Are We Witnessing a Major Shift in America’s Two-Party System?

by Akim Reinhardt

DemublicansIn the 150 years since the end of the U.S. Civil War, the Republicans and Democrats have maintained a relentless stranglehold on every level of American politics nearly everywhere at all times. While a handful of upstart third parties and independent candidates have periodically made waves, none has ever come close to capturing the White House, or earned more than a brief smattering of Congressional seats. Likewise, nearly ever state and local government has remained under the duopoly's exclusive domain.

Why a duopoly? Probably because of they way the U.S. electoral system is structured. Duverger's Law tells us that a two-party duopoly is the very likely outcome when each voter gets one vote and can cast it for just one candidate to determine a single legislative seat.

However, in order to maintain absolute control of American politics and fend off challenges from pesky third parties, the Democrats and Republicans needed to remain somewhat agile. The times change, and in the endless quest to crest 50%, the parties must change with them.

Since the Civil War, both parties have shown themselves flexible enough to roll with the changes. The Civil War, the Great Depression, and Civil Rights era each upended the political landscape, leading political constituencies to shift, and forcing the Democrats and Republicans to substantially and permanently reorient themselves.

Now, several decades removed from the last major reshuffling of the two major parties, we may be witnessing yet another major transformation of the duopoly as the elephant and the donkey struggle to remain relevant amid important social changes. The convulsions of such a shift are reflected in the tumultuous spectacle of the parties' presidential nomination processes.

The Republicans are in a state of disarray, with inexperienced outsiders currently leading the pack while career politicians struggle to find their way. Meanwhile, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, also faces a serious threat from an outsider, independent socialist Bernie Sanders.

Personally I very much doubt that an outsider such as Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson will emerge to claim the nomination of either party. Party nominating procedures and the oceans of money flowing to mainstream candidates make it rather unlikely. However, these outsiders' surprising successes thus far may be an indication of something greater than their own charisma. It may very well signal the fourth major shift in America's two-party system since the Civil War.

How and why is such a shift occurring? And what might the two parties look like after the dust settles? To answer those questions, we should be begin with a brief history of the duopoly itself.

The 1st Iteration: 1854-1932
The first iteration of the Democratic-Republican duopoly emerged from the tumult of the Civil War era and lasted until the Great Depression. For nearly 80 years, the duopoly was framed by sectional divide as the nation lingered in the long shadow of the Civil War. The Democrats were the party of the South and the Republicans were the party of North

As Southern states re-entered the union during the Reconstruction Era (1865-77), white supremacists “redeemed” one Southern state after another; they used intimidation and violence to suppress the new African American franchise, to scare their white sympathizers out of the G.O.P., and to establish the South as a one-party region.

Later, white Southerners would employ legalistic tactics to codify the widespread disenfranchisement of black voters, and white Democrats would rule the South virtually unchallenged for a century. Along the way, they built a brutal system of Jim Crow apartheid based on the economic exploitation, social segregation, cultural denigration, and political oppression of African Americans.

Meanwhile, Republican interest in African American affairs had largely faded by the end of Reconstruction. A strain of moralism remained in the party, taking various forms, but business concerns came to dominate the G.O.P. at the national level. During the ensuing decades, Republicans supported business interests of the industrial North by promoting various protectionist tariffs and championing a tight currency to benefit creditors. The growing ranks of Northern urban industrial wage workers could often be brought to heel on this issue because they feared the rising prices that would result from an inflationary monetary policy.

All the while, Northerners continued to stew in their resentment over the war, and the Republican Party deftly used this to its advantage in dominating politics above the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, rallying a Republican electoral campaign around fiery rhetoric about the Civil War became so commonplace during the back half of the 19th century that the tactic earned a nickname: Waving the Bloody Shirt.

RedemptionAs the Democrats maintained their monopoly on the South, they also made modest but important inroads in the North. Urban Democrats appealed to urban immigrants who resented the patronizing bigotry of Victorian Republicans. By the end of the 19th century, cities like New York and Boston were dominated by immigrant-backed Democrats.

