The Second Civil War
The third period, ranging from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s, was a period of transition, in which the forces that had sustained that bipartisan system waned and the pressures for more partisan confrontation intensified. (These will be explored in Chapters 4, 5, and 6.)
The final phase, the culmination of those pressures, is our period of hyperpartisanship, an era that may be said to have fully arrived when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted on a virtually party-line vote to impeach Bill Clinton in December 1998. (Chapters 6 through 10, from different angles, will explore this period.)
The resurgence of partisanship over the past several decades confounded the expectations of political scientists in the middle to late twentieth century. Most analysts predicted that the parties might be eclipsed by television (which provides politicians a more direct relationship with voters), the ability of candidates to raise large sums of money on their own, or the rise of independent voters.
Instead we have moved into an era when partisanship at every level, from the voters to elected officials, is the most powerful force in political life. "The two political parties are really strong in a way they haven't been in years," Mehlman correctly notes. "Not strong that as the chairman of the Republican party I'm a big dog; that's not what it is. Strong in the sense that…joining a political party means something. Political parties are no longer divided along lines that are arbitrary: religion, race, what your economic status is. They are now divided along [the lines of] what your ideology is, which is much more durable. We live in an era of very strong parties."
These strong parties, as noted above, are reminiscent in many ways of the dynamic parties that anchored the age of intense partisanship around the beginning of the twentieth century. But the competition between the parties today is unique in one critical respect: In the early years of the twentieth century, the country was deeply divided but not closely divided. It was deeply divided, because a large gulf separated the priorities of most republicans and most Democrats throughout that era. But it was not closely divided, because republicans and Democrats each assembled dominant coalitions that constituted a clear majority of the country during the years when they held power. Conversely, in the period of greater bipartisan negotiation, between the late 1930s and the mid-1960s, the country was closely but not deeply divided. It was closely divided because the tendency of dozens of conservative Democrats, and a smaller number of moderate republicans, to routinely cross party lines left neither side with a reliable majority in Congress throughout this era. But it was not deeply divided, because the very instability of the system encouraged presidents from each party to pursue mostly centrist agendas.
Today America is deeply and closely divided. The ideological differences between the parties are as great as at any time in the past century. But the country is split almost exactly in half between the two sides. Deeply and closely divided is an unprecedented and explosive combination. Voters for the losing side always feel unrepresented when the other party wins unified control over government. But for most of our history those voters could look to heretics in the majority coalition (liberal republicans or conservative Democrats) who championed an approximation of their views. And in most cases—under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, or Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—the disaffected faced the reality that the other side, at that moment, represented a preponderant majority of the country. Neither was true while Republicans controlled the White House and Congress through most of Bush's presidency. Nearly 49 percent of the country voted against Bush in 2004, but few Republican leaders, inside his administration or in Congress, held views close to almost any of those voters. The size of the losing electoral coalition was much greater than in most previous periods of unified government, but their influence inside the governing coalition was smaller. For most of his presidency this dynamic allowed Bush to govern in a manner that satisfied his base while excluding perhaps a greater share of the electorate than at any previous point in American history. The operation of that system, and its consequences for Bush, the two parties, and the country, will be explored more in Chapters 7 and 8.