The two-party system

by John Quiggin on May 6, 2007

Reading Jonathan Chait on the netroots and (belatedly) Off Center by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson,* it strikes me that the real political news of the last six months is the fact that the US now has a standard two-party system, arguably for the first time in its history. From Reconstruction until the final success of Nixon’s Southern strategy in the late 20th century, the fact that the Democratic Party represented the white establishment in the South made such a thing impossible. Under the primary system the two “parties” were little more than state-sanctioned institutional structures to ensure that voters (outside the South) got a choice of exactly two candidates.

From the 1970s onwards, though, this structure was obsolete. Having absorbed (and to some extent having been absorbed by) the white Southern establishment, the Republicans were clearly a party of the right, and started to act like one, requiring ideological unity and party discipline from its members, establishing a supporting apparatus of thinktanks and friendly media outlets and so on. As both Off Center and Chait observe in different ways, attempts by groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and the centrist media establishment to continue playing by the old rules simply ensured that the Republicans could win even when, on the issues, they were clearly pushing a minority position.

The netroots phenomenon is one reaction to this. But even more striking is the fact that the Democrats in Congress now match the kind of party discipline shown by the Republicans. After the 2006 elections, most commentary assumed that the party could not possibly hold together with its slender majorities in both houses, but they have clearly learned the basic dictum of party politics “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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