However, the emergence of a nascent Northern Democratic wing wasn't enough to prevent Republican dominance in national politics. With the exception of New York City, cities weren't big enough to swing states. Nearly every Northern state was reliably Republican; Ohio and New York were the only important swing states. And since the North had a far greater populace than the South, the results were predictable.

From 1860-1908, the Democrats were able to muster only one successful presidential candidate: former New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who won non-consecutive elections in 1884 and1892.

The Democrats broke through again in 1912 with Woodrow Wilson, but this was only possible because former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt broke away from the G.O.P. and ran a third party ticket against the Republican incumbent, William Taft, thereby splitting the Republican vote. When Wilson finished up his two terms in 1921, Republican dominance of the White House resumed at an unprecedented level with three successive and resounding victories by Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

After Hoover's 1928 drubbing of New York Democrat Al Smith, some pundits wondered if the Democrats were still a relevant national party. After all, in a span of 68 years, they had fielded just two presidents, and their defeats of the 1920s were staggering, with Republicans repeatedly setting records for margin of electoral victory. And after severe immigration restriction was enacted in 1924, Democrats' primary opportunity to expand in the North seemed cauterized.

Such concerns evaporated with the outbreak of the Great Depression in late 1929, and the popular tidal wave that brought Democrat Franklin Roosevelt to the White House in 1932. He would go on to win four consecutive elections, and his rise to power marks the second iteration of the Democratic-Republican duopoly.

The 2nd Iteration: 1932-1950
If the catastrophe of civil war had established the first iteration of the Republican-Democratic duopoly, then the calamity of the Great Depression created an opportunity for the master politician Franklin Roosevelt to usher in the second iteration. For while his initial victory in 1932 was largely a result of Herbert Hoover's deep unpopularity, his 1936 campaign reshaped the Democratic Party for decades to come, and by default, greatly impacted the Republicans too.

In 1932, Roosevelt had run as a centrist against Hoover's dogmatic laissez-faire conservativism. FDR was touted as the man who saved capitalism from itself. However, by 1936, he learned the lesson that on some level seemed to elude Barack Obama: It is nearly impossible to broker reasonable compromises with extremists.

So instead of continuing to extend the olive branch to conservatives, only to see them continually snap it and sneer, FDR comfortably settled into his progressive base and forged what came to be known as the Roosevelt Coalition. The Solid South, as the Democratic South was known, would be complemented by four major constituencies in the North:

-African Americans: FDR hadn't excluded them from the New Deal, and they were grateful.
-Urbanites: FDR expanded the old Democratic immigrant vote with a progressive agenda. For example, he championed the repeal of prohibition.
-Labor: FDR promoted legislation that expanded union rolls, and union members repaid him with votes.
-Farmers: Various New Deal programs helped rural America. This would prove to be the weakest link in the chain.

From among these core, Northern Democratic constituencies, black voters offer them most dramatic example of the shift that had taken place. In 1932, Hoover claimed only 39% of the total popular vote, but 75% of the African American vote, as blacks remained loyal to the party of Lincoln. Just four years later, Roosevelt the Democrat captured 75% of the black vote.

The second iteration of the Republican-Democratic duopoly was now set. In addition to maintaining the Solid South, Democrats were the party of America's urban working class: white ethnics descended from European immigrants who had arrived between 1880-1920; African Americans who fled the rural, Jim Crow South for Northern industrial jobs; and a rising tide of organized labor among the working classes.

The Republicans, meanwhile, catered to the established white population outside the South. They remained the party of business interests and moralism. Their primary demographic was middle class, white Protestants. In other words, the Republican Party appealed the majority of Americans not in the South or the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

FDRThis competitive balance defined the Democratic-Republican duopoly for several decades after World War II. Both parties were conservative in foreign affairs during the Cold War. On domestic issues, the Democrats followed FDR's lead, pushing a progressive agenda that reached its climax with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (1963-69), while Republicans held a center-right position. Scarred by the Great Depression, both parties accepted the basic tenets of Keynesian economics, believing the government had a role to play in moderating the boom/bust economic cycle. There were real differences between the two parties, but the distance between them was not vast.

