Michael Barone, How America's Political Parties Change (and How They Don't) (Encounter Books, 2019), 136 pp., $23.99.
The 2020 presidential campaign may loom large, but pundits, journalists and voters continue to argue over Donald Trump's unexpected 2016 victory. How and why did Trump win? Could he prevail again? How will his election shape the Republican Party and American politics? Should the Democrats move left or right to improve their chances at ousting Trump?
November 3, 2020 will resolve whether Trump continues--or breaks--a chain of two-term presidents that stretches back to 1992. But this future reckoning seems unlikely to answer the many other questions surrounding Trump's election, some of which may engender debate well into the next decade, if not longer. For those seeking present understanding, Michael Barone's book How America's Political Parties Change (And How They Don't) offers many useful insights into how social and economic trends have shaped the long-running battle between the country's dominant political parties and how each party has continuously adapted to new circumstances.
One of Barone's core arguments in the book, which is in fact a collection of essays drawn from lectures, is that American political parties are extremely resilient. He suggests that those who foretell doom for the Trump-era GOP should study political history and perhaps show greater intellectual humility. Though Barone's assertion that the Democratic and Republican Parties are respectively the world's oldest and third oldest political parties might make some British Tories arch an eyebrow--he appears to restrict his definition to parties operating inside democratic political systems and to exclude those in constitutional monarchies but does not say so explicitly--his admonition that the two parties have endured since 1832 and 1854 certainly provides a timely reminder of their adaptability through multiple farreaching social transitions. Barone's brief narrative history, which comprises the book's first section, shows how each party has rebuilt itself after crushing defeats to prove wrong the skeptics of yesteryear.
Political scientists agree that America's majoritarian, district-based, winner-take-all elections privilege a two-party system. In contrast, election rules that create legislatures through proportional representation and party lists favor the emergence of multiple parties. America's system, Barone notes, "is one reason why this country did not spawn a major socialist party in the early twentieth century, as most European democracies did." The U.S. system likewise establishes constraints that go a long way toward preventing modern alternative parties like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party from gaining traction, ensuring that independent presidential candidates like Ross Perot remain spoilers rather than potential presidents, and encouraging independent-minded politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders to caucus with the Democrats despite asserting a socialist identity.
A second reason--which Barone alludes to elsewhere in the book but does not connect directly to America's stable two-party system--is that electoral victories are almost certain to be ephemeral within a political duopoly, notwithstanding the self-congratulation of their architects or the...