Why I chose…Dynamics of the Party System

In my two previous posts, I began to explain my choices for the Facebook book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), addressing my interest in crime, both fictional and real.

I now turn away from crime (fictional and otherwise) and toward something far more sinister and horrifying.

Politics.

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I first encountered American politics in October 1972, having just turned six, as President Richard Nixon was cruising to reelection over my staunchly Democratic family’s choice, South Dakota Senator George McGovern. On a gray November morning four years later, I sat in the front seat of my mother’s car in the parking lot of my suburban Philadelphia elementary school, poring over the state-by-state returns from the previous day’s presidential election. It was my first election “win,” as Jimmy Carter, the Democratic former governor of Georgia, had barely edged Republican Gerald Ford; Ford would have prevailed had he won just 12,000 and 15,000 more votes in Ohio and Mississippi, respectively. Looking back, I think the nation would have won either way.

As the 1980 presidential election began (and I found myself drawn to California’s Democratic governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., who had nearly wrested the nomination from Carter less than four years earlier), I was in 8th grade, being taught American history by the exceptional Tom Collins. Mr. Collins presented history (and politics) not only through important events, but also through art, literature and music; this is when my fascination with American history in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s began. We followed the unfolding election in class, learning about the ideological spectrum in the process. I particularly remember Mr. Collins standing at the blackboard, placing various current political figures on a left-right continuum, later proclaiming that he himself, as a history teacher, needed to sit right in the middle.

In March 1980, a woman named Barbara Bush, whose husband George I vaguely knew was running for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed the student body at Bala Cynwyd Middle School. (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below) I remember little of what she said (other than being impressed this engaging woman was speaking to us at all), though I understood she was trying to get us to convince our parents to vote for her husband. That appearance may have helped, because on April 22, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Herbert Walker Bush beat former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, 50 to 43%. Despite that victory, Bush lost the nomination to Reagan, becoming the latter’s vice-presidential running mate.

The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Sat__Apr_19__1980_

And yet I did not truly become a hardcore political junkie until late 1982/early 1983, when a slew of famous (seriously, McGovern again?) and not-so-famous (who the heck is Reubin Askew?) Democrats began declaring themselves candidate for their party’s 1984 presidential nomination. Hard to believe now, given his eventual 18-point victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale, but Reagan appeared quite vulnerable then.

Who knows why “Fritz” Mondale quickly became my first political hero[1]; until I cast votes for then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008, my November 1984 vote for Mondale (I was still too young to vote in Pennsylvania’s April Democratic primary) was my proudest vote. Yes, he was an experienced hand with broadly similar liberal views, but it was more than that. What friends who preferred Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who would emerge as Mondale’s strongest challenger for the nomination, saw as “boring,” I saw as a gentle and genuine humility.

My attachment to Mondale was such that more than 20 years later, when I just joined Facebook, a high school friend asked me if I was still into Mondale. Yes, I responded, not taking the gentle gibe too seriously.  While many of my fellow high school students were apolitical (and most of their parents were centrist Republicans in the mold of the state’s two Senators, John Heinz and Arlen Specter), one of my closest friends was an avid Reagan supporter. Our friendly political sparring is a model of respectful disagreement I still try to follow.

That summer, I watched the Democratic National Convention gavel-to-gavel, though I chose to avoid the Republican National Convention.

And that fall, I enrolled in Yale University, where I pursued my interest in American electoral geography. In so doing, I helped to set up an undergraduate course, taught my senior year by friend and mentor David Mayhew, called “American Political Geography.”

Assigned in this course was the book pictured above: the 1983 revised edition of James L. Sundquist’s Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States; the first edition was published in 1973.

At first, I did not understand what this book had to do with electoral geography, which to my mind mostly involved tabulations of state-and-local election returns and/or beautiful color maps. It meant obscure works like Section and Party: Political Geography of Presidential Elections, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, written in 1981 by two geographers, J. Clark Archer and Peter J. Taylor, or Kevin Phillips’ groundbreaking 1969 work The Emerging Republican Majority.

Reading the book, however, as I recall doing in the sunny bedroom of the off-campus apartment I shared with two male classmates, drinking a half-milk, half-coffee concoction from a tall blue mug, I began to understand.