Of the eight presidential elections following Franklin Roosevelt's reign, each party one four.

However, by the late 1960s, this second iteration was of the duopoly began was beginning to crumble under the weight of major demographic, social, and economic shifts. The person who best took advantage of those changes was Ronald Reagan.

The 3rd Iteration: 1980-?
By the late 1960s, three main factors had begun to wreak havoc on the Democrats' old Roosevelt coalition: deindustrialization, suburbanization, and civil rights.

The decline of America's manufacturing economy depleted the ranks of union workers specifically and blue collar workers more generally. It also greatly damaged the cities of the industrial Northeast and Midwest.

Just as cities began to deteriorate, a massive housing boom on their rural edges was subsidized by federal agencies such as the Veteran's Administration (via the G.I. Bill) and the Federal Housing Authority. Farms morphed into suburbs, which then siphoned off populations from nearby cities. And these new suburban voters were up for grabs.

As cities lost population, capital, and tax revenues, crime skyrocketed and city services crumbled. White flight escalated in the 1970s and 1980s, and the white middle class largely vacated urban America for the new suburbs.

The other trend that radically reshaped American demography was a massive westward migration that had begun during World War II and continued unabated in the decades that followed. Millions of Americans left the East for the growing industrial sector along the Pacific coast, and to a lesser extent the Southwest.

However, post-WWII growth in Western cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle was fundamentally different than the growth of 19th century Eastern cities. Amid cheap Western real estate and the rise of car culture, Western urban growth was actually suburban growth.

Thus, post-war white-flight suburbanization in the East was complemented by migratory suburbanization in the West, both of which shifted power away from traditional Democratic cities. But perhaps the most problematic development for the Democrats, or certainly the most complicated, was the rise of civil rights.

At first glance it seemed that African Americans regaining their franchise in the South was a win for Democrats. But of course it wasn't that simple. Millions of blacks had left the South since the early 20th century, mostly moving to Northern cities. Meanwhile, the Southern white backlash against civil rights drove many white Southerners out of the Democratic Party, and there were not enough black Southern voters to counter them.

The Southern backlash first appeared in presidential politics. Democrats continued to dominate Southern local and state elections for decades, but almost immediately began losing white voters in the quadrennial cycle. As early as 1948, when Democratic President Harry Truman made civil rights part of his platform, White Southerners had voted for a third party segregationist: Democrat schismatic, “Dixiecrat” Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

The third party segregationist trend continued in the 1960s with the rise of Alabama's George Wallace. But eventually it was the Republicans who adapted and began scooping up disaffected Southern whites. Richard Nixon employed his notorious Southern Strategy in 1972, courting white Southerners with barely coded racist appeals. Republicans would continue that tactic for two decades, proving that either major party was capable of profiting from racism.

But the long term electoral impact of Civil Rights stretched well beyond the South. The Civil Rights movement had helped usher in an era of protests that manifested itself in various forms ranging from the anti-Vietnam War movement, to women's rights, to Black, Red, and Chicano Power movements. And if white Southerners were alienated by black civil rights, then many white Northerners were alienated by the protest movements that followed.

Once again, Republicans pounced, offering a new law and order/tough on crime/silent majority platform that many white ethnics found attractive. With the Solid South slowly disintegrating, the biggest Northern Democratic pillar also began tilting Republican, pushed by their resentment over the protest culture, their fear of crime, and their disenchantment with cities that were increasingly dark and poor.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's overwhelming victory against incumbent Jimmy Carter was made possible by this convergence of forces. As a former governor of California, Reagan represented the new suburban West; furthering Nixon's old Southern Strategy, he ate into the Democratic South, with Carter holding onto only his Native Georgia; and the Gipper also swept most of the Northeast by appealing to voters the press dubbed Reagan Democrats: disaffected white, urban ethnics, many of whom were now actually new suburbanites. Their patron saint was Archie Bunker.

