Searching for a Majority
It is a common theme of our times that the United States is in crisis as if it were in an irreversible decline. Slowly, the political norms and context that dominated after the Second World War has ruptured, finished off by former President Donald Trump’s rise, and yet there is no readily available replacement. The fact is that American politics is severely in need of a lasting political ceasefire.
Of course, this is not the first time that an established political context has died and been replaced. The United States, throughout its history, has had six “party systems” in which politics revolved around the coalition and dominant assumptions related to the majority party. As Frances E. Lee has noted, it has been customary for one political party to be the majority political party in American history. For example, the Democratic-Republicans were the dominant party in the early Republic. After the Civil War, it was the Republicans, and after the Great Depression, it was the Democrats.
However, ever since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, politics in America has slowly but consistently become polarized, neither party achieving dominance over the other, both being of equal political strength. Today, as Lee explains, “Neither party perceives itself as a permanent majority or permanent minority.” Although Reagan’s victory and success created a political settlement that made even the Democrats recant on big government for generations, that consensus has died out in the 2020s. The consequence of no political consensus and equal electoral strength among the parties is a high degree of inter-party war and little incentive for bipartisanship since both parties believe they can defeat the other and achieve a majority for themselves. In other words, in different times, since one party was a majority party, the minority party had little choice but to try and compromise with the majority party to at least have a say in governance and policymaking. Another consequence of the lack of a majority party is that every election cycle is a very competitive cycle; as such, there is little time to govern, most of the parties’ energies being directed to campaigning and defeating one another.
Of course, politics is influenced by culture and society just as much as it affects culture. As Yuval Levin has written, for a long time, the tendency of American political life was towards uniformization and assimilation to create a unified national culture. That homogeneity, though superficial in many ways, was strongest during the era of the Depression and up until the 1950s. However, after the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the American social contract began to crack under the stress of excessive individualism, deconstructionism, and relativism. n many ways, there are legacies of the sixties that are for the better, the results of the decline of the family, local institutions, and traditional values can be seen in what Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) has chronicled as an epidemic of loneliness, social alienation, drug use, alcoholism, broken families, declining birth rates, etc.
Moreover, the current crisis of legitimacy and despair is such that most Americans distrust their institutions. This current cultural climate, primarily due to the decline of Christianity in the West, mixed with the rise of postmodernist relativism and economic displacement, has devastated the American political settlement. The result is an age of anxiety, an unstable body politic, and an almost pervasive sense of inescapable American decline.
What is the purpose of a political party in such a climate as this? There can be a diversity of answers, many of these ideological. However, the primary purpose of all political parties, regardless of their ideology, is simply to win elections and gain power. Naturally, parties need to reflect, especially in democratic societies, the appetites and desires of at least part of the citizens to be politically relevant and access power. Those reasons are why political parties usually seek to broaden their appeal to the electorate. Ideally, this would mean that one party can achieve enough support to build a lasting settlement in its favor. Furthermore, it is not normal for the United States not to have a majority political party. It is ahistorical. That means that the current situation cannot last. Eventually, one party or the other will establish itself as dominant.
It is conservatism with its principles of prudence, prescription, trusteeship between generations, insistence on traditional values, secure borders, the rule of law, and the importance of citizenship that represents the best answer to today’s challenges. The solutions provided, of course, are not original or new. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “Truth usually is the same old story.” To achieve these cultural and social goals can be best described as a restoration of the social and political order. In short, for better or worse, the best vehicle that American politics has to build a political settlement along these lines is the Republican Party. In recent years the Republican Party has moved towards a working class focus and expanded its appeal to minorities. Although paradoxically, the GOP has not won the popular vote in a presidential election since 2004, it is undoubtedly much more competitive and dominant at the state and local levels since the Obama era. In addition, victories in the 2021 elections and favorable winds in the 2022 midterm elections are all signs that if the GOP can continue to develop a pro-family policy plan and continue to work in favor of the working and middle class, it has a chance to begin building a settlement in its favor and perhaps create, eventually, a lasting political majority. Regardless, a serious obstacle to achieving majority status is the siren song of demagoguery and lies to which a large sector of the GOP has fallen for. Only time will tell if the Republicans are up for the task of building a majority.