Thoughts on the Two Party System – A Response to Senator Ebke

Thoughts on the Two Party System – A Response to Senator Ebke

This past week Nebraska’s Libertarian State Senator, Laura Ebke, posted some thoughts on her personal Facebook page about the party system in America that called to mind several of my own reflections. In a spirit of good natured debate I’ll pull them together here in response to Senator Ebke. First, the Senator’s quote in full:

“Going through some old class materials that I put together 5 or 6 years ago, I ran across a slide where I said this: The major political parties in America are not primarily ideological; the goal of the Party is to create a “governing coalition.”
A couple of thoughts to add tonight: When a major political party fails to meet the goal of a “governing coalition” it risks fracturing itself. When that happens the time is potentially ripe for a 3rd party to emerge as a stronger alternative (a realignment along the lines of 1850 when the Whigs disappeared and were replaced by Republicans, in short). In order to emerge, however, the 3rd Party must be willing to be more accepting of those who think “generally” in their direction, rather than demanding ideological purity. In other words, Third Parties must create their own “governing coalition” if they hope to be a force in the political system.”

Let’s take a look at each of these claims.

“The major political parties in America are not primarily ideological; the goal of the Party is to create a “governing coalition.”” I trust that with this statement what the Senator is saying is that the goal of political parties is to win elections. For years this has been an utterly uncontroversial statement, reflecting the consensus of political science academia. Let’s assume arguendo that that consensus is correct – right off the bat we have a source of political alienation that has weakened the party system. The goal of the Party may be to win elections, but the goal of voters is to influence policy. In other words, for the Party as an institution winning an election is the ends, but for its voters the election is the means. The push for more ideological consistency in the major parties in recent years reflects base voter dissatisfaction with electoral victories that fail to realize policy dividends.

I think there is also room for fresh skepticism about the consensus as to whether the goal of the major political parties is to “win” or create a “governing coalition.” Not to sound overly conspiratorial, but for the elites that make decisions for the party, what if the goal is their own personal bottom line? For those among the political elites in the Republican Party that make their living on pork spending and consulting fees, it might be completely rational to prefer to lose to a Democrat that supports crony capitalism than win with an ideologically consistent Republican. How many of the NRSC and NRCC’s endorsement decisions in the past 8 years can be explained by this alternative hypothesis? If true, this is another reason for voters in the Party to insist upon ideological consistency.

Let’s return to Ebke’s comments about governing coalitions and the risks of party fracture. Ebke is claiming that the Party enjoys more stability when its motives are not ideological, and that it risks political fracture when that ceases to be the case. But what are the alternatives to a coalition based upon ideology and how will those alternatives engender greater political stability or health to the political system? Would a coalition based on regional affinity like that of the Dixiecrats be preferred? Or a coalition based on identity politics like those of George Wallace or the modern Democrat Party be preferred? I’d argue no. Ebke laments the current state of the Republican Party for its insistency upon “ideological purity,” but a party based on ideological purity to conservative principles would not make Donald Trump its presumed nominee for Presidency.

Contra to the views of Ebke, I think the real risk fracture to a political party arises not from a failure to assemble a governing coalition, but rather from a failure to address the issues most intensely animating its voters. Ebke uses the Whig/Republican case study – but I think the example actually cuts opposite of her conclusions. The Whig Party was the epitome of a broad coalition loosely organized around support for industrial growth and congressional supremacy, but it failed to take a strong stand on the foremost issue of the day – Slavery. In contrast the Democrat Party that stood in opposition to the Whigs was consistently for the preservation of slavery in the South, and it endures to the present.

I empathize with Senator Ebke’s dissatisfaction with the state of Two-Party system, and I think she is on to something by calling our attention to the prevailing consensus about the purpose of political parties and how they channel voter aspirations. But ultimately I think she places the blame for the current state of the Republican Party in the wrong place. It’s not an insistence upon ideological purity that has led to dissatisfaction with the Party by its voters, but rather a failure to consistently govern according to the same principles that it espouses when it is soliciting votes. Since the year 2000, the Republican Party has had complete control of the Federal government for 4 years, control of the Senate for 6 years, and control of Congress for 10 years, and yet the size, scope, and spending at the federal level has grown every year. The Party’s voters are rightly asking what is the point of having a Republican Party if it fails to effectively govern conservatively? I think Ebke is ultimately correct that the success or failure of the Republican Party hinges upon its ability to govern from a position of ideological consistency – I just disagree that less consistency is the recipe for ultimate success. Only time will tell which of our views proves to be correct. I thank the Senator for her always thoughtful contributions to the public discourse and for inspiring me to write this post.