Do American parties now matter more than candidates?

I’m in Crikey today with a piece on party politics in the US. (As usual, the title and teaser are not my doing.) Riffing off a column by Paul Krugman, I argue that the nature of party division has changed in recent decades in a way that makes the rigid two-party system less appropriate than ever.

Jon Chait, whom I quote at the end of the article, now has a fuller version of his argument for why the Democrat nominee – presumably Hillary Clinton – will start with a large advantage. Drawing on a new paper by political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, he suggests that “the electorate is much less fluid than it used to be, and is more easily understood as hardened blocs defined by shared cultural identity (or shared mutual cultural antipathy).”

Abramowitz and Webster have some particularly striking numbers on the correlation between congressional and presidential elections, an obvious measure of the increasing importance of party loyalty:

The average correlation between the Democratic share of the presidential vote and the Democratic share of the Senate vote in states with contested races has risen from .16 between 1972 and 1980 to .25 between 1982 and 1990 to .42 between 1992 and 2000 to .66 between 2002 and 2010 and to .84 in 2012-2014.

It raises some further issues that I didn’t have space to discuss, but are worth thinking about. Among them:

  • What’s the relationship between structural and cultural factors? Does America (or any other country) have a two-party culture because the electoral system has dictated that, or did the culture come first and lead people to shape the system accordingly? (This is an American analogue of the debate on Duverger’s law.)
  • What are the key dividing issues between Democrats and Republicans? Krugman focused primarily on economic matters (he is, after all, an economist), while Chait’s points are more social or cultural. Regular readers will know that I’m usually more on the cultural side.
  • Is there any chance of a candidate emerging who could fracture the established mold and produce a serious party realignment – perhaps by splitting the economic and cultural factors just mentioned? Republican Rand Paul is most often mentioned as a possibility, although I think his chances are vanishingly small.
  • What now for the doctrine of the “emerging Democratic majority”? Has it been discredited by the GOP’s clean sweep of Congress last year, or is Chait right to say that “What changed from 2012 to 2014 was which parts of the electorate showed up to vote, not the electorate’s underlying loyalties.”

With more than 18 months still to go to the actual election, there’ll be plenty of time to tease out these issues, and more.

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