Why Don’t Political Parties Die More?

As most things that live past their due date, the longer something is artificially propped up the more likely the impending collapse carries greater force. Much like financial markets, political parties are subject to similar guiding forces and when the bubble bursts after being artificially sustained by government action it manifest in undesirable ways. With democracy, extreme dissatisfaction often gives way to populism. As a result we are likely better off if barriers to entry were decreased for candidates and parties alike.

From what I gather on television- primarily because I am not a medical professional- there are at times, intense emergency scenarios, life or death moments when a patient looks like they may go either way. The doctors and nurses bring in the crash cart and work to revive the patient. They tend to use words like “stat” and then later describe it as “touch and go.” In those moments of medical emergency there is often a time of uncertainty- this is now the status of our major parties. By all indications the Republican Party is in the last battle for life, the death throes of a long-lived institution do not always look pretty. The Democrat party on the other hand has slipped into a coma, an uncertain fate, perhaps it will slip into the beyond or it may suddenly awake and show signs of life. As of know, the two-person parody of a democratic process is limping along, going through the motions, and at any moment may either flat-line or come out of this prolonged period of delta-wave brain activity. Either way, both parties seem to be on the cusp of death. It is anyone’s guess whether or not one or both may die.

On this point, Randy Barnett, a respected law professor at Georgetown, opined in USA Today regarding the potential and imminent fracture of the Republican Party. Specifically, if there is a Trump nomination what will principled conservatives and libertarians do? In his piece Prof. Barnett observes,

Parties die. The Whigs died because they could not bring themselves to stand against the Democratic Party that overwhelmingly supported or, at least, tolerated slavery in the South and its extension into the territories, thereby threatening the North. So a new Republican Party very quickly arose to replace it. Now the national GOP establishment’s failure to listen to the people is on the verge of giving us Donald Trump. If it does, it deserves to be replaced by a party that puts the Constitution first and politics second.

He is right, of course, parties do die. General attitudes change, as do the substantive issues. In fact, it seems that parties should die a little more frequently.

Observing the few parties that have existed since the U.S. Constitution was ratified we see an early trend of relatively frequent party changes. However since the Civil War two parties have remained largely dominant. Two parties for over 150 years. This appears to be the anomaly. Before the Revolutionary War was won the Tory or Loyalist party had some political sway in American politics. After the Constitution was signed a two party system began to emerge with Hamilton and Adams on the side of the Federalists and Madison and Jefferson as the leaders of the Democratic-Republicans. Shortly thereafter, around 1829, a new Democrat party emerged stylized after the politics of Andrew Jackson, hence the past appellation of Jacksonian Democrats. In opposition was the Whig party, which lasted until right before the Civil War as it failed to respond to the issue of slavery, as Barnett pointed out. Since these two parties emerged, roughly stated- one with Jackson and the other with Lincoln- we have not seen a party officially replaced.

That is not to suggest that the parties have not changed. The progressive era transformed both parties, as they adopted more hands-on theories of government compared to their earlier incarnations. Even more recently, the Republican Party that nominated Nixon and the one that nominated Reagan had shifted comparatively. This is the life of a party though, adapt or die. By and large the parties have done a rather decent job adapting to new electorate conditions and likewise have persuaded the electorate. Yet, as illustrated by the aforementioned Whig example mentioned by Barnett, at times a party is too slow to adapt and as a consequence loses political force. As expected it is supplanted by a new, though often related, party.

Though the sample size is quite small in the United States, and as a result it is hard to determine if there is a clear pattern, the lack of party changes in the later half of American history compared to the first appears to be anomalous. If so, the question then is not only “Why is the party dying?” as that can often be explained very generally as: A failure to sufficiently adapt to underlying changes in the majority of the electorate. But instead the real and more interesting question is, “Why has it not happened more frequently?” Particularly considering that centralized institutions often struggle to maintain relevancy, tend to become corrupt, and often lack effective feedback mechanisms that provide relevant information required for sudden change. Even though parties, which are extremely large and diverse political systems, do have some built in feedback in the form of elections and internal party rules.

For most of the United States, elected offices have been decided by a two party systems. This is partly explained by Duverger’s law which asserts that: plurality-rule elections in single-member districts favor a two party system. As a result factions tend to congregate to the parties with whom they most closely align. This grants immense institutional power to the two parties and requires that a large amount of people split to have any chance of creating an alternate party. This was well demonstrated by the third party run of Ross Perot in the early 90’s. Despite receiving nearly 20% of the popular nation wide vote, Perot did not garner a single electoral vote. This a product of the combination of Duverger’s law and the rules of the Electoral College, which as a cautionary feature unique to the Presidential race and requires a candidate to win the entirety of a given state to receive its electoral votes. These are currently awarded based on the popular vote of a State.

Duverger’s law holds true for other offices as well, not just the presidency. In a three party race, the two who are closest aligned ideologically split the vote and allow their ideological opponent the win. In runoff systems this is prevented often by allowing multiple rounds or by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference. We can diversify our political field by moving toward runoff friendly systems. However, there are other ways that established parties are at an advantage. Three barriers to entry come to mind that protect entrenched parties from political disruption and thwart new entrants.

First, established parties do not always have to meet the same standards for ballot access that other parties do. Un-established parties often struggle to show the initial support necessary for ballot access. States cannot completely restrict access to the established parties as ruled in Williams v. Rhodes, thus granting parties “monopoly power.”  However, they may require parties to meet requirements demonstrating general support. This is not to suggest there is no legitimate interest of the state in requiring that parties show some level of support, if you have seen a ballot with a multitude of candidates this is immediately apparent. However it does increase the cost of entry for new parties, and partially protects incumbent parties from outside competition.

Another way government at the local and federal level have supported parties is through subsidizing the costs for primary elections, giving an appearance of approval and legitimacy to the entrenched parties while also lowering their costs. It would come, then, as no surprise that other parties have difficulty establishing themselves even when the other party members become disenchanted with current party trends.

Last, campaign finance laws raise the cost for new party entry. This is more indirect, but since campaign finance reform was instituted in the 70’s, after the Nixon Watergate scandal, incumbency has been increasingly difficult to overcome. As a result, old party members are less likely to be replaced by newer candidates or alternate party candidates, slowing any real shift in party trajectory and stalling party replacement when the time has come. Of course this will also contribute to the collapse in the long term as the feelings of disenfranchisement and discontent grow from the portion of voters that recognize incumbency as a near unconquerable trend. Hence all the current uproar against the ambiguous and increasingly unidentifiable “establishment.”

As most things that live past their due date, the longer something is artificially propped up the more likely the impending collapse carries greater force. Much like financial markets, political parties are subject to similar guiding forces and when the bubble bursts after being artificially sustained by government action it manifest in undesirable ways. With democracy, extreme dissatisfaction often gives way to populism. As a result we are likely better off if barriers to entry were decreased for candidates and parties alike.

James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to james@reasonedliberty.com or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1. All views are my own.

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