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Party politics: Past and present

Thinking about change and continuity as the Iowa caucus approaches

Michael Barone Illustration by Grafilu

Party politics: Past and present
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Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has been an author of the annual Almanac of American Politics ever since its first edition in 1971. When I was a child, I had a teacher who had memorized every word of the Old Testament in Hebrew: Give him the first few words of a verse and he’d be off and running, page after page. Michael’s granular knowledge of American politics is like that: Give him a congressional district and he’ll give you a street-level description of its politics. His new book is titled How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t). Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

The parties flipped geographically several decades ago: The Democratic-solid South became the Republican-solid South, and the Northeast became mostly Democratic. Are the parties flipping by class now, with blue-collar voters becoming the GOP base?

These parties have changed their positions on issues for years, but retained a certain basic DNA. The Republican Party has always centered on a core constituency of people who thought of themselves and were thought of by others as typical Americans. The Democratic Party has always been a collation of out-groups, not typical Americans, but who taken together in a diverse country can summon up a majority if they can agree among themselves on platforms and policies.

How did Northern urban bosses and Southern segregationists get along?

The Democrats until Franklin Roosevelt were not for a strong federal government: They were for state autonomy. Different groups could have their way: segregation in the South, saloons in the North. You go back before the Civil War and the Democratic Party is made up of Catholic immigrants in Northern cities and slave owners in the South. What are the leading Democratic voter groups today? Black Americans and gentry liberals, very rich people.

You can divide America into two countries: major metro areas with 1 million population or more, and outside those areas—what I call the out-state. That’s about a 50-50 division in the country.

They differ on same-sex marriage.

Gentry liberals favor same-sex marriage almost unanimously. Black voters have been reluctant to back it: We’ve seen that in the nonsupport of black voters for Pete Buttigieg, who is in a same-sex marriage. One of the problems for the Democratic Party is reconciling all those groups.

African Americans were heavily Republican a century ago.

Black Americans stuck with the GOP from the 1860s to the 1930s, when their experiences in the Great Depression made them marginally Democratic. After the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Barry Goldwater’s vote against it, they become very heavily Democratic and have stayed that way now for more than 50 years.

Can that change?

My observation over time is that identifiable groups tend to regress toward the mean, which means they’re more like the average. Unemployment among black and Hispanic voters is the lowest ever recorded. The gains in income are clustered not at the top of the economic scale, but among people who are down at the bottom.

So the class basis of the parties is changing?

The Democratic Party has picked up support among affluent voters and college graduates. The Republican Party has picked up among nonaffluent voters and non–college graduates. It’s been a gradual process, but it accelerated in 2016. We’ve been hearing for many years from Democratic politicians and some Republicans that “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” That happened in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. It’s not happening during the Trump administration.

No matter what happens, though, elections for president seem to be close. Anything 55 percent and over is a landslide.

The things that attract one group to a party may repel another group from that party. It tends to balance out. If the working-class people in eastern Kentucky, the coal mine area, see affluent people heavily voting Democratic and being concerned about climate change, they may not vote Democratic anymore.

You write about “the out-state.” What’s that?

You can divide America into two countries: major metro areas with 1 million population or more, and outside those areas—what I call the out-state. That’s about a 50-50 division in the country: About half of Americans live in major metro areas, about half don’t.

We need discussion on what you’re really talking about when you say free college, free medical care. When those issues get aired with some thoroughness as they’re likely to in a presidential race, I think people will see some of the problems.

How does that help us to think about what to expect from the crucial Midwest in 2020?

The only Midwestern state that will be heavily Democratic is Illinois, because of Chicago. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa are up for grabs, and the other Midwestern states look safely Republican. So, we’ll see. The problem with really close elections like 2016’s is that it’s easy to predict which states will be close. It’s hard to predict which candidate will win.

Did race help Obama in 2008?

Some Republican voters remember the Republican Party started as an anti-slavery party. Some Democratic voters remember that the industrial labor unions of the Midwest strongly believed in equal rights for black people. The idea of electing the first black president was attractive to many people in the out-state Midwest.

Honesty was an issue in 2016 …

“Crooked Hillary,” the email scandal, lying—that was unpopular. Out-state Midwesterners went against the Republican Party during the Watergate crisis. They don’t like dishonesty. While you can attack Donald Trump for making dishonest statements, the honesty issue hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.

You’re not a fan of electing presidents by popular vote.

How would they decide the election if it’s very close? Conduct recounts in 3,141 counties the way we did in 67 Florida counties in 2000? Can they compel recounts or recanvassing under state laws? And, we have slightly different voting qualifications in each of the states.

The U.S. has certainly resisted socialism. You note that in 1932 we had 25 percent unemployment, yet the two socialist candidates received only 2.5 percent of the vote. Now, with little unemployment and much greater wealth, half of millennials tell pollsters they like socialism. What’s happened?

They’ve had high-school education where the only American history they get is in anti-American volumes. Socialism sounds like free stuff. Candidates say I’ll give you free college, free rent, and free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and I’ll wipe away your college debt. The two candidates who have raised the most money in the Democratic Party are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two leftmost economic candidates. Democratic contributors tend to be white college grads, not necessarily rich, but affluent enough to send $50 or $100 without thinking much about it.

How do you fight that?

They will come to see they really don’t want to move to Venezuela. They’ve had their university indoctrination, but I hope events will teach them. We need discussion on what you’re really talking about when you say free college, free medical care. When those issues get aired with some thoroughness as they’re likely to in a presidential race, I think people will see some of the problems.

You know the joke from the 1930s: The lower class is Democratic, the middle class is Republican, the upper class is Communist.

Something to that. People who are heirs to a lot of money tend to be way off to the left.

Last question, from page 11 of your new book. You write, “The selection of Abraham Lincoln, together with the penetrating intelligence and sublime prudence of the Founders, provides the strongest evidence for the argument that a divine providence had a hand in shaping this nation.” That’s a great sentence. Do you believe it?

Yeah, well, I was raised to be a capital “A” atheist, and I now describe myself as a small “a” agnostic. Do I believe there was divine providence? No, I don’t, but I think there’s strong evidence contrary to my beliefs.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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