John H. Aldrich is the Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University. His research specialties include American politics and political parties, formal theory, and metholodogy. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received grants from both the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Aldrich is the author of "Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America" (1995) and the coauthor of "Change and Continuity in the 2004 and 2006 Elections" (2007). He is also the coauthor of a new installment in the series, "Change and Continuity in the 2008 Election," due out in December 2009.
Big Think Interview With John Aldrich
Question: Will the Republican Party always be conservative?
John Aldrich: Well, even a very long perspective, all things fell in, but in any foreseeable future, I think that, you know, conservative thinking is a very important part of Republican Party and the Republican Party is very important to the conservative movement. Indeed, since the 1960's, the polarization of the two parties and their alignment with essentially liberal and progressive and conservative thinking respectively is one of the big changes and it's made it really hard to separate those two out and so party and ideology are much more intertwined today than they were even 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago.
Question: Was the GOP's 2008 defeat a typical pendulum swing or a watershed?
John Aldrich: It's, yes, it's both. It's typical in that the party that loses always has to try to figure out a way to right the ship and in essence, is a standard, normal part of it. But there are two things that make this more complicated. One is that there is a substantial loss, it wasn't just a small loss, but a substantial loss. And so figuring out the best way to come back is more difficult when your party has been narrowed. The second thing in this is going to be a problem in sort of selecting which way to come back, which sort of branch of conservative thinking is going to be the best for building for the future is the crises we're in right now. This is not, you know, ordinary circumstances, you know, we still are in two hot wars and if you count the sort of general war on terror we in effect have three wars simultaneously. We have the economic crises, we have these huge budget deficits, those attract attention and necessarily so and so it's very difficult. For example, for the evangelicals' right to be very interested, as they always are, in social issues, it's just hard to get that attention and it's hard to make that a voting issue, certainly, in the short term. And so that's a disadvantage for their agenda. And it's obviously stronger for the fiscal conservatives' agenda, but they actually also have to figure out a way to make that substantial enough to actually try to take the House or the Senate or someday the presidency.
Question: Do you see a leader currently emerging in the Republican Party?
John Aldrich: Not at present. There's nobody who is, you know, sort of poised, to take, there are a number of people who you could imagine, but I'll come back to that in a second, but I'd like to say is it's not really even since the '60's, there's actually three strains and those go back to the turn of the 20th century. So it was the long-running division in the Republican Party was between what was known as Wall Street and Main Street Republicans. And sort of different expectations about the use of the federal government. And then you add the religious right, which, while it's concentrated in the south, was a part of the Goldwater coalition before he was able to break through in the south, in the actual 1964 election. So even outside the south, there's, you know, a base for that, so you have three different streams. Which is one of the reasons it's hard to get one leader to emerge out of the rest. The second reason that it's hard for a leader is because, you know, the Democrats have the House, the Senate, and the presidency. When the Republicans first took the House in 1994, they had an opportunity for Newt Gingrich to emerge as a national leader who can stand on the same stage as Bill Clinton as a national leader. Right now, there's no such platform and we won't see one until at least the 2012 presidential nomination campaign. So it's really early to know who is going to emerge in that regard. There are a large number of potential individuals, but there's so many of them that no one is looking like a, you know, a strong candidate going in. Indeed, George W. Bush, at this point in, you know, before the 2000 campaign, was just a, you know, a sort of relatively unknown governor of Texas.
Question: Do you foresee any party realignment?
John Aldrich: There's always that potential and in some ways, it's a little bit brighter now than it has been since the early 1990's with the Reform party. Just to draw the analogy to that, while Ross Perot set off the motivation for the Reform party to form it, many of the members of the Reform party were not particularly interested in Perot, when were interested in running and trying to establish their own party and indeed, it was the internecene warfare between the Peronistas, if you will, and the anti-Peronistas, that led to the decline of the Reform Party. You know, our laws make it hard for a third party to get any traction, but they don't make it impossible. The electoral laws are just sort of stacked against it, but not impossibly so and what you need is somebody who has his, or in this case, her own appeal and sort of charismatic appeal that can attract attention and thereby mobilize a set of people who feel they have been most cut out of the two parties and have a home neither in the Democrat or the Republican party. A fair amount of that would be the Libertarians, the Libertarian move, and so I would imagine if she was able to establish a party that had any kind of credibility, that would be one sort of additional allies as she tried to build the party. It's a very long shot, it's almost certain that it wouldn't work, but it certainly could affect how it is the Republican party tries to move back into a position of serious competitiveness for the presidency and control of Congress.
