12/12/2012 07:06 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Issues, Principles and Party Realignment

Neither party stands for anything permanent. The parties have abandoned, adopted and traded principles in their lifetimes more so than most of us. As individuals, we can hold dear to our principles or hold dear to our party, but not both.

George Washington stated flatly that the parties are the "truly worst enemy" of popular government. John Adams added, "There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other. This, in my humble opinion, is to be feared as the greatest political evil under our Constitution." James Madison predicted the formation of parties of self interest separating those with property and those without, and between debtors and creditors. Prescient stuff. Maybe that's why parties aren't mentioned in the Constitution.

Factions, each united over positions on a small number of issues, align under one of the two parties, and a few outliers agitate on the periphery. Issues provide the gravitational pull that holds factions together and pulls them apart as issues rise and fall in prominence driven by civil rights issues including slavery, changing demographics and immigration, man-made disasters like the Dust Bowl, economic conditions like the Great Depression, or wars like Vietnam. Factions rise and fall in prominence as issues rise and fall, and sometimes the reordering of issues demands a new alignment of factions under the parties.

David Von Drehle retraced the realignments of American political parties from the Civil War up to 2004 and left open the possibility that another realignment was in the offing. As evidence of the impermanent relationship between parties and principles, he offers the following.

Once upon a time in America, there was a political party that believed in a strong central government, high taxes and bold public works projects. This party was popular on the college campuses of New England and was the overwhelming choice of African American voters. It was the Republican Party.

The Republicans got started as a counterweight to the other party: the party of low taxes and limited government, the party suspicious of Eastern elites, the party that thought Washington should butt out of the affairs of private property owners. The Democrats.

To a large extent, the two parties kept their names and traded principles. Of course the transformation of the two parties didn't occur in a single realignment. A slow, twisting process led to the parties we have today.

Political scientists who study the political parties are in general agreement about five phases of the two party system.

The Articles of Confederation served as the constitution during the Revolutionary War. Largely a legislative body composed of representatives of the states that retained their sovereignty, achieving unified action was more than problematic. The Constitutional Convention attempted to deal with the weak central government (confederation). A strong central government (federation) gained traction, but there wasn't agreement on just how strong the federal government should be relative to the states. The argument for strong central government was captured in the Federalist Papers and the argument against captured in the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Federalists won. The Constitution provided for a stronger central government with a chief executive, the authority to tax, and an independent judiciary. But the contest would continue.

The first party system (1796-1816) was characterized by a competition between Hamilton's Federalist Party and Jefferson's Republican Party (soon to be called the Democratic-Republican Party and finally just the Democratic Party). Federalists were northern, strong central government, high taxes, big business, and elitist. Jefferson's Republicans preferred a looser confederation of states with a relatively weak central government. Democrats were southern, weak central government, low taxes, rural and populist.

The second party system (1840-1856) replaced the first and was the shortest of the five. The new phase was characterized by the prominence of the Democratic and Whig parties. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans survived the realignment but had been renamed and then redefined by Andrew Jackson, who believed that central government should do nothing that the states could do for themselves. Members of Jackson's own party, who called him King Andrew for his bellicose and autocratic rule, bolted to the new anti-monarchist Whig Party that believed in an activist central government to build roads and canals and keep protective tariffs high. The Whigs represented commercial elites, including northern industrialists and financiers and southern cotton and tobacco interests.

The issue of slavery rose to prominence and forced the realignment from second to third party system (1860-1896). Some northern Democrats and northern Whigs abandoned their parties to join the new abolitionist Republican Party. Lincoln was one of the Whigs who became a Republican. The Democratic Party survived as the party of the South, the party of slavery. Whigs divided north/south over slavery, and the party collapsed. These are the two once-upon-a-time Democratic and Republican Parties that von Drehle refers to. The third party system spanned the Civil War (1861-1865), Reconstruction (1865-1877), and the Gilded Age (1877-1893). Moderate Republican Lincoln and Democrat Johnson were displaced by heavy-handed, self-labeled Radical Republicans during Reconstruction. But big business gained the upper hand and the Republican Party returned to laissez faire.

The fourth party system (1896-1932) was characterized by Republican dominance over the Democrats temporarily interrupted by the Woodrow Wilson administration. The system spanned the Progressive Era (1896-1916), WWI (1914-1918), and a postwar return to laissez faire. The industrial revolution resulted in explosive economic growth and a concentration of wealth never seen before or since. It also created horrid working and social conditions that pushed some European countries toward communism or fascism to oppose the observed deficits of unbridled capitalism. The U.S., instead, reformed under the Progressives. Activist central government dealt with monopolies, labor unions, women's suffrage, child labor, prohibition, cronyism, and party boss corruption but eventually ran out of steam.

