Some days, the Republican party seems on the verge of splitting up. Its congressional majorities couldn’t produce a health-care bill and passed an omnibus spending bill its president regretted signing. Prominent never-Trumpers call for the creation of a new political party. Ohio governor John Kasich, who carried seven counties outside his home state in the 2016 Republican primaries, hints at a 2020 independent candidacy.
In special elections, Republican candidates fail to win percentages above President Donald Trump’s approval ratings, which nationally is at 42 percent. That makes Republicans fear and Democrats hope that Democrats will capture the House of Representatives in November.
Away from the limelight, Democrats have their schisms, too. Bernie Sanders-types bristle as Washington campaign committees tilt against outspoken anti-Trump primary candidates. Economic-redistributionist Democrats are complaining that identity-politics Democrats are hurting the party’s chances.
But the talk of the parties going away or being replaced is overstated, and not just because institutional factors — the Electoral College, single-member congressional and legislative districts — tend to boil down voters’ choices to two parties.
Something more fundamental is at work here. Consider the fact that our two major American parties are the oldest and third-oldest in the world. The Democratic party was formed in 1832, to secure Andrew Jackson’s renomination and re-election, and the Republican party came about in 1854, to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories.
They’ve existed for 186 and 164 years, respectively. Not counting churches, that’s longer than almost any other nongovernmental institution — longer than most businesses, volunteer organizations, and local governments.
Over the years, they’ve changed positions on issues. For example, the Republicans were originally for high tariffs, the Democrats for free trade. For the past half-century, it’s mostly been the other way around.
And the Republicans were originally the big-government party — think Reconstruction in the South, railroad subsidies, and passing the first billion-dollar budget — but since the New Deal, it’s been Republicans (sometimes) bucking the big-government trend.
Yet over the long haul, the character of each party’s electoral coalition has remained the same. The Republicans are formed around a core of people considered, by themselves and others, as typical Americans but who are never a majority — Northern Protestants in the 19th century, white married people now.
The Democrats have been a coalition of disparate groups seen as being somehow atypical Americans — white Southerners and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, churchgoing blacks and highly educated gentry liberals now. They’re often at odds, but when they’ve stayed together, they’ve formed vigorous majorities.
The parties thus serve as the yin and yang, the two channels in which diverse cultural and moral views can find expression and efficacy, in a country that has always, contrary to current politically correct orthodoxy, been culturally diverse.
The Framers were acutely aware of this and of how religious differences produced a century’s worth of disastrous wars in Europe. That’s why the Constitution bans the Old World’s religious tests for public office and why the Bill of Rights says the federal government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.
The balance between the parties has been unprecedentedly stable over the past quarter-century, with stances on moral issues being the factor most highly correlated with voting behavior. The changes in voting patterns in 2016 were highly consequential but by historical standards relatively minor; several million highly educated voters switched away from the Republican party’s presidential nominee, while a few more million less educated whites switched toward him.
Overall, 36 of the 50 states cast percentages for Trump within three points of their percentages for Mitt Romney in 2012. And 30 states cast percentages for Democrat Hillary Clinton within three points of their percentages for John Kerry in 2004.
Sooner or later, the parties will adapt, as they have in the past, to these minor shifts in demographic support — and in response to events and emerging issues. 2018 Democrats, as the out party, have more room to maneuver and adapt to local terrain, as they did in the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district.
It’s not clear whether Democrats will take maximum advantage of this in Trump-trending constituencies, with the party’s base pushing for maximalist anti-Trump candidates in primaries. And it’s not clear whether Republicans can navigate the shoals in anti-Trump-trending constituencies when the president’s approval rating remains below 50 percent nationally. A couple of ill-timed tweets could really hurt.
But don’t look for our 164- and 186-year-old parties to wither or splinter. They have rebounded from far worse disasters (Democrats after 1920, Republicans after 1932), and they’ll almost certainly rebound from 2016 — and 2018 — too.