Question: Will Libertarianism be a breakout movement?
John Aldrich: My particular position is it's very likely to have a small impact on both sides and not be able to have any break out kind of role. You know, that's why they may actually be imaginably movable toward a new third party, because they would be a more significant force in a small, but growing third party to add to their sort of constant base. There's this constant Libertarian base that's a clear appeal, but it's very difficult to be a Libertarian who says the government should not intervene in individual's lives any more than necessity and try to build a coalition that is both against gun control and against the stopping of gay marriage. Right? Those are, that breadth of appeal is very, most people are Libertarians for one reason or another, but not for both those reasons. And it's a very long stretch of the set of issues that make up a sort of coherent Libertarian position. And so there's a real tendency for it to be a small side, small but perhaps, but I think larger side on the Republican conservative, you know, sort of, that's serving as sort of a thorn in the side of the regular Republican party and a very small sort of liberal Libertarian, progressive Libertarian side in the Democratic Party.
Question: How does America's party system compare to other democracies'?
John Aldrich: Okay, sure. So, broadly, there are two kinds of systems in the world. There are many-party systems and there are two-party systems. And our English cousins, both England, Canada, Australia, India, tend to have majority rule elections, rather than proportional elections and that tends to lead them to have two sort of competing parties. So in England, you know, it's been, you know, since the '20's, that anybody other than Labor or the Conservatives have formed a government and gotten a Prime Minister in the Cabinet, and so on. And so in that way, it's very much like ours. They have problems very much like ours as well. There's one lesson to learn from them, and that is that the two parties at various times in history, recent history, were criticized for being too extreme. The conservatives under Thatcher, the Labor Party until the coming of, what's his name, Gordon Brown and his predecessor, I'm blanking on his name right now, and what they did was they moved, they took a much more moderate stance within the range of opinion within the Labor Party, took a much more moderate stance, and that's what's happening now in the Conservative Party, a more moderate leadership, even within the same range, a less extreme and a more moderate leadership has softened some of the edges. Otherwise, it's a system in many ways very similar to ours and the degree of differences are really quite similar between the two parties. If you go to other systems in which there are multiple parties, it's odd but it still tends to break down that two parties generate most of the leadership of the system, even though there are multiple parties around. For example, in Israel, which has election laws that should lead to the largest number of parties and indeed there are quite a large number of parties in that system, for many years, Labor and Conservative were the only source of prime ministers, leaders, of the country and they took opposite positions and it looked kind of like a two-party system embedded in a multi-party system in which there were, many people had voices in the - their congress, but only two were effectively governing the country.
Question: Can our system ever be reformed?
John Aldrich: Yeah, no. Not easily, right, and not in the short run. So, the principal problem is that, so we had two things that happened, one of them was just a sorting, I talked about southern Democrats essentially, you know, gained the Republican Party. In some sense, that's just taking, you know, members of Congress who were painted blue and we re-painted them red. And in New England, you could say the reverse, you know, red you painted blue. But, and that's just a resorting and that's fine, and everything would be, you know, much easier, if that was the only thing that happened. The thing that got more problematic was that it became harder and harder for moderates to win elections. And so not only did you sort people differently into reds and blues, but you moved them apart. And so you took out a range for moderates and there's very few moderates now, that's why people are so focused on, for example, people like Olympia Snow, she's one of the few, you know, Republicans from a basically Democratic area and thus has the kind of appeal that can go, you know, she can win elections as a Republican in what would otherwise be a Democrat area because she's one of the few people there in the center. And there are just so few of them. That's been the difficult part. The question is how would we get a viable center back and that's a very difficult question to figure out. The difference between the '60's and now, another difference between the '60's and now was that Republicans and Democrats divided on some issues, other issues, they were all intermingled and, you know, Republicans and Democrats were on the same side, opposite sides, all mixed up and they were not partisan issues. Now, virtually every issue is partisan. And that extends to virtually everything that comes up has a partisan twist to it, is very difficult. And we can't, you know, also forget the presentation of issues and that's, you know, if you think back to the '60's and '70's, news was Walter Cronkite and he talked to everybody. Now, the network news is a much less significant factor, it's not summarized by a Walter Cronkite kind of figure and people have their own news to listen to and it's as polarized as the rest of the world. It's a very difficult thing and it's very difficult to see how to unwind it, except of new issues come up that do cut across party lines that would break open some of the, the sort of rigidities we currently have and allow for some movement to come up that provides for the possibility of at least some degree of overlap between the two parties, some common ground between the two parties. Some way in which you could begin to see the value of bipartisan as well as purely partisan politics.