In a year that has already seen impeachment, plague, and fire, and with total warfare battle over filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat and an even higher-stakes and equally uncertain election still to come, it’s easy to feel as if U.S. democracy is crumbling before our eyes.
Yet here’s some potentially good news in a year without much of it: The United States has been through moments of political and economic crisis before, and out of each crisis emerged a much-needed transformation of the country’s politics and economy. There’s reason to expect the 2020s to be a decade of major political evolution, as well. And none too soon: The United States is overdue for both an overhaul of its party system and a major renewal of its ever evolving democracy.
Broadly speaking, U.S. politics has had six party systems—that is, distinct eras in which party competition was somewhat stable, both in the relative balance of power between the parties and in the types of issues that the parties fought over, such as the role of government in the economy. These eras roughly covered 1796-1820, 1832-1856, 1868-1892, 1896-1928, 1932-1968, and 1980 until now. The transitions between each system were generally led from the top down, through rifts and realignments in elite coalitions and ideologies, typically catalyzed by societal crises. The first five party systems lasted, by this count, 24, 24, 24, 32, and 36 years—a certain regularity, with the length expanding as people lived longer. By this pattern, the current party system should probably be collapsing about now.
Overlaid on this pattern of party system and collapse are four major periods of bottom-up democratic transformation in the United States. These are the Revolutionary War (from monarchy to self-governance), the 1830s (major expansion of the franchise to nonpropertied white males), the Progressive Era (major expansions of participatory democracy and expansion of the franchise to women), and the 1960s (voting rights and enfranchisement of Black people, plus some governance reforms). Again, there’s a regular pattern, with some kind of transformation coming about every 60 years or so. Here, too, the United States is due for a wave of bottom-up democratic transformation.
It may seem unlikely that such a complex political system really transforms with semiregularity. And it may seem that this moment is unique, given the unusual confluence of factors the United States is facing, most notably the hyperpartisanship of its politics and sharp racial and cultural differences that seem to power the divide between the parties.
Certainly, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. And no doubt, there are elements of current U.S. politics that make the chances of another transformation and renewal deeply uncertain. But the lessons of history have value. They can tell us what looks like charted territory, what looks like uncharted territory, and what updates are needed to keep the United States’ creaky old system of self-governance working.
Because of the country’s unique electoral system—first-past-the-post plurality elections and a one-round, winner-take-all Electoral College—U.S. politics has always had two dominant national parties to structure political competition. In turn, the two parties have had to be big-tent coalitions, since any party attempting to build a governing majority will by necessity need to include lots of disparate interests across broad geographies. But coalitions are hard to maintain over long periods of times, as allies on certain issues are bound to be enemies on others.
Over time, the principles that unite a coalition together in one moment fray—and the governing ideologies that solved a previous problem create their own future problems, demanding a new ideology. Demographics change, too, altering the relative balances of power, both between and within parties. But voting loyalties are sticky. And especially in a two-party system, breaking from a coalition comes at a high cost if the opposing coalition can’t accommodate your demands either. That is why it typically takes a major event, like an economic depression or a major conflict over race, to break a coalition apart.
For example, the party system of 1832-1856 was based on a relatively balanced competition between the populist frontier-oriented Democratic Party founded by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren and the more cosmopolitan industry-friendly Whig Party formed in opposition to “King Andrew.” The parties argued between themselves over canals and tariffs. Internally, they argued over slavery, since both had Northern and Southern wings. When westward expansion made the slavery question unavoidable, both parties split, and a civil war and new alignment emerged.
Almost a century later, the party system of 1932-1968 came together in response to the shock of the Great Depression. Democrats dominated, held together by a New Deal coalition of Northern and Southern Democrats, who were relatively united in their support for a social welfare state but were divided on how much it should just be for white people. The coalition held as long as civil rights remained a local issue and as long as many Americans remained in poverty. But the civil rights revolution of the 1960s jettisoned Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party, and the success of the New Deal in expanding the middle class shifted the politics of redistribution.
The United States’ current party system cohered around 1980, with the Republican Party uniting a coalition of market libertarians, evangelical values voters, and foreign-policy hawks. Democrats comprised a coalition of cosmopolitan liberals, lower-income people of color, and backers of a laundry list of social causes. For both parties, “neoliberalism” because the dominant economic ideology, a fuzzy term that defined markets and privatization as the primary tools of both domestic public policy and international relations. With a relative consensus around neoliberalism, cultural and racial issues became the dominant cleavage in the system along with an increasingly polarized urban-rural “density divide.”
