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Explaining Political Uncertainty


Published: July 8, 2019

The country is currently facing electoral and political instability due to economic and demographic changes that are breaking apart existing voting blocs. This instability will continue until one party finds a dominant set of issues that attracts a winning coalition of voters. Stabilizing the political landscape will require party coalitions to address critical issues like immigration, inequality, worker insecurity, environmental challenges, and trade in a way that brings together a stable majority of voters.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can a political party address social and economic issues and stabilize the political arena?
  2. What led to political instability?

Additional Resources

  • Read “Globalization and Political Instability” by David Brady, available here.
  • Watch “Party Instability: Why American Politics Feels Broken” by David Brady, available here.
  • Read “Are Our Parties Realigning?” by David Brady and Bruce Cain, available here
  • Read “What American History Can Teach Us” by David Brady, available here.
View Transcript

We live in an age of electoral and political instability. For the past thirty years, political control of Congress and the presidency has alternated between the two parties with alarming frequency.

Political parties function by simplifying problems for voters. But the issues that matter and motivate voters constantly change, and when they change rapidly, political parties fall out of sync with what voters want.

Our existing political instability is occurring because seismic economic and demographic changes are breaking apart existing voting blocs. This instability will continue until one party finds a dominant set of issues that attracts a winning coalition of voters.

This isn’t the first time our system has experienced so much political instability. While the twentieth century was dominated by two periods of long, stable control, the late 1800s looked a lot like the modern era.

Massive industrialization changed the nature of the economy and therefore people’s lives. Previous voting blocs – largely defined by the Civil War – broke down as the issues of tariffs, gold & silver, and challenges from immigration split existing voting coalitions.

While parties figured this out, political control changed back and forth for twenty years, until the Republican Party found a winning combination that allowed it to dominate for thirty years –until the Great Depression, when Democrats put together electoral positions that saw them control Congress for the next sixty years.

Democratic control started to slip in the 1980s, when party ideologies increasingly homogenized. Conservatives sorted into the Republican Party and liberals sorted into the Democratic Party. Conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northern Republicans became largely extinct. Along the way, party affiliation also changed, as independents, Republicans, and Democrats all equalized at roughly a third of the total electorate.

Sorting and polarization have significant electoral and partisan consequences.

First, partisans of each party are more likely to misperceive the other side, because they have so little in common. I am not sure this is true for most voters but it is true of activists.

Second, sorting and polarization have given us presidents who are dividers, not uniters, since they no longer have to appeal to members of their party who don’t share their ideology. 

Finally, as party affiliation has equalized, we’ve seen many more close elections. Parties have fewer short-term incentives to cooperate in bipartisan policy-making as long as they believe they have a legitimate shot at majority status.

The path back to a stable political landscape will require party coalitions to address key issues like immigration, inequality, family and social breakdown, worker insecurity, automation, trade, the U.S. role in the world, and environmental challenges in a way that brings together a stable majority of voters. 

The GOP could end up heading in one of several directions.

The first is an anti-immigrant, protectionist, relatively un-educated, old, white party concentrated in the southern and central United States.

A second possible coalition would favor markets, smaller government, immigration, and would be more libertarian and diverse in its membership.

The Democrats also face two possible futures.

The first is a Sanders/Warren party that combines socialist-like policies (Medicare for all, free tuition, a smaller military, higher taxes, and more regulation) with identity politics.  This grouping would largely exclude moderates from swing states.

The alternate version would hold center-left positions on economic policy and social issues, would be relatively moderate on defense and immigration, and somewhat resistant to identity politics.

Ultimately, the American people will decide which policy portfolios prevail – and whether they offer a return to electoral stability.