Two’s a Party

Republicans and Democrats dominate U.S. politics. You have some 1950s political scientists to thank for that.

FDR and Wendell Willkie.
FDR and Wendell Willkie. Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Bachrach/MPI/Getty Images

Before the 1950s, what you thought about health care, guns, or abortion had little to do with where your vote went. Then the modern two-party system came along—or was engineered. On a recent episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca spoke with Sam Rosenfeld, author of The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, about the evolution of political parties in the U.S. Their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is reprinted below.

Mike Pesca: FDR and his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, never got to hatch their plan, which was to essentially make the political parties ideologically pure. Willkie was more or less a liberal Republican. FDR was a liberal Democrat. Their idea was if they could form one superparty, the conservative elements of each of the other parties would fall away. Now that never happened, but sorting did happen, which you write about in your new book. The subtitle is The Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era. Is architects the right word?

Sam Rosenfeld: I would say certainly there are no puppet masters occupying the commanding heights of the parties, like you saw with Roosevelt trying to hatch a scheme with Wendell Willkie in 1944. On the other hand, I definitely think and emphasize the work of conscious actors. There was articulated on both the right and left a critique, a small-D democratic critique, of the midcentury party system, and an argument for making the parties more ideologically defined and more ideologically distinct as solving some of those problems.

E.E. Schattschneider is the leader of this group in the early postwar era. Schattschneider and his ilk were tasked by the American Political Science Association in the late 1940s to form this committee on political parties to study the party system in the United States and offer prescriptions for how to make it better. They put out a report in 1950 called “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” which advocated for a series of reforms on how Congress, the national committees, and the state and local parties should work to bring this differentiation about.

The era that I’m talking, with the Roosevelt Democrats, was this so different from how the parties were organized since the Civil War, when there were Republicans and Democrats and when the Republicans essentially took the place of the Whigs?

The 19th century is called by a lot of historians and political scientists the “party period” in American history, where political parties absolutely structured and defined American politics and policymaking in a way they never have ever since. You didn’t have real ideological clashes over the welfare state, the role of the government and the economy, culture, et cetera. The things that they were organized around had more to do with patronage, with distributive economic development policy that they would dole out to their party network or the other guy’s party network.

What you get over the course of the 20th century is work by ideological factions in both parties to essentially remake their parties in their own image. Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are shared partners in pursuing a project in which the parties would end up reflecting a clash of those ideologies.

If we went back to the time when Willkie and FDR were talking about their deal and simulated a million futures, how often would we get a situation like we do now, with these ideologically sorted parties?

I’m enough of a determinist to say that there were underlying changes in society that were making less and less tenable party formations that didn’t have to do with policy and ideology. At the same time, there’s nothing inevitable about the combinations of issue positions that we call liberalism and conservatism looking the way they ended up doing.

Being against abortion and being against the welfare state, we call that conservatism, but in a lot of countries, they don’t. It just happens to be a blending of two issues that have some similarities but have some differences.

Oh yeah, and putting together pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax—those are issue positions that happened very recently. This was the work of brokers and activists on the right in the 1970s and 1980s and similar things happening on the left. In the multiple universes that you could see, you could potentially envision different kinds and combinations of issues getting to be put together by the architects that I have discussed.

The 2016 election—or particularly Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination in the first place—really underscored the degree to which there is electoral potential at any given point, and certainly at this point on the Republican side, to take unorthodox positions. It’s easy to forget now because he abandoned all of it in government, but in addition to the wall and everything else that we associate with Trumpism, in the primaries, he was talking about how he’s the only Republican who’s going to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He’s going to invest $1 billion in infrastructure. He’s going to raise taxes on hedge funders.

There is definitely electoral potential for different kinds of combinations of issue positions and ideological clustering. Once he was president, Trump didn’t do any of this because there was no organized faction within his party, within his administration, within the broader conservative movement that wanted any of this or had any leverage to push any of those unorthodox positions. So we’ve gotten a much more orthodox, conservative Republican and regressive economic agenda, which is just to say that it takes a lot of work and sustained effort to build those kinds of potential alternative worlds.

The state that we’re in now is not a great state if you look at public perception of Congress, how many bills are passed, how much each Congress gets things done. How much of that is attributable to the polarization?

I think a lot of it. Those are only occasional periods when you get uniform party control of government, and even during those periods when there’s productive things happening, the tenor of partisan conflict guarantees that half of the country hates what’s happening and thinks it’s destroying the country at any point.

That last point is really important because a case can be made that the actual accomplishments under an ideologically sorted party system aren’t that bad. Yes, there was a Great Recession, but the seeds of that were pretty bipartisan. Both parties wanted deregulation. There were some exceptions, but it was bipartisan. There was a lot of partisanship in terms of the stimulus package and trying to correct it, but correct it we did. If you look at the underlying GDP and if you look at even things like some measures of wages, things have actually been improving in America and things are a lot better in America than in Europe.

A case could be made—a gentle case—that the parties have provided. The thing that it’s done is what you said—when the parties were an ideological muddle, people didn’t know who to blame. We’ve created a system that perfectly tells you who to blame. We’ve created a perfect boogeyman that could map onto any bad situation. And add that to the fact that we’re living in this world of social media, which are these perfect anxiety-generation machines.

I do think the best one can hope for is to get elected with your party, and in the first two years, get as much as you think would be good for the country accomplished and then expect a wave midterm election that throws your party out of power in the other side and then grind it out for the next two to six years and rinse and repeat.

Are there any other countries that have been through this and come out the other end for good or ill?

What I tell students of American politics is to remind them that other democratic political systems work completely differently. In parliamentary systems, you never by definition see the crisis potential we’ve been witnessing in the last few years of almost defaulting on the debt, governments shutting down every once in a while.

That kind of thing can’t happen when you’re giving one coalition or one party uniform control and responsibility for governance until there’s another election. At the same time, it’s no great shakes over there when there’s a mass disaffection from the major center-right and center-left parties in those countries, particularly the center-left parties. Then you get fragmentation into new, more extreme splinter parties. There’s problems to go around in the democratic world.

What is a popular movement within the political science community that there are many champions of that you worry could have some unintended consequences?

I don’t want to make enemies. I don’t have tenure.

I’ll punt by saying that most political scientists are skeptical of panaceas that are out there, so sometimes they’re supported by political scientists who are basically anti-party. Regardless of your substantive views, I think political scientists see value even in this day and age of hyperpartisanship and dysfunction in strong parties that can organize conflict in democratic societies and offer simple choices to voters. The tendency to mistake the symptoms for the disease and attempt to limit or roll back parties’ influence in organizing politics and governance is something that, were it to make further advances, I don’t think would end up curing what ails us. I think most political scientists would agree with me.