Why can’t the two main political parties behave the way they’re supposed to?
Republicans, members of the party that is supposed to stand for orderly succession, are falling for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson and won’t fall for the logical choices waiting in line to lead their majority in the House of Representatives. Democrats refuse to coronate Hillary Clinton according to plan, and instead flock to Bernie Sanders rallies.
Actually, there is an explanation for this kind of aberrant behavior. The two parties aren’t what they used to be, and what many of us persist in imagining them to be. Their composition—demographically, geographically and ideologically—has changed significantly in the past generation. Seen in this light, the behavior we’re seeing right now isn’t so aberrational at all.
The Republican Party has grown more conservative, more downscale economically, older and more Southern in character. In that light, its revolt against what is perceived as a Wall Street-led establishment and the polite, small-c conservatism that was personified by Gerald Ford is only natural.
The Democratic Party has grown more liberal, younger, more urban and demographically diverse, with a bigger overlay of upscale activists from the two coasts. The moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Southern states who helped put Bill Clinton in the White House then aren’t available for Hillary Clinton now. Seen through that lens, the picture of college students streaming to hear Bernie Sanders makes more sense.
In short, the current political turmoil is simply a mirror held up to a changed political face of America, just as we head into a 2016 presidential election cycle that may only further the partisan realignment already under way.
For starters, the two parties have become more ideological and more ideologically divided at the base. In a large survey of voters done in mid-1990, the Journal/NBC News poll found that just 12% of Republicans identified themselves as very conservative, and only 13% of Democrats identified themselves as very liberal. Today, those shares have roughly doubled. In the latest Journal/NBC News poll, taken last month, 28% of Republicans called themselves very conservative, and 26% of Democrats called themselves very liberal.
The share of blue-collar workers identifying themselves as Republicans has risen to 44% from 35%. Meanwhile, a somewhat higher share of Americans in the top income levels are likely to be Democrats than was the case 25 years ago.
And, amazing as it may seem now, a quarter century ago, those age 18 to 34 were more likely to identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats; meanwhile, those age 65 and over were more likely to call themselves Democrats than Republicans. Today, the youngest Americans are far more likely to call themselves Democrats than Republicans, and the oldest Americans are as likely to call themselves Republicans as Democrats.
The geographic bases of the two parties have shifted as well. In 1990, 38% of those in the Northeast identified themselves as Republicans. Today, that’s down to 26%. Meanwhile, the share of Southerners who call themselves Republicans has risen to 44% from 38%, while the share of Southern Democrats has dropped by roughly the same proportions.
One of the implications of this geographic shift is that some states where the two parties used to compete for voters in the middle aren’t in play any longer—and presidential candidates don’t really even bother to seek swing voters there. In 1988, for example, Republican George H.W. Bush won the big prize of California on his way to winning the White House. Today, California’s ethnically diverse population puts the state essentially out of reach for the GOP.
And when Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, he took his home state of Arkansas, as well as Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. Those Southern and border states are essentially out of reach for Democrats today. By and large, the coasts now belong to the Democrats, the interior to the Republicans.
If you think about the logical implications of these shifts, today’s behavior makes more sense. A Republican Party that is more populist, conservative and Southern is likely to reject what such voters see as elitist establishment leaders and their moneyed interests. A Democratic Party that has grown younger and more liberal isn’t as likely to embrace a Hillary Clinton as it was her centrist, Southern governor husband, Bill. What seems crazy, in short, is in some ways perfectly logical.