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A Theory of American Politics


I’ve written about American politics many times over the last several months, gradually putting together a broad survey of how our political culture works. Time to lay it all out!

The focus of American political life is manifest in our two major parties–the Democrats and the Republicans. Everybody knows this. But what decides who belongs to one party or the other? What draws someone to the Democrats? What repulses a voter from the GOP? What shapes Americans’ political sensibilities?

Lee Drutman of Vox put out an excellent piece last week describing how race and identity became the main dividing lines in American politics. I recommend checking it out, as well as the follow up piece he also points to. But the long and short of it is that the political preferences of Americans are scattered across at least two dimensions. The Political Compass, with which you may be familiar, is imperfect but provides a reasonable illustration of the ways in which political beliefs are multidimensional. We care about economic policy, but we also care about social policy. We care about events at home, but also what we do abroad.

It’s not easy for politicians to determine which of these issues ultimately matter. In the end, they must find a focus and appeal to voters on that basis. The trick is finding a focus with broad enough appeal that you can capture an election-winning size of the electorate. During the era of the Civil Rights Movement, our political discourse settled on race and identity as the central conflict, which did the job of slicing the electorate more or less in half. White people who feel racial resentment or at least race-based anxiety sorted into the Republican Party, while the opposing philosophy–essentially, progress for people who don’t feel such resentment–settled into the Democratic Party. This wasn’t a swift or automatic process, but resulted from specific political decisions and strategies. It’s a status quo we’re now stuck with, at least until there’s another major shift in American politics.

What’s interesting about this central conflict is that any conflicts which are not central need not be kept visible in the political discourse. This leaves those who prefer to act more quietly room to do so. I wrote recently about the deep state, and these are the individuals and organizations who tend to benefit most by playing both sides. Wall Street, defense contractors, and other large, well-heeled interests don’t especially care about racial or identity conflicts, so they’re able to influence both parties, largely away from public scrutiny. This is to their advantage, but also to the detriment of the masses. It amounts to a parallel discourse: the voting public gets one set of policy/party choices, and the deep state essentially influences their way into what they want–their choices are far more expansive, as they need not rely on formal electoral mechanisms.

Taking the above for granted, what about so-called “American values”? Do they matter? As far as we can tell, party identification has come to override almost everything else. Historically, there has been tension between the different beliefs and contexts of each individual. Think cultural background, religion, regional affiliation, and so forth. These can easily be in conflict with one another in terms of political choices–imagine a working-class Irish Catholic who is both anti-abortion and pro-welfare. What seems to have happened in American political culture is that many of these conflicting identity-based values have been submerged beneath political identity: now, one’s party identification tends to bring with it a largely consistent set of beliefs. Any two random Democrats are likely to have substantially similar beliefs, and same goes for any two arbitrary Republicans. In other words, the parties–and their voters–have become more ideological and polarized. Such polarization is well-established at this point, too.

We shouldn’t assume that this ideological/partisan sorting represents serious political engagement, though. Instead, party identification is more like being a fan of a particular sports team. It’s more important to be against the other party than to be for anything specific in your own party (besides winning). This is why neither of the two major parties has what one might consider large activist wings. They have such activists, of course, but they are never numerous enough to set the party’s agenda. Instead, both parties continue to orbit around their respective racial/identity-oriented consensus, which is never particularly ambitious or revolutionary.

Only three in ten Americans say they follow elections closely. Over a third of eligible voters don’t vote at all. So, there are a lot of people who aren’t engaged at all, or whose engagement is limited to paying a little bit of attention and then voting. This allows a lot of decisionmaking to happen away from public input. Or does it?

The conventional wisdom is that big money gets what it wants. Wealthy interests can use their concentrated resources to organize and influence in ways that millions of comparatively poor people cannot–it’s frankly easier for one person with a lot of money to set a goal and spend money on it than to convince thousands or millions of others to pool their funds and agree on a single course of action. By that logic, determined influencers should almost always win. It turns out, however, that they don’t. According to an Open Secrets analysis, when a Congressional race is known to be competitive–meaning neither candidate has a clear demographic or establishment advantage that makes it unwinnable for the other party–the candidate who spends less wins about 40% of the time. A 6040 split may not sound that impressive, but it clearly means that money wins only most of the time, not almost all the time. Money matters a lot, and you need it to win, but it cannot unilaterally buy elections. Votes_ do_ matter–a lot!

But what about the great malaise of our era? There’s a widespread belief that the country is in shambles and that the parties are essentially the same–or at least, that the Presidential candidates we get are equally detestable, especially this year. Perhaps that has less to do with reality and more to do with how the media treats politics. Instead of looking seriously at the issues that affect Americans and what solutions individual politicians (or indeed, entire parties) offer to voters, the focus is on the horse race aspect of the election. Each move is analyzed for its strategic significance to the overall election. What effect might it have on the polls? Will this doom the candidate’s chances? How will their latest speech impact their vote share come November? These are the questions political reporters tend to fixate on, when they don’t especially matter–voters will decide who they want, and it’s supposed to be the role of the media to help communicate what is at stake, to be a conduit between the people and the politicians. Instead, we get what amounts to a meta-discourse on the political process itself. This may be interesting to wonks like myself, but if we’re being honest, it’s completely irrelevant, and most voters rightly couldn’t give a damn about it.

James Fallows has a wonderful exploration of this particular topic in an article from 1996, and I absolutely recommend reading it. It’s as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.

To bring it all together: American politics are currently built around a central identity/race conflict, with both parties having captured stable slices of the electorate. These proportions will move over time due to demographic shifts. Bluntly, old voters die and young voters come of age, and the party splits vary across age groups and other demographics which are also shifting over time. Political problems not clearly tied to the central conflict can be managed in a bipartisan fashion, as the War on Terror and the domination of Wall Street demonstrate. Many Americans don’t vote or barely engage with politics at all. Few have what might be considered very strong ideological beliefs, instead using party identification more like sports fandom or a peer selection tool.

News media keep this engagement low by focusing on inside-baseball aspects and meta-discussion of political games. Meanwhile, the assumption that money is everything in politics is definitely flawed. We’ve seen evidence that money is often insufficient to thwart public demands, if those demands have enough broad and vocal support. But journalists are unlikely to change their ways anytime soon, since they’re too deeply embedded in and dependent upon the social networks of the Beltway, where nobody will work with you if all you’ve made are enemies.

It seems unlikely this status quo will change significantly any time soon. The race/identity conflict has only intensified, with Republicans in particular becoming ever more entrenched in fundamentally white supremacist values. Demographic trends will probably doom them, even if they get a temporary boost thanks to the unsettling popularity of the alt-right among young white men. Short of another major cultural movement that permanently shifts the nature of our central conflict, we’ll probably see existing trends continue for at least a few more cycles, but I suspect that our existing patterns will hold for a while.