The story of party politics in America is a tangled one, but that of the past 50 years is particularly instructive. It has been during that time that a majoritarian two-party system in the United States steadily transformed into a minoritarian one, thanks to a relentless assault by the Republican Party on the fundamental principles of popular democracy. That assault has only intensified with the election of Joe Biden and the present paper-thin majorities enjoyed by Democrats in both Houses of Congress. It has now arrived at a crisis.
The Founding Fathers didn’t want a party system, and they didn’t want democracy either. Rather, they wanted a “republic” that would act as a buffer between the notionally sovereign people and the actual exercise of government.
Only for the “People’s House,” the House of Representatives, was there a direct popular vote for all free male citizens, themselves a minority of the country. Senators were chosen by state legislatures, and the president and vice president by an Electoral College whose representatives were typically (but not necessarily) bound by the popular vote—a questionable practice still with us today.
After the contested election of 1800, the vice presidential election was folded into that of the presidency, so that the selection of the vice president is automatic with the choice of the president. This means that the president chooses his potential successor in the event of incapacity, death or impeachment: a monarchical authority worthy of an Old Regime despot.
The people of the United States thus have no direct choice in either of the two national offices provided by the Constitution. The problem of creating a national government at all in the 1780s was that of reconciling the evident need for such an authority with the interests, suspicions and discords of the 13 former British colonies, now become “states,” each with its own government, courts, laws and militia. It was a heroic feat to accomplish this, involving numerous compromises, most importantly ones for the accommodation of slavery. Farsighted observers, including the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, saw the issue of slavery as the one likeliest to undo the new Republic.
In 1860, with the election of the first successful presidential candidate of the new Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, the moment of division arrived. The Republicans were not an anti-slavery party as such, nor was Lincoln an abolitionist. The issue of slavery, however, made them de facto Federalists, the term applied in the debates over the new Constitution to those who favored a strong central government against the anti-Federalists, who wanted to preserve as much state sovereignty as possible. What Lincoln wished was not to abolish slavery—much as he personally detested it—but to preserve the Union.
Lincoln saw that the only way to do so was through the civil war at last forced upon him by Southern secessionists, and he did not hesitate to fight it to the last drop of blood required. That blood, as it turned out, was his own. The Unionist Republicans turned, rapidly enough, into a party of commerce, industry, monopoly and, by the time of Teddy Roosevelt, imperialism. What they rejected was the more sophisticated form of imperialism represented, in Roosevelt, by internationalism.
America would make its own way in the world on its own terms—by conquest. This was misnomered isolationism. America’s job was not to mind its own business but to impose its model of it. With the end of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman persuaded Congressional Republicans to join the effort to make the world safe for American interests. This was called the era of bipartisanship, a consensus about how America, with its nuclear monopoly, was going to rule the world. It meant creating a global system of military alliances and bases and fighting regional wars when necessary.
By 1952, Republicans who had bitterly opposed entering World War II were happy to nominate one of its heroes, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to be president, and in 1964 Barry Goldwater, who contemplated nuclear war with equanimity. If Republicans had, by and large, adopted the postwar Democratic playbook on foreign policy, they were also compelled to accept the essential features of the New Deal, including worker unionization and welfare programs. This was because, after 1932, they had become the minority party they have been ever since.
Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress routinely until the 1990s and the presidency in every year between 1933 and 1969, except for the administration of Eisenhower, a nonpartisan figure courted by Democrats and Republicans alike. Not until 2017 were Republicans able to control both the White House and Congress, and only then thanks to the one-term presidency of Donald Trump.
Within two years, Democrats had won back control of the House of Representatives. Now, albeit narrowly, they once again control both the presidency and both Houses of Congress. These are theirs to lose; Republicans cannot win them. By the early 1970s, Republicans came to realize that they were a quasi-permanent minority. Under a political master, Richard Nixon, they began to reinvent themselves as a neo-antifederalist party based on racism and cloaked in “states’ rights,” a new class war that emerged from the 1970s politics of scarcity, and a coalition of groups largely united by cultural fear and resentment.
All politicians lie; so do all political parties. But the Republican Party itself became a party of lies, beginning with Nixon’s own—not only those about the Watergate scandal that brought him down, but also the fictitious existence of a “silent majority” of Americans alienated by the social protest of the 1960s. A majority that’s silent, you see, is a contradiction in terms, because to be part of any majority is by definition to speak or act. Nixon’s “silent majority” was a political fiction, an empty container into which he hoped to pour inchoate prejudices and resentments. Above all others was racism, the most easily manipulated prejudice of a society only just beginning to come to terms with a 350-year legacy of slavery and its Jim Crow successor.
From that came Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” of the 1980s, George H. W. Bush’s unabashed appeal to race in the Willie Horton ads of his 1988 presidential campaign, and finally the brazen race-baiting of the Trump years. From that lie proceeded all the rest: that cutting taxes for the rich spurred prosperity for all (what George H. W. Bush aptly called “voodoo economics”); that slashing essential public services in education, housing and transportation simply drained the so-called “Washington swamp”; and that economic deregulation promoted not unchecked monopoly and financial crashes but healthy competition and “creative destruction,” in the long-abused phrase of Joseph Schumpeter.
Still, this could not produce reliable victories without an election in 2000 marred by Supreme Court intervention (ironically, an usurpation of the unquestioned jurisdiction of a state court) and another in 2016 by foreign interference and voter suppression. Both cases denied the clear winner of the national popular vote office. The logical result of these shenanigans was not only Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his defeat in 2020 but of the majority of Republicans in Congress, who have yet to acknowledge Joe Biden’s election despite the physical attack fomented against them by Trump on Jan. 6.
The reason given for this is their fear of Trump’s ire and that of his supporters. But the real one is perhaps simpler: Republicans don’t lose because they mustn’t lose, and so no opposition party can legitimately claim victory under any circumstance.
There’s a word for that, but it isn’t democracy—or republic, either.