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Post Magazine: Party Time

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David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2004; 1:00 PM

From the nation's very beginning, citizens have been harrumphing about America's political parties. Even George Washington himself derided them. But this much can be said about our two-party system: "It seems to work over the long haul."

Post staff writer David Von Drehle, whose essay about the history of Republicans and Democrats appeared in the Post Magazine, was online Monday, July 26, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

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Von Drehle is a Magazine staff writer. He has also covered political issues for the Post.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


David Von Drehle: Hello, and thanks for reading my article on the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall of our two political parties.

I was worried it was a bit too much like a term paper, but apparently some people liked it. That's a relief.

Let's take some questions and comments.


Alexandria, Va.: About halfway through you start throwing in the term "GOP" instead of Republican, without explaining that it stands for "Grand Old Party" -- and I am wondering why it's called that, when you've explained how the roots of the Democratic party go back even further.

David Von Drehle: That's a good one.

It is a bit of advertising. Conscious of the fact that the Republican party was not very old, they started calling themselves the Grand OLD Party. Sort of like a tavern that has a sign in Olde Englishe typeface saying "Est. 1998" over the door.


Washington, DC: You mentioned that the rift between Taft and Teddy Roosevelt is till felt today in the Republican party. Please explain.

David Von Drehle: Well, the thumbnail, oversimplified answer (Oversimplification R Us!) would say that Roosevelt represented the activist, progressive wing of Republicanism and Taft stood for the conservative wing. Because T.R. was unable to seize the reins of the Republican party in 1912, the progressive banner was picked up by Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

(Wilson, by the way, was progressive only on certain issues. On others--race for example--he was a reactionary.)

Anyway, when the GOP returned to the White House in the 1920s, the conservatives were solidly in control. Some progressive Republicans enjoyed great success in local and state politics--Fiorello LaGuardia in New York City, for example--but the national party was set on a path that it has followed ever since.


Arlington, Va.: David, thanks for an informative and enjoyable article. Something that you hear people complain about now is use of federal bureaucracy and federal money for the benefit of a partisan candidate such as the president. Were there such accusations at the time of Jefferson and Adams? Most example of partisanship from back then are really nasty newspaper articles, but was there much about the unelected bureaucracy then? Thanks!

David Von Drehle: The federal bureaucracy was TINY in those days. But yes, critics complained from the very start that the parties were using their patronage powers--the power to appoint people to certain government offices--to advance their partisan interests. And the question of money influencing politics has been with us always.


California: If possible, would you please identify the long term, historical associations of various constituencies within each party?

What I mean is, for example, that the Republican party currently is viewed to the party of corporate business interests and conservative religious voters. Has this always been the case?

Similarly, the Democrats are currently viewed as the party for everyone who is not white, upper class, and heterosexual -- has this always been the case?

I'd most like to see just a simple list of which constituencies/issues have been loyal to each party, and which have tended to be "up for grabs."

Any help appreciated. Thanks.

David Von Drehle: I hope some of this is woven through the article. In truth, many of the constituencies have moved back and forth between parties. Religious conservatives, for example, might well have been Bryan Democrats 100 years ago nd now are Bush Republicans. African-Americans were Lincoln Republicans but now vote overwhlmingly for the Democrats.

Some of the constituencies are of recent vintage. For example, only in recent decades could you speak of a quantifiable gay and lesbian bloc.

And some constituencies have remained pretty solid.The relationship between the Hamiltonian Republicans and corporate capitalism goes all the way back ... as our next contribution notes:


Falls Church, Va.: Thanks for the great article it was very interesting. I do think that you missed the fundamental difference between the parties. The Republicans like the Federalists before them have always been the party of the rich, especially rich businessmen. They were for "big government" and high taxes when the government was doing the things that business wanted such as protect industry from foreign competition (high tariffs)give away free land to railroads and mining companies, etc.. Since Teddy and then Franklin Roosevelt came along big government came to mean regulation of business which, naturally the Republicans opposed. They espically hated high taxes that would generate revenue to fund social programs which do not support the rich and, therefore, are by their definition inappropriate. Republicans still, of course, like govenement spending and handouts that support Rich people - public works, tax breaks for business, subsidies for general aviation (rich people's private planes). The Republicans as the party of the greedy rich has become even more extreme since the days of Reagan and now George W. The Democrats have been the party of the people since the days of Jackson through Roosevelt and Clinton. That is why during the Reagan and Bush years the percentage of US wealth owned by the richest 1% of Americans increases and during the Clinton years the poverty rate was cut in half. It is also why since 1928 every Democratic president has a better record of job creation than every Republican president.