Stepping back a second, what I really liked about the book was how readable it was. This was not the stilted academic prose from which I would later rebel, a rebellion that still informs my “annotated meandering” writing style. Instead, it carried the reader along almost the way a novel would, leaving her/him wondering “what happened next?”

Consider this paragraph that opens Chapter Seven: The Realignment of the 1890s:

“The prairie fire that swept the frontier states in 1890 was bound to move eastward. As third-party politicians began their quadrennial efforts to organize for the presidential election two years away, they had a solid regional foundation to build on—by far the strongest political base any off-year election had constructed for them since the Civil War. The western victories energized and inspired reformers everywhere. The men and women who had been catapulted into national prominence by these victories found themselves in the vanguard of national third-party politics. And they assumed that role with missionary zeal.”[2]

Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to politics, that is propulsive writing (“prairie fire that swept,” “energized and inspired,” “catapulted,” “missionary zeal”). Sure, Dynamics occasionally gets bogged down in details (an occupational hazard of non-fiction writing, I have found), but overall it is as close to a “page-turner” as an academic work of political science can get. Just as Mr. Collins did, Sundquist presents this sweeping review of American political history (focusing on the shifting coalitions support America’s ever-evolving political parties) on a “human” scale.

As for political geography, Sundquist grounds much of this history in geographic terms, understanding that party bases were primarily regional in nature. For example, in the decades after the Civil War, presidential elections were primarily waged between a solid Democratic South and an equally-Republican North (especially New England), (sound familiar, but with the parties reversed?). In short, Sundquist’s book deepened my understanding of what drove the numbers in those tabulations and the colors on those maps.

Sundquist, who died on February 17, 2016 at the age of 100, was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution from 1965 to 1985 (directing its Governmental Studies section for a time), after which he maintained a small office on an upper floor.

I was lucky enough to be an (unpaid) intern at Brookings in the summer of 1986. Two years later, fter graduating from Yale, I started a one-year stint as a governmental studies research assistant.

One dark night, I was still there well past 5 pm. Wandering the halls, I found myself in front of Sundquist’s office. A light was on; he was working inside. I quietly knocked on the door, and he called me into his office.

I recall little of our brief conversation other than praising Dynamics, but he was exceptionally friendly and expressed a sincere interest in my career plans. If I were already planning to apply to doctoral programs in political science, I would have sought his advice on that as well. We probably also talked about Professors Mayhew and Edward Tufte, who had changed my life in 1986 by telling me to “introduce yourself to David Mayhew.”

Afterward, I wondered why this lovely man had been “exiled” to an upper floor, but he seemed content with the situation, being an effectively-retired 73-year-old man.

In the end, I love Dynamics because it reminds me of something Tufte once said in class, “If your data are boring, then you have the wrong data.” There is no reason why any academic—or non-academic—work of non-fiction cannot be presented in both a thoroughly-researched and entertaining manner.

Rest in peace, Mr. Sundquist.

Honorable mentions.

I could fill this section with books by Mayhew (this being his most famous) and Tufte (especially this), all of which share Dynamics’ broad readability, or a handful of works on American electoral geography/political culture, but I instead choose these five titles (which proved harder than I expected).

Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice by Larry Bartels

I first encountered this book because I was the teaching assistant for a spring 1992 Harvard undergraduate course on the presidential nominating process; I read it right along with the students. At the time, there had only been a handful of presidential elections (1976, 1980, 1984, 1988) in which primary and caucus voters had completely selected each party’s nominee prior to the summer nominating conventions. This is why Bartels’ work was so exciting and groundbreaking: it was the first systematic study of how this process worked. I was so taken with it that I even tried to replicate some of its “momentum” graphics in my burgeoning doctoral thesis (the one I never finished).

An Economic Theory of Democracy by Anthony Downs

This highly-readable 1957 treatise about the way political parties are expected to behave under various political systems and voter distributions (e.g., the relative mix of liberal and conservative voters) is especially relevant today as American politics becomes ever-more polarized. For much of American history, enough voters were neither purely on the left nor purely on the right so that “median” voters were easy to locate. Two (and only two) stable political parties, one mostly center-left and one mostly center-right were thus forced to find common ground in a quest to win over these “median” voters. More recently, though, America has drifted toward a system in which most voters are firmly on one side or the other