That party system seemed on its last legs as early as four years ago. At the time, the 2016 presidential election appeared to augur the coming of a new party system, with newly elected President Donald Trump as the vanguard of a now economically populist Republican Party. Yet whereas candidate Trump may have signaled as much with his pledged commitments to the social welfare state and domestic manufacturing, as president Trump lacked both the policy infrastructure and the internal party consensus to carry it through. Instead, his presidency has been defined by a remarkable maintenance of the existing Republican coalition. Thanks to his own flexibility, his lack of policy knowledge, his astounding cult of personality, and his singular ability to blame “radical Democrats,” Trump has held together a party so beset by internal disagreement that it publicly stands for pretty much nothing—only against the fevered threat of a violent Marxist revolution by a racially militant Democratic Party. Democrats have been able to a cobble together a policy platform ahead of this year’s election, but even they have elided their divisions by shifting focus to the existential risk of a second Trump term—an obvious strategy given both Trump’s clear failures and the lack of internal policy unity.
That both parties are fractured does not necessarily herald a realignment. Internal division is a constant of U.S. party politics. What does signal a potential shuffle is the lack of any substantive arguments about the big questions that have defined partisan conflict throughout U.S. history: the role of government, the regulation of the economy, or the United States’ role in the world. Instead, this election is about why the other party would destroy democracy and the country, in narratives suffused with race.
In past times of ideological vacuum, U.S. political parties were more easily able to adopt new ideas because the party coalitions were looser affiliations of state and local groups less closely attached to the national organization. Although this structure had its obvious problems, it was also more flexible with more potential for recombination.
Today’s two parties are far more nationalized, and in a hyperpartisan 24/7 media environment, every issue quickly becomes a pants-on-fire crisis. That makes it much more difficult to imagine the kinds of cross-cutting issues that generated realignments in the past. And now, as if the country’s hyperpartisan politics couldn’t get any more bitterly hyperpartisan, the gods have laughed at us again by taking Ginsburg just six weeks before an election. Further, whereas today’s parties may be divided internally, at the elite level they are divided along a single partisan dimension, in which the threat of the other party itself serves as a unifying force.
In theory, a major national crisis could force one party to adopt a new governing ideology out of necessity and then solidify a new coalition around it. COVID-19 is probably not such a crisis because too many people see it as temporary. Climate change, however, could fit the bill, as could a major economic depression. But given the country’s hyperpolarized politics, the greater risk is that the crisis itself instead becomes a partisan issue, in the way that COVID-19 and the environment have. In that case, the United States is screwed.
It’s a good thing, then, that the country may be due for a bottom-up democratic transformation because it is sure going to need one to fix its broken politics. Like party realignments, transformations of democracy have a certain cyclical logic, which the political scientist Samuel Huntington laid out in his classic book American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. U.S. democracy is founded on ideals, but they are ideals it never quite lives up to—that government should be “egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups” (per Huntington’s formulation). But since no functional government can be all these things simultaneously, disappointment perpetually defines the American political imagination.
Most of the time, Americans accept, ignore, or deny the gap between the ideal and the reality. But periodically, this gap widens into such an overwhelming chasm that the spirit of reform and innovation takes over and social movements demand widespread changes to remedy the shortfalls by making U.S. democracy more inclusive and responsive. The reforms work, sort of—at least well enough to restore some lost legitimacy to the political system and quell interest in reform for a while. Eventually, though, problems arise, and demand for reform builds again.
The current political moment, with its widespread discontent, grievance, and restlessness, bears many of the familiar hallmarks of previous eras leading to democratic reform. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, more than 6 in 10 Americans agreed that “significant changes are needed in the fundamental design and structure of American government.” In each previous era, the challenge was different. But in each era, when reform came, it wasn’t from Washington. It was from the bottom up, with political elites eventually getting on board.
For reformers today, given the existential democracy-undermining risk of hyperpartisan two-party politics in which neither side acknowledges the legitimacy of the other, the first priority must be breaking the two-party “doom loop.” My recommendation would be to change how Americans vote by adopting ranked-choice voting with multimember districts, a proportional system used in Ireland and Australia. Such a system would support more parties, breaking the binary partisan dynamics driving gridlock, extremism, and breakdown. Most importantly, it would allow new, more flexible coalitions—not reliant for support on questioning the legitimacy of the other—to form.
U.S. politics desperately needs a political realignment to respond to the economic and climate crises bearing down on it. Instead, the country will spend the next several months consumed with another knock-down partisan fight over the Supreme Court, whose growing centrality is testament to Congress’s inability to resolve conflicts legislatively, and then likely an even more contentious fight over the legitimacy of the November election. The only way to break the democracy-destroying doom loop is by making it easier for more parties to compete. The future of U.S. democracy depends on it.