John Aldrich
Professor of Political Science, Duke University

The Parties That Never End

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After another fiercely contested election, political scientist John Aldrich wonders whether America's polarized politics will ever change.

John Aldrich

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.


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.