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How to Use a Majority

by Luke Thompson

It’s time for the GOP to step into the sun

The midcentury essayist and political commentator Samuel Lubell once observed that America’s two-party system defies the logic of supply and demand. A perfectly efficient political market should produce two parties swapping groups of supporters at will to achieve transitory majorities. Instead, Lubell noted, American parties rarely gain or lose demographic groups, and do so only over extended periods of time. Consequently, America always seems to have one party that is larger than the other. This larger party, what Lubell called the “sun party,” predominates on matters of policy, reducing the minority party to lunar status — a distinct body in the night sky, but one made visible chiefly by reflecting its rival’s light.

Lubell thought this asymmetry in party size encouraged the interest groups that made up the different party coalitions to behave in distinct but predictable ways. After all, the likelihood of election, more than any other force in American politics, shapes the political incentives of individual politicians, groups, and parties. Those in the majority party enjoy a higher probability of holding office but must deal with a broader array of interests and viewpoints. Those in the minority, by contrast, need unity to stand a fighting chance of electoral success. A healthy majority, therefore, inevitably hosts intense internal division over major policy issues. A healthy minority clusters tightly together and presents a uniform face to the world.

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