Archie BunkerThe Reagan Revolution spawned the third iteration of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Democrats still held the Northern urban vote, which was increasingly poor and minority. They also held most of the South in local and state elections. Meanwhile Republicans, still the party of business, began gobbling up much of suburbia by attracting several other conservative demographics: cultural (Christian) conservatives who prioritized issues like abortion, school prayer, and an opposition to feminism; social conservatives who wanted government to get tough on crime; hawkish political conservatives who rejected Nixon's detente Cold War strategies; and economic conservatives who opposed the New Deal reforms, loathed LBJ's Great Society reforms, and rejected the Keynesian economic doctrines that had dominated mid-century American politics.

Suburbia, now firmly established as the home to America's white middle class, was the new electoral battleground of the duopoly's third iteration. This posed a major problem for the Democrats. Generally speaking, suburbia was more conservative than the industrial cities of the 1st and 2nd iterations had been. Even the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965 didn't help the Democrats as much as they had hoped. Instead of replenishing cities, new immigrants were more likely to settle in suburbs, and became less reliably Democratic, although they still leaned that way.

During the 1990s, the Democrats adjusted to this new reality by moving to the right. The shift was embodied most dramatically by Bill Clinton, whose infamous politics of “triangulation” saw him repeatedly undercut Republicans by beating them to the conservative punch.

On issues like free trade, welfare reform, and mandatory sentencing, Clinton outmaneuvered the G.O.P. and dragged his party further from its progressive moorings. Meanwhile, Democrats placated their base by remaining liberal on social and cultural issues such as gun control and abortion rights. Split the difference and you might consider them the Democrats the party of the Expansive Center, or the Straddled Center. They have remained there ever since.

The 4th Iteration?
The 1st iteration of the Democratic-Republican duopoly, based on geography in the aftermath of the Civil War, lasted three-quarters of a century. The 2nd iteration, based on social and economic class in the aftermath of the Great Depression, lasted half a century. The 3rd iteration, based on a tripod of suburbanization, deindustrialization, and Civil Rights, may be waning as we speak.

If so, the we are perhaps on the verge of a 4th iteration of the Republican-Democrat duopoly, one which is based on ideology.

Today both parties are struggling to define themselves in ways that appeal to voters. Even with structural forces largely insulating the Democrats and Republicans from third party challenges, they are stumbling badly as they try to maintain their relevance. Consider the evidence.

According to a Gallup poll conducted last January, 43% of America's registered voters are Independent. Only 30% are Democrats. Barely a quarter are Republicans. This is a staggering development, a forceful rejection of both parties by a plurality of the nation's voters. These numbers are even more impressive when one considers that more than half the states run closed primaries that require party registration to vote in party primaries.

Yet because of a political system that punishes third parties at every turn, the duopoly remains. And so, even as more than four-tenths of registered voters have abandoned the two major parties, third party such as the Greens or Libertarians remain on life support. Instead of their expansion we are seeing a reshaping of the Republicans and Democrats.

As tens of millions have flee the major parties, what often remains behind is an energized, extremist base. That is not to say most Independents are necessarily moderates. Rather, as disaffected party members leave, the remaining party membership becomes more homogeneous and ideology crystalizes. And so the Republicans move further into their conservative corner while Democrats are evermore bogged down in the straddled center.

Compounding this development is the increasing social and economic segregation of Americans, which has now reached unprecedented levels. The divides between rich and poor, white and black (or brown), and religious and secular, are thoroughly mirrored by geography. For example, as wealth inequality grows, wealthy families continue to segregate themselves in exclusive enclaves, while the poor are left behind in abandoned rural and urban pockets. Meanwhile, the various shades of middle class sort themselves out in suburbia.

Likewise, racial segregation in America is now worse than it has been at any time in the nation's history, including during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. This development, which was utterly unfathomable after the Civil Rights movement toppled Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, results from a complicated brew of economic and social factors. The net result is that even America's ultimate multi-cultural city, New York, is made up of little more than highly segregated ethnic and economic pockets.