In 1912, the Republican Party split between Taft's pro-business Republicans and Roosevelt's progressives and put a Democrat in the White House. After the war, Taft's pro-business, laissez-faire Republicans returned to an isolationist foreign policy, high tariffs, and hands off with respect to business. A Republican Senate rejected Wilson's League of Nations. Harding (1921-1923) campaigned on "Less government in business and more business in government." In office he spoke of America First, adopted isolationism in foreign policy, slashed taxes, maintained high tariffs, and tightened immigration. His administration was plagued by the Teapot Dome crony-capitalism scandal. Coolidge (1923-1929) continued isolationism, tax cuts, laissez-faire, including low farm subsidies, and was called "do nothing" by his critics. Hoover (1929-1933) entered office after a long and impressive career, and was immediately confronted by the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed. A new party system quickly emerged in response.

The fifth party system (1932-) saw the Democratic Party achieve dominance over the Republican. The laissez-faire Republican Party was branded as do-nothings at a time when the public demanded government action that only the Democratic Party was willing to provide. A new relationship rapidly developed between government and broad sectors of the citizenry. Fiercely independent farmers suffering under the Dust Bowl turned to the federal government for action and forged a still active relationship. A still larger group suffering under the Great Depression turned to the government for action on the economy. And the public aligned through government to defeat fascism in WWII. Action from a strong central government was seen as a force for good.

Political scientists haven't yet decided if and when the fifth system ended. Some say it remains in force. Others cite the importance of the 1968 rupture of the Democratic Party over the combined issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War; racists and war hawks felt increasingly unwelcome. Still others cite the rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the 1980s as a realignment. Some Rockefeller and Eisenhower Republicans became Democrats and others Independents. The remaining pro-business, establishment Republicans were too few to win national elections. To expand its base the Republican Party reached for the Southern Democrats who were disaffected over civil rights (1964) and voting rights (1965) legislation, and what they saw as the Democrats' abandonment of the war against communism in Vietnam. Big business corporate libertarians (elitist) co-opted individualist libertarians (populist) based on a shared distaste for strong central government.

This is the system currently under attack, and the contest is between a Democratic Party advocating an activist central government and a Republican Party agitating for a return to Jackson's weak central government that does nothing that the states can do for themselves. Democrats accept activism from a strong central government and apply established macro-economic arguments. Republicans approach current fiscal issues as a means to the end of weakening central government.

Given the typical longevity of past party systems, a major realignment should have been expected around 1968.

If asked 10 years ago, I would have guessed a breakup of the Democratic Party freeing factions to join in a new alignment. "Democrats in disarray" is an old cliché. Will Rogers said, "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." Present day Dems repeat Rogers' claim with joy even as their disarray costs them elections. Its disarray stems from being a big tent party, the Party of the People, and that bodes well for shifting demographic trends. During the same time frame, Republicans had a reputation for being in lock step. But no more.

Today, I'd guess the overdue realignment would be precipitated by a breakup of the Republican Party based on some apparently irreconcilable differences. The party comprises both authoritarian theocrats and individualist libertarians, both corporate libertarians (e.g., mine owners) opposing government regulation and rugged individualists (e.g., coal miners) who need government regulation to enforce safe working conditions, and both fiscal conservatives and advocates for profligate spending on defense and farm subsidies. The linchpin holding the coalition together is the belief that what's good for corporate America will trickle benefit down to wage earners, and the government needs to get out of the way. But believing something doesn't make it so. As evidence to the contrary piles up, the coalition may dissolve and result in the long overdue realignment. Or maybe not.

Mainstream Americans are not accurately represented by either party, and the number of self-proclaimed Independents is on the rise. There is considerable support for a strong military prepared to act when vital interests are threatened, but support rapidly trails off when the military functions as global police and the connection to vital interests isn't clear. There is considerable support for a safety net for the weakest members of society, free of inefficiency and abuse, but little support for a welfare state that creates a permanent dependency. While mainstream Americans have strong negative views of abortion, they prefer leaving such intimate decisions in the hands of individuals and families to follow their own conscience and religious beliefs rather than imposing their beliefs on others through federal or state law. The mainstream is represented only when the two parties compromise to find a middle ground, but compromise is rarely apparent today.

During the realignment from the third system to the fourth, Theodore Roosevelt said, "The Old parties are husks ... with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly on what should be said on the vital issues of the day." For several years, I've been hoping for a realignment that produces a party system representing mainstream America with the fringe elements agitating in the wings. I'm still hoping.