One thing that is not consistent is who is the prim party vs the frisky party which certainly has changed over time.

David Von Drehle: I did try to make this point--minus the philosophical analysis you've added. For many years the interests of big government and the interests of big business were basically the same. American commerce needed a strong central government to regulate credit, build transportation infrastructure and impose tariffs on foreign trade.

By 1900, that was no longer the case. Business began to see its interests threatened by Rooseveltian big government--and we got that 1912 split in the GOP.


Arlington, Va.: One thing that you left out was how Bryan changed the face of the Democrats, making them into a more progressive party. From the end of the Civil War until 1996, there wasn't much difference between the Republicans and the Democrats and the Presidential elections were generally close.

David Von Drehle: Agreed. William Jenings Bryan is more important than my one mention of him. He was driving the Democrats in the populist direction while McKinley was driving the Republicans in the corporate direction and the two impulses both helped to set the forces in motion that gave us the modern parties.


Alexandria, Va.: Much has been made of the current polarized political climate, but as your article pointed out, this is nothing new. But certainly things seem--to this 30-something--to be as divisive as they have been in recent memory.

To what extent do you think this is a legacy of Watergate?

After the scandal the Republicans were hungry for a hero and when Reagan took office the degree of hero-worship he received from his party's faithful seemed more than a little out of proportion to his real accomplishments.

When Clinton arrived in 1992 it seemed as if the Republicans just couldn't believe that Americans were stupid enough to not recognize the brilliance of Reagan/Bush era policies and launched a bitter attack on Prez #42 in what seemed like an (unsuccessful) search for something to shame the democrats to the degree that Nixon shamed the nation and the GOP in the 70s..

The Clintonites responded in kind, hardly believeing that a sexual dalliance and an unwise real estate deal would be treated the same way as real political malfeasance had been in the 1970s and naming the Repubs as liars, cheats and scandal-mongers.

Which brings us to today. No?

David Von Drehle: Interesting thesis. Any reactions out there?

I think the CLinton years were, in many ways, a playing out of the cultural chaos of the lates 1960s and 1970s--and Watergate was a big part of that. On the other hand, I don't really see Nixon as key figure for modern Republicanism, not the way Goldwater and Reagan were. Nixon was so incredibly pragmatic and calculating--he happily played the conservative on some issues while taking wildly unconservative positions on other issues--that he ultimately left scant mark on his party.

I think ...


David Von Drehle: Wow ... no sooner had I written that Nixon left scant mark on his party than my computer crashed. Powers from beyond the grave!!!


Cabin John, Md.: Which of the two parties do you think will collapse first and do you think the results of this next election will make a difference in slowing or hastening that collapse?

Also, some historians talk about 20-year cycles in American politics where one or the other party is in control of, if not the Presidency, the general mindset of the public. Do you agree with this and if so, where do you think we're headed in the next decade?

David Von Drehle: Well, if things go in 20 year cycles then it would apear to be the Democrats' turn because the past 20 years certainly have belonged to the Republicans. Clinton's major successes came by strategically embracing certain conservative ideas, and even while he was president that GOP gained ground in the states and in Congress.

But 20-year cycles strikes me as much too short to see the real ebbs and flows of the party coalitions. And here, I think there are some genuine tensions inside both coaltions. One that I pointed to in he article is the tension between libertarian Republicans and "prim" Republicans.


washingtonpost.com : Origin of the Species (Post, July 25)


Northern Virginia: I read your article with great interest. I was a bit disappointed, however, that you did not mention two very important factors:
(1) the political spectrum, and (2) religious views.

If you ever do a follow-up, I recommend that you first check out a little-known book titled Maximum Liberty: An Introduction to the Scope and Form of Government (2003). It's the best explanation I've ever read about the political spectrum (i.e., left vs right, liberal vs. conservative, etc.).

Although the author clearly favors "big" government over minimal (libertarian) government, it's still very NON-partisan.

David Von Drehle: Can you follow up? I don' know this book and am not quite clear where this takes us. Our parties, historically, have not matched up well with the left-right spectrum (that appears to be changing, but I sorta doubt it will endure) nor have they tracked well with religious views.

