The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Reevaluation of the U.S. Party System’s Stability

(Rick Wilking/Reuters)

One victim of the 2016 presidential election, the conventional wisdom holds, was the stability of the U.S. party system. Democrats were said to be riven between younger democratic socialists and a more neoliberal old guard. Republicans, meanwhile, were split into those who found Donald Trump’s nationalist impulse appealing and those who found it repulsive. Whether mass defections from the GOP in particular would fundamentally alter the faces of both parties, the argument continued, was an open question.

But according to new research by Vanderbilt’s Larry Bartels, this line of thinking has it almost completely backwards. First, there has been no evidence of mass defections from either party to the other. Second, it doesn’t capture the real divisions within each party. Democrats, Bartels finds, are actually relatively united in their belief in an active government. They are less united on cultural issues, which are also less salient for Democratic voters. Republican voters, in contrast, both care more about and are more united on cultural issues, including nationalism, than Democratic voters. They are more divided and are focused less on the role of government.

So what does this mean for the parties? In the short term, Bartels concludes, there is little reason to believe that the reaction to Trump will alter the makeup of either party in any significant way.

In the medium term, though, the parties may continue to sort themselves according to cultural preferences and their beliefs about the role of government. Of those he surveyed, Bartels finds that 24.3 percent of Republicans were closer to the average position of Democrats on the role of government than the average position of Republicans. At the same time, 18.5 percent of Republicans were closer to the average position of Democrats on cultural preferences. In other words, the GOP’s libertarian bloc, consisting of socially liberal voters who favor smaller government, is outnumbered by what you might call its populist bloc. Among Democrats, meanwhile, the pattern is reversed. Only 11 percent of Democrats were closer to the average position of Republicans on the role of government, but a whopping 26.3 percent were closer to the GOP mainstream on cultural issues.

Now imagine two contrasting futures: In the first, the chief dividing line in our politics will be cultural, in which case the 26.3 percent of Democrats who, on cultural issues, lean toward the Republican party will switch affiliation, as will the 18.5 percent of Republicans who are more comfortable with the cultural stance of the Democratic party. Both parties would, in this scenario, be more internally divided on economic policy. In the second future, the 24.3 percent of Republicans who are in favor of a larger government, the raison d’être for the Democratic party, will defect to the Democrats while the 11 percent of Democrats who are in favor of a smaller government will move in the opposite direction. While the two parties would be united by their convictions on economic policy in this scenario, they’d be divided on cultural questions.

Needless to say, shifts on this scale would have all sorts of knock-on consequences that are impossible to predict. But crudely speaking, Bartels’s analysis suggests that while an emphasis on cultural issues redounds to the benefit of the GOP, an emphasis on the merits of active governments is a boon to Democrats. Right now, Democrats who insist that their party needs to be more open to anti-abortion voters, or to voters who favor more stringent immigration enforcement, seem to be fighting a losing battle, which could be a problem. Yet it’s just as true that Republicans haven’t done a very good job of accommodating its emerging populist bloc, which is surely part of why Conor Lamb fared so well in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, and why Democrats are expected to win many more districts like it.


The Latest