Political parties: Chaos and gridlock

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

When I was a young political science student in the 1960s and early 1970s, a frequent criticism of American political parties was that they did not really stand for anything. The Republicans and Democrats were Tweedledee and Tweedledum. There was a longing for European-style political parties that were ideologically driven.

Political parties were also condemned for being run by political bosses, like Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Reformers wanted to take power away from the bosses and give it to the people.

Beware what you wish for!

First some background.

Prior to the civil rights movement and television, American political parties were rooted in the history of the Civil War and Great Depression. The Civil War and Reconstruction made Republicans extinct in the South. Meanwhile in the Northeast, immigrants turned to the Democratic Party when they met discrimination and exploitation from the Republican WASP establishment. The 1928 anti-Catholic campaign against Al Smith cemented Catholics to the Democratic Party and much of America followed in 1932 after the Hoover depression.

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As a result, the Democratic Party was a bizarre coalition of the Old South and big city working classes. The solid South would vote for Democratic presidential candidates and Northeastern urban centers would carry their states for the Democrats.

These strange bedfellows also controlled Congress, electing congressional leaders and chairs in a process that gave great weight to seniority and tradition. It was in the self-interest of the leaders to maintain this system even when they disagreed on policy.

The fragility of the system became apparent, however, when bills were voted on in Congress. Very often, the most controversial issues (taxes, budgets, civil rights, military, welfare) were decided not by the Democratic majority but what became known as the Conservative Coalition -- a combination of Southern Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisanship at this time was conservative.

Often the only way to get things done in Congress was to construct a bill that had enough goodies (earmarks) to please a majority. Sometimes grand compromises were negotiated. The classic example was an agricultural bill that included farm subsidies for rural members along with food stamps for urban members.

Only when the Democrats had a super majority, as after the 1964 election, could they pass parts of the liberal agenda.

Lyndon Johnson, a master at manipulating this system, realized that he was undermining its very foundations with the passage of civil rights legislation, which angered white southerners so much that they left the Democrats for the Republican Party. The old Conservative Coalition became the new Republican Party. And in presidential elections, the solid South began voting Republican.

Over time, parties became more ideologically pure, with the Republicans becoming more conservative and the Democrats becoming more liberal.

Other "reforms" contributed to this ideological divide. In a revolt against party bosses, liberals pushed changes that undermined the bosses' power. Financial contributions to parties were restricted. Primaries, which in the 1960s were limited, became almost universal.

These "reforms" had unanticipated consequences. With every man for himself, candidates raised their own money and became less deferential to party leaders. Public relations and media advisors became essential for winning primaries and elections. Further restrictions on financial contributions to candidates pushed money into so-called independent organizations that spent heavily on media campaigns.

Meanwhile, state legislatures were gerrymandering congressional districts to protect incumbents. As a result, for most members of Congress the real contest is the primary not the general election. Primary voters tend to be more ideologically driven then those who vote in general elections. This further drove candidates to their ideological extremes.

Finally, in an attempt to increase black and minority members in Congress, courts intervened to reshape congressional districts so they had enough black voters to elect black candidates. In the South, this meant putting blacks in one district and whites in another, further pushing candidates to their ideological extremes. If districts had been mixed, candidates would have moderated their views to appear to the middle.

The result of all these factors is a system that promotes ideology over compromise.

This worked well for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections. As a former community organizer, he understood that he could win the election by getting out his base. It was more cost effective to get out the base than it was to win over the mythical swing voter, who was either too stupid or too uninvolved to know for whom to vote. Most of these so-called independents in fact vote for the same party year after year.

What was good for Obama, was, however, bad for congressional Democrats. The Democratic national strategy did not work in congressional swing districts that were needed to maintain control of the House of Representatives. Many Democratic candidates in these swing districts saw Obama and his policies as a liability not an asset. It is difficult to win these districts without winning white males, who feel alienated from the Democratic Party. There are few Hispanics in swing congressional districts.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are simply the logical result of this system for different reasons.

Trump epitomizes the triumph of Madison Avenue salesmanship over substance, an inevitable consequence of primaries in a media-saturated culture. You can sell anything if you package it right.

Sanders, like George McGovern before him, epitomizes the triumph of ideological purity over pragmatic politics. It is not surprising that both candidates were supported by young idealists.

My friends who in the 1960s longed for European-styled parties forgot that in Europe most countries have a single-house parliamentary systems. The party that wins a majority of the parliament selects the prime minister and is therefore responsible for governing. At the next election, the voters will know whom to hold accountable since there is no division between legislative and executive branches.

In the United States, ideological parties can lead to gridlock when one party controls the presidency and another controls one or more houses of Congress. Speaker John Boehner was no prime minister, and when he attempted compromise, he was slapped down by his ideological colleagues.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Mitch McConnell played to his base by promising not to cooperate with the president on anything.

At this point in a column, I am supposed to propose magic solutions that will solve all these problems. Granted the unanticipated consequences of earlier reforms, I am hesitant.

One side of me hopes that a Trump-Sanders election will force America to see the consequences of our political culture. On the other hand, how either of these men could govern in a checks-and-balances system is an open question if Obama could not. Cruz faces the same difficulty as a senator running for president who cannot get even one Republican senator to back his candidacy. How can he possibly govern?

I fear that Americans believe they are electing a king or dictator who can sweep away opposition and force his policies on the political system. Much of the alienation on the left is a result of the high hopes raised by Obama, which were never fulfilled because partisanship blocked any cooperation in Washington.

If I had to offer reforms to mitigate the gridlock we experience now, I think there would be four.

First, the role of redistricting has to be taken away from politicians and given to mathematical formulas and independent commissions with randomly selected citizens. Natural and political boundaries should have precedence over preferences of incumbents. Competitive districts should be preferred to safe districts.

Second, we should imitate the California experiment with nonpartisan blanket primaries where all candidates for the same elected office compete with each other regardless of their party affiliation.

Under the current system still common outside of California, in a safe district, the more radical candidate often wins the primary and the general election. But in the California system, in a heavily Republican district, the final two candidates in the general election might both be Republicans. In such an election, the Democrats could decide the contest by supporting the more moderate Republican candidate.

Third, the role of money, especially corporate money, in elections must be curtailed. If it cannot be banned, then it must be totally transparent (donations and spending revealed within 48 hours) and made not deductible as a business expense. Stockholders should vote on how much money they will give to each candidate before corporate money can flow to candidates.  

Fourth, voting should be mandatory with the government responsible for registering voters. Anyone who does not vote could be fined $50. This will eliminate the dependence of politicians on their base and make them appeal to the entire community.

These reforms will not bring about political salvation. They may have unanticipated consequences, but I think they could incrementally improve the system. In the meantime, we will continue to watch the slow-motion destruction derby that is our electoral system.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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