The Life of the Parties

Party of the People: A History of the Democrats

By Jules Witcover, Random House, 758 pages, $35.00

Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans

By Lewis L. Gould, Random House, 588 pages, $35.00

Few institutions of any sort in American life have remained relevant for as long as the two national political parties. The Democratic Party traces its roots back to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the 1790s. The Republican Party will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. Not many other products on the shelf in 1854, much less the 1790s, are still attracting customers today.

Even more remarkable than the sheer longevity of the two parties is their dominance. No other major party has emerged since the Republicans replaced the Whigs as the principal rival to the Democrats in the 1850s, though a steady procession of third-party movements, breakaway insurgencies and charismatic leaders (from Theodore Roosevelt to Ross Perot) have regularly offered alternatives. Invariably, reports of the demise of either or both parties have proven premature. During the Civil War, Democrats seemed so tainted by the stain of rebellion that one pro-Republican newspaper editor dismissed them as "a myth, a reminiscence, a voice from the tomb, an ancient, fishlike smell." Both Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 and Watergate 10 years later seemed to threaten the Republicans with marginalization. In the 1980s and 1990s, many commentators thought the rise in independent voters challenged the relevance of both parties.

Yet as the 21st century begins, the parties appear not only relevant but vital in shaping the way Americans look at politics. After all the focus on independent and swing voters in the early and mid-1990s (from soccer moms to Perotistas), America appears to have made a sharp turn into an era of intense partisanship. The gap in the approval ratings President Bush receives from Republicans (around 90 percent) and Democrats (usually less than 30 percent) is the widest ever recorded in polling. Party-line voting is rising in Congress. Crossover voting in presidential and congressional elections appears to be declining. In 2000, fully nine of 10 Republicans voted for George W. Bush, while nearly that high a percentage of Democrats voted for Al Gore.

Enough voters still call themselves independents that neither party can claim a stable majority of support. But many political operatives believe the number who don't at least lean strongly toward one party or the other is now much smaller -- perhaps less than 10 percent of the electorate -- than was commonly assumed 10 and 20 years ago.

In this climate of heightened partisanship and sharpening polarization, strategists in both parties have been shifting their emphasis from courting swing voters to mobilizing and exciting their bases. On virtually every major issue -- from the environment to taxes to the prosecution of the war in Iraq without broad international support -- Bush has chosen policies far more popular with his conservative base than among swing voters. The move toward the base isn't as uniform among the 2004 Democratic presidential contenders. But on a series of major issues -- from affirmative action to gay rights to free trade and the level of domestic spending they are willing to propose -- most of the leading candidates are perceptibly tilting away from the centrism associated with Bill Clinton and toward more traditionally liberal positions popular with the party core. In Congress, meanwhile, the ideological gap between the parties has widened to a chasm with the decline of both the northeastern center-left Republican and the southern center-right Democrat. Only a few years after some analysts worried that the two parties were converging into a bland middle, ideological differences appear sharper than they've been in decades.

For all of their continuing importance, however, the political parties have been slighted by historians. Excellent accounts of the electoral and intellectual competition between the parties are available in works that examine discrete periods in American history, such as David M. Potter's classic study of antebellum America, The Impending Crisis, or Arthur M. Schlesinger's monumental accounts of the Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt presidencies. But popular histories of the two political parties as institutions have been difficult to find.

Not anymore. In a hugely ambitious project, Random House is simultaneously publishing narrative histories of the Republican Party, by University of Texas historian Lewis L. Gould, and the Democratic Party, by veteran political journalist Jules Witcover. It's a grandly conceived effort written by two authors whose enormous knowledge of American politics is matched by their obvious affection for it. Still, the project is a mixed success.

Overall, Witcover has written a more sprightly and entertaining book. Yet the two works share many common strengths and weaknesses. The best thing about both books is their inclusiveness. These are by far the most comprehensive histories of the political parties I've seen under one cover. For political junkies, it's all here: all the highlights and many of the forgotten moments in the development of both parties and their 150-year rivalry -- everything from "Ma, Ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!" (the taunt Republicans aimed at Grover Cleveland over reports that he had fathered an illegitimate child) to "Where's the beef?" (the missile Walter Mondale fired to knock Gary Hart out of orbit during a debate in the 1984 Democratic primary). Free-soil advocates, copperheads, stalwarts, half-breeds, Mugwumps -- warriors in political fights long forgotten -- all parade through the pages of these books.

The long view both authors provide offers fresh perspective on many of today's political arguments. When Arnold Schwarzenegger complains that Democratic taxes dog Californians through every step of their day, I wonder if he knew he was channeling the Democratic attack on Republican high-tariff policies in the 1890s that Gould quotes: "The McKinley [tariff] is with us always, at the table, at the bedside, in the kitchen, in the barn, in the churches and to the cemetery." Those liberals who complain that the centrist Democratic Leadership Council has tried to usurp the proper role of the national party over the past 15 years might be surprised to learn that the liberal-dominated Democratic Advisory Council faced the same charge in the late 1950s when it tried to redefine a party then dominated by a conservative congressional leadership. And amid all of today's political bitterness in Washington, it's refreshing to be reminded that Thomas Jefferson once complained, "Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they be obliged to touch their hats." That was during John Adams' presidency.