Patterns of ethnic, social, and economic segregation dominate modern America. And that has made it all the easier for politicians to gerrymander local, state, and Congressional electoral districts; dividing up Americans isn't quite so hard when Americans have already divided themselves.

Consequently, fewer and fewer general elections at any level are competitive. Instead, Democrats and Republicans have created a patchwork of fiefdoms for themselves across the electoral landscape. In essence, many political districts, whether federal, state, or local, have descended into effective one-party rule. That in turn means more and more politicians face no real threat in the general election. Instead, they must expend almost all their energy and resources securing the party's nomination, which effectively translates into electoral victory.

As politicians increasingly run in what amount to single-party districts, they must cater to their party's base during primary elections. And with party ranks depleting, the parties are producing more extreme platforms. Suuccessful primary politicians must cater to extreme ideologies; as time goes by and politicians emerge from such cultures, they actually believe extreme ideologies.

Amid these developments, Republicans and Democrats are likely transforming into their fourth duopolistic iteration.

For the most part, they are no longer primarily the parties of North and South, of class, or even of race and place. Echoes of all these prior iterations remain, of course. However, increasingly the elephant and the donkey are the parties of Liberal and Conservative ideology.

The Republicans are the Conservative party and the Democrats are the Liberal Party, each becoming ever more focused on its own ideological agenda.

For the Republicans, this trend first became a national issue with the rise of the Tea Party earlier in this century. Since then, far-right wingers have increasingly asserted themselves at every level of the G.O.P. For Democrats, the move to an ideological platform above all else has not been as dramatic or as fast. In part this is because the Occupy Movement (the Left's version of the Tea Party in some respects) was far less institutionally organized than the Tea Party, did not infiltrate a party to the same degree, and no longer even exists as such. Furthermore, since the Democrats have established themselves along the straddled center, their base now has to drag them back towards the center on economic issues, not away from it, and such a movement is inherently less dramatic than rambling away from the center, which is what the Republicans are doing.

Regardless, the reshaping of both parties into ideological institutions is becoming readily apparent as they muddle their way through the current presidential nomination process.

Each party's establishment is struggling to push a conventional political candidate to the fore. This is most evident with the Republicans, as conservative politicians like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush are confounded by amateurs who lap them in the polls, one an ultra-conservative (Ben Carson), the other a brash populist (Donald Trump).

The situation in the Democratic Party is not quite as extreme, yet the ongoing success of Bernie Sanders mirrors that of Carson and Trump on the Republican side, at lest to some degree. Sanders is a lifetime politician, unlike Carson and Trump, but he is an outsider in other ways. Not only has Sanders never been a member of the Democratic Party until his current run for its presidential nomination, but he is an avowed Socialist, far to the left of any presidential nominee the Democratic Party has ever produced.

The likeliest scenario, due to a variety of factors ranging from campaign funding to party-influenced voting procedures, is that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and some established Republican politician like Marco Rubio will capture the G.O.P. nomination. Despite this, however, we may nevertheless be witnessing a substantial shift in the political duopoly. More and more, both major parties are using modern Conservative and Liberal ideology as the main filter for attracting voters, as older filters like geography and class begin to fail.

The Republican Party has stationed itself on the far right of virtually every conceivable issue. Meanwhile the Democratic establishment is struggling to maintain its center-right economic platform as the party's base demands a shift to the left.

As the parties continue their process of purging and ideological purification, we find that there are no more conservative Democrats, nor are there any liberal Republicans. Eve moderate Republicans are an increasingly rare breed, and moderate Democrats may not be far behind.

A politician of the duopoly's 3rd iteration, such Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, may very well be the next president. Nevertheless, ideologically extreme politicians are playing evermore important roles in local and state governments, as well as Congress.

It seems that perhaps the 4th major iteration of the Democratic-Republican duopoly is upon us and the guiding factor is ideology.

Akim Reinhardt's website is