Just one example: Liberal Protestants were strongly Republican or most of the GOP's first century. Now they skew Democratic. Catholics were almost uniformly Democratic until recently. And so on.


Laurel, Md.: Your piece cites a few of the events that re-configured the parties, and implies that such realignments are possible whenever voters choose to make them happen. But today, many people are dissatisfied with both their choices, and resent that elections boil down to two choices with which they disagree.

Not too long ago, the Democrats and Republicans were characterized as "one party split by the abortion issue." Although the parties offer two clear choices -- women's right to choose vs. right-to-life -- neither stands for giving men a greater voice in the disposition of pregnancies.

On illegal immigration, one party sees it as a terrific pool of inexpensive labor, while the other sees a civil rights issue to protect a minority ethnicity. Vast numbers of Americans who see the issue as a bidding down of the value of labor and up of the price of housing and government benefits via taxes.

Why is so much of the American public not represented in the two-party system, and why is it so inflexiable today to popular positions?

David Von Drehle: Let's use this question to get into the third-party issue.

I got an e-mail today offering this quick primer on why we have two parties rather than many:

"You could answer the question of why only two parties quite simply, I think: single member districts and the electoral college.

Single member districts mean that a candidate has to get the most votes in a congressional district in order to be elected to Congress. This is very difficult for a third party to do. (Same with Senators -- must get the most votes in the state.) Thus there have been very few third party member of Congress. If a party cannot elect candidates to office, it soon withers or remains at the margins.

The electoral college also discriminate against third parties because states give all of their votes to the winner of the most votes. Thus Ross Perot had 19% of the vote but no electoral votes."

And that's it in a nutshell. Except for one additional thing (hang in there, because I am getting to your question!):

Because the system locks the two parties into power, the key to the whole game is the ability of the weaker party to attract the disaffected members of the third parties--and the disgruntled folks in the strong party. The parties have incentives, over time, to morph themselves so that they pick up the votes left unclaimed by the other side.

So (finally!!) if there really is an appreciable faction of, say, men who want more say in abortion decisions, and they are willing to vote that issue, over time you should see one party or the other trying to appeal to them.


Reston, Va.: One thing that strikes me about modern-day democrats and republicans is that the democrats seem to be much less effective and cohesive. The republicans seem more organized and able to work together.

Do you agree that there is a big difference in how effective the parties are? If so, how far back does this go and why do you think it is true?

David Von Drehle: A friend of mine puts it this way: When Republicans decide not to vote for their candidate,they don't even tell their wives/husbands. Democrats call a press conference.

In reality, I think being in power emboldens people to start venting about their differences. Being out of power concentrates the mind. For most of the past 70 years, the Democrats had quite a lot of power, so they got in the habit of fighting. This year, after finding themselves shut out of Congress and the White House for the first time in 50 years, they are suddenly shoulder-to-shoulder--for now.


Woodbridge, Va.: Interesting article but you totally skip the battles within the GOP between the Reagan Republicans and the Rockerfeller Republicans. The GOP has done a fairly good job of healing the wounds from Reagn's 1976 challange to Gerald Ford but the scars are still there.

David Von Drehle: Yes, it's true the Republicans had their out-of-power squabbles.

I would argue that it's wrong to think of Rocky Repubs versus Reagan Repubs. Better to picture a long-standing fight between the Taft Republicans and the progressive Republicans--a regional faction that spans from T. Roosevelt from N. Rockefeller. In a sense, they all lost to Reaganism.


Alexandria, Va.: First, I was encouraged by your article & hope that you are correct in your conclusions. If not, I fear we are in big trouble!!

I understand from your article how political parties became part of the political process, but you did not address how it wormed its way into GOVERNMENT processes.

For example, when the Republicans took control of the House in '96, I was shocked to discover that so much process changed. I had not been aware that party considerations had been controling every day events, such as who presided. Naive as it seems, I had not been aware that only Democrats had held the gavel.

Party politics controls seating arrangements & how committees work, what bills can be considered, and I am sure many other things that are not visible to an outside observer.

This party influence of GOVERNMENT disturbs me greatly, and I hope that you will write a companion piece explaining how this came about. Surely this kind of party influence is extra-Constitutional!


David Von Drehle: This is really interesting--and so true. Democrats controlled Congress virtually uninterrupted for two generations. So it does come as quite a shock, to people accustomed to that, to see the shoe on the other foot.