Witcover in particular has a knack for unearthing surprising facts; every few pages taught me something new. Did you know that a cartoonist named Rollin Kirby helped cement the identity of Franklin Roosevelt's 100-day agenda as the New Deal? Or that delegates for the presidential nominating convention were selected through primaries for the first time in 1912? Or that the Anti-Masons, a third party devoted to combating the Society of Freemasons, held the first national political convention in September 1831? Both books, but especially Witcover's, display a breathtaking amount of research.

The authors also advance some provocative judgments. Gould modestly attempts to refurbish the reputations of such middling GOP presidents as Rutherford B. Hayes and Calvin Coolidge. And he spikes his generally favorable history of the Republicans with the tough judgment that the party too often -- from the Civil War through Joe McCarthy -- has portrayed its Democratic rivals as not just wrong or misguided but unpatriotic and disloyal. For his part, Witcover is unsparing on the ideological confusion of today's Democrats.

Unfortunately, neither author spends enough time assessing the implications of the facts they have collected. Each focuses far more on narrative than analysis. Both books slight the intellectual history of the parties. Gould is more conscientious than Witcover about tracking the shifts in the two parties' thinking over time; but often Gould simply identifies the change (such as the rise in Republican isolationism after World War I) without explaining its cause. Both books could likewise have benefited from more social history that explored how demographic changes (such as the movement to the suburbs after World War II) have affected the parties' fortunes.

Instead, the emphasis in both books is on recounting elections, especially presidential elections. At times that produces significant rewards. Witcover offers a fascinating history of how presidential campaigns were conducted in the early 19th century. But the focus on the presidency is too constricting in both books. By dwelling so heavily on presidential races and the administrations they produce, the authors say too little about members of Congress -- much less governors or intellectuals -- who have been important in shaping their party's agendas and viewpoints over the years. Meanwhile, too much of the presidential history they recount has been covered, in greater depth, elsewhere.

Neither book spends much time addressing the threshold question of why the parties have endured for so long when so much in American life has changed around them. Yet both offer clues to the answer.

One obvious factor has been that the parties have also changed during their long lives. Both have been remarkably resilient and adaptable. Through almost all of the 19th century, the Democrats were the small-government, states-rights party. Meanwhile, the Republicans, born to resist the spread of slavery, offered an agenda of federal activism sweeping in its ambition. As Gould writes, "[T]hey established a national banking system, imposed an income tax, created a system for dispersing public land in the West, and started a transcontinental railroad." Today, of course, the two sides have completely reversed roles; it is Republican leaders in the executive branch, Congress and the courts who mouth the arguments of 19th-century limited-government Democrats.

These evolving positions, though, don't so much explain the parties' durability as point to the real secret of their success. In revising their views, the parties have followed the shifting interests of their core constituencies. Though each party's electoral coalition has evolved substantially over time, the Republicans have always been the party most identified with business, while Democrats focused most on courting average working people. Republicans favored activist government during the Lincoln administration, when business needed government assistance to build roads and railroads; when business later recoiled against government regulation and taxes, most Republicans followed. Likewise, the Democrats abandoned their resistance to federal activism at the turn of the 20th century when union leaders, agrarian activists and other social reformers flowing into the party came to see Washington as an indispensable counterweight to the growing power of corporate America.

So while the parties' views have evolved, their allegiances to the interests of their constituencies have remained constant. That may be the key to their survival. The most important divisions in American politics today aren't solely the class lines between capital and labor; cultural attitudes toward issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control are now at least as important in driving voters' choices. But whether the cause is cultural or economic, the one guarantee in a society this big and diverse is that interests will clash. The parties endure, above all, because they have proven the most effective vehicles for those contending interests to advance their causes in the political arena where any democratic society resolves its disputes. Jefferson, again, got it right, in a letter that Witcover quotes: "In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties ... ."

It's telling that the greatest threats to the dominance of the parties have come when both have ignored a significant interest in society. The Republicans were born in 1854 when neither the Whigs nor Democrats would reflect the anti-slavery outrage over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which cleared the way for slaveholding to spread through the territories. Likewise, the failure of both parties to respond to farmers and workers fearful of emerging corporate power during the Gilded Age led to the formidable challenge of the Populist Party (which Democrats eventually stifled by adopting much of their agenda). Perot's rise in the early 1990s, and the intense interest that swirled around potential third-party bids from Colin Powell and John McCain later, suggested the parties could theoretically open the door for a centrist competitor by diverging too sharply and alienating voters in the middle. But these twin histories show that in practice the parties have mostly run into trouble when they converge too closely and leave too many voters feeling disenfranchised by a cramped consensus.

By that test, the parties appear in strong shape today. The Democrats might not confront business aggressively enough for those attracted to the Greens, and Republicans might be too timid in slashing big government for the libertarians. But few Americans are likely to complain that they are being presented with an echo, not a choice, in 2004. President Bush and whichever candidate the Democrats nominate are on track for an election that will offer voters a stark choice on the full range of domestic and foreign issues (even the Democrats who supported the war in Iraq have been loudly condemning Bush's broader approach to international affairs). Everything points toward a presidential campaign that will be polarizing, acrimonious and probably quite bitter -- all the ingredients that make for the life of the parties.

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