrats from that generation stayed lifelong Democrats. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has the distinction of having fought against both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Iraq War. In fact, in 1972, George Wallace ran for president again, but this time as a Democrat, with one of his opponents in the Democratic primary being none other than Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress.

Still, as the Democratic Party grew more and more openly liberal, the Republicans grew more and more openly conservative. The Republican leadership recognized that this was creating an opening to attract southern conservative ex-Democrat voters, so they pursued “the Southern Strategy” to get these voters to switch to the Republican Party.

The Southern Strategy involved keeping northern Republicans who were taking advantage of a more mobile society to move to states with less snow in the winter loyal to the GOP, while also attracting socially conservative votersĀ in the south to the Republican cause. It was started, in earnest, by Richard Nixon, through specific policy initiatives and careful messaging-management (sometimes referred to by his opponents as “dog-whistling”) and was continued by Ronald Reagan’s outspoken support for evangelical Christian voters in the Bible Belt. Today, the transformation is complete: the Republicans are the party of America’s conservatives, and the Democrats are the party of America’s liberals.

There are a few lessons to take away from this. First, that the reason that the Democrats and the Republicans have remained in power in the United States for so long is largely due to their flexibility, adaptability, and tactical thinking. The Democrats and Republicans of today are nothing like their mid-19th-century ancestors at all, and they have survived by being willing to win no matter what the cost.

That leads to the second lesson, though. Ultimately, neither political party actually cares about you. They only care about winning your vote if it will win them the election, and as we have seen, they are more than happy to just dump one demographic of voters to attract another if they think it will win them power. So, my advice is not to vote for any particular political party because you are “supposed” to because of your race, religion, gender, class, age, orientation, career choice, region of the country, or anything else. Vote based on which political party or candidate will actually bring YOU the most benefits or bring about the changes YOU want to see in America. Because at the end of the day, your own conscience is all that should matter to you when you fill out that ballot.