But it's important to understand that much of the celebrated "bipartisanship" of the mid-century was the result of a whole generation of Republican leaders who had no choice but to learn to cooperate and deal with the Democrats. That was the only way men like Gerald Ford and Bob Michel could accomplish anything.

And I know what my Republican friends would say about that--it was "bipartisanship" on Democratic terms.


Long Beach, Calif.: At what point did the large banks and
industries start contributing to both parties? It appears that the largest entities like Standard Oil and J.P.Morgan, and the banking houses like Brown Brothers Harriman would
delegate board members to each party, like
Averil Harriman being a Democrat while his
brother Roland contributed to the GOP.

David Von Drehle: I think the largest businesses have always wanted to have friends in power no matter which party wins.


Washington, DC: I learned more from your article than I did from an entire year of high school history class. Thanks. You mentioned that Hubert Humphrey was the first to carry the mantel of racial equality in the democratic party. What do you feel was his motivation?

David Von Drehle: Thanks!

I think Humphrey--like a lot of Americans in both parties--came to understand after a war in which thousands of black Americans fought and died that the long-delayed issue of racial justice had to be dealt with. As mayor of a Northern city that had seen the great migration northward of rural Southern blacks, Humphrey also recognized that racial issues were no longer a regional matter but required a nationwide, federal response.

His leadership on this was not in a vacuum--after the crises of the Depression and World War II had lifted, civil rights leapt to the top of the agenda. Humphrey's action came just as Truman was desegregating the federal government and as citizens across the country were filing the school-desegregation lawsuits that became Briwn v. Board of Education.


Seattle, Wash.: Great article, and thanks for taking questions. What is your opinion regarding the influence exerted by third parties onto either Democratic or Republican platforms (i.e. Populist movement, Reform party, and recent green movement). Are these groups mere blips on the vast array of party history, or do they possess real power in terms of shaping party politics?

David Von Drehle: Over time, they have enormous power. Take, for example, the Socialist parties circa 1910-1936. I don't think there is any question but that their successes motivated the Democratic party to move to the left in some areas. This killed off the socialists in America, but some of the issues they championed were moved onto the national agenda.


Alexandria, Va.: Great piece. And you've touched on something I've wondered about, growing up in Virginia 30+ years ago, when the state parties seemed to be the polar opposites of the national parties. The Virginia Democrats were so conservative that a relative moderate like Henry Howell was tagged as a flaming liberal, and ultimately party leaders like Mills Godwin went independent and then Republican. Meanwhile a moderate Republican, Linwood Holton, got elected governor and then everything turned around. I expect other Southern states have similar stories.

David Von Drehle: You're right--this was going on in all the Southern states. The Reagan landslide of 1984 was, in a sense, the moment when all those conservative Democrats down South finally chose between their conservatism and their Democratic party identification.


Birmingham, Ala.: Would elimination of the Electoral College system and use
of the popular vote to elect the president help the
development of a multi-party system in the U.S.?

David Von Drehle: For reasons alluded to by my correspondent above, the Electoral College does fortify the two-party system, yes.


Annapolis, Md.: Hi-

I enjoyed your article, it was superb.

But I was surprised that you did not mention the 1960 Republican Party Platform and the 1960 presidential election.

As I understand it, Governor Rockefeller was able to insert pro-Civil Rights language into the Republican Party platform at the convention.

I understand that some people in the Nixon camp felt that this language cost Nixon votes in several southern states and the election.

I believe that if you look at the Republican Party and the issue of Civil Rights, the 1960 Republican Convention essentially marks the end of the old Republican Party and the beginning of the current party (i.e., Goldwater's campaign in 1964; Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968; Presidential Candidate Reagan's campaign speech about State's Rights in 1980 in Philadelphia, MS).

Anyway, thanks again for an excellent article.

David Von Drehle: Well, thanks!

We touched on this a bit. As I said,I see a long struggle over the shape of the GOP coalition going back to Teddy Roosevelt and not really settled (for now) until Reagan.


Long Beach, Calif. : Kindly detail any reasons why the federalists fell out of favor. Thanks

P.S. I read it was because of taxing items like soap. Jefferson balanced the budget by simply taxing luxury items.

David Von Drehle: You've got me ...

One important factor, I suspect, is the one you've hinted at here. Jefferson skillfully coopted some Federalist moves. For one thing, he doubled the size of the nation--a big government thing to do. He did not make a fetish out of opposing the Bank of America (as Jackson later did). In these and other ways he sucked up the air Federalists would otherwise have used to survive through his presidency.

