AMERICANS take democracy for granted. That is a mistake. Not all democracies remain democracies --Weimar Germany being the most chilling example. Societies need an unspoken code of conduct and a common secular culture to bind them together. More than 50 years ago, political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote the seminal "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," acknowledging that, while democracies need vigorous political competition, they have to keep the competition from boiling over into political chaos.
Our two major parties have been crucial in containing competition within reasonable bounds. Their primary function has been to win elections and to assemble broad political coalitions under the party umbrella. They nominated presidential candidates that were at least acceptable to the major factions of the party. When either party nominated a candidate out of the mainstream, as the Republicans did with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Democrats with George McGovern in 1972, they suffered a massive defeat.
While both parties have become more ideological over the past several decades, they still were more interested in winning elections than leading ideological crusades. Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton were in the Democratic Party's mainstream--likewise for Republicans Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
Even Reagan, a strong ideological conservative, knew politics had to be give and take. He worked closely with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill to fashion a moderate Social Security reform bill, and with Democratic Congressional leaders to pass a major tax reform bill. The lesson was that, when one party lost an election, they were not crushed and embittered. The minority party got something. From the New Deal until the Obama Administration, no major piece of legislation was passed without a degree of bipartisan support. This included Social Security, the GI Bill, civil rights laws, Medicare, Aid to Education, welfare reform, and prescription drug benefits.
When ideologues have a greater voice in the political system, they see their opponents not as rivals, but enemies. Ideologues fail to realize that we need a political system where, as Lipset described it, the "outs" live with the decisions of the "ins," and the "ins" respect the rights of the "outs." The result is a stable democracy. It is the reason the American democracy has kept...