Infighting was another reason.

Premature death of Hamilton yet another.


Fitchburg, Mass.: Do you see the current state of national politics allowing for serious consideration of third party candidates to more closely mirror the concerns of the majority of Americans? The lesser of two evils is simply not good enough for my crowd.

David Von Drehle: I have a number of these third-party questions.

A efw years ago, I would have said there is no foreseeable chance of a "viable" third party--where "viable" means of a stature to deal equally with the two major parties.

I still THINK that' the case because of the structural advantages of the two parties discussed above.

A qestion peeks in, however: Does the new world of instant, diffuse and low-cost communicationschange the equation? I don't know the answer, but we will see over the next 20-30 years I think.


Herndon, Va.: After Republican control of everything has caused conservatives to become more bold and deal with issues that divide both their party and make them seem more right-wing (gay marriage amendment, taxcuts that force social programs to fall short), do you see the Democrats being able to take control of the issues in the next 10-20 years? It always seems that after a party overreaches, the moderates swing from one party to another, so I'm betting that in a couple of decades we'll see liberal control over most of the government.

David Von Drehle: This is a question I have. I think you are smart to seean opportunity for the Democrats to retool themselves as the live-and-let-live party.


Duluth Minn: "shoulder to shoulder", Democratic stance?

Well that may be the song they're singing and many buy into it thinking anything to stop the disastrous state of this present administration--but if the strategy of winning is dominant over policy (policies that should, could, reflect Democratic principles), all we are going to get is a weak Kerry who really hasn't backed any strong opposition to the Bush boys primary issues. Impeach Bush before November. Clear the air and start over. Wish it were possible. There has got to be better men in this nation than those we see on stage?

David Von Drehle: Interesting point. In our system, I would argue, it's usually the party most interested in winning that wins, while the party most dug in on principle loses. That's because you need a broad coalition of (often competing) ideological groups to build a winning majority. A party that stands firmly on principles A, B and C is going to risk alienating believers in principles D through Z. And D through Z is a winning coalition for the other side!

I would feel worse about this except for the fact that, around the world, ideologically "principled" or pure parties shed oceans of innocent blood in places like Germany, the Soviet Union, Cambodia and Rwanda. Give me pragmatic realists any day.


Northern Virginia: Follow-Up re Political Spectrum:

Sorry I'm so late in following up. (I lost my connection.)

Basically, it's much easier to understand the evolution of political parties if you first understand the concept of the so-called political spectrum.

But different people use different models of the political spectrum. (The Libertarians, for example, reject the liberal-conservative model altogether, relying instead on their "own" two-dimensional model.)

I learned a lot about this from that book I mentioned (Maximum Liberty). It's hard to find, but I think you would enjoy it.

Thanks, again, for article.

David Von Drehle: Thanks!


Rockville, Md.: I enjoyed your book, Triangle, quite a bit. I learned a lot about how the labor movement started and what motivated it, at least in the early years.

I thought your column on our two party system was pretty observant. A lot of people do not realize how nasty politics was a few generations ago. From what I have read, the Antebellum era was particularly unpleasant. I wonder if there were complaints in previous generations about the lack of polite civil discourse between politicians, or have we become too sensitive?

David Von Drehle: Thanks for reading "Triangle." Glad you liked it. It actually helps tell this story--especially the way in which the Democrats of early 20th century moved left to suck the life force from the Socialists, thus transforming themselves into the party of the New Deal.

Yes, we are too sensitive. On the other hand, I'm always in favor of a more civil discourse. Why can't we learn to discuss, debate, dispute without name-calling, etc.?

I mean, we're doing it here.


Arlington, Va.: The popular symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties are of course the elephant and the donkey. Have there been other such symbols in the past during the evolution of the U.S. political parties, or are these popular symbols a modern phenomenon?

David Von Drehle: The great political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who did his most improtant work in the decades after the Civil War, invented the donkey and elephant symbols. earlier movements had their own symbols. Fr example, Northern democrats loyal to the South during the Civil War were known (pejoraively) as "copperheads." You know, snakes.


David Von Drehle: Whoops--how time flies! I better go for now. Thanks for the great iscussion. I'm always amazed at the thoughtful conversation that goes on in these chats, and I always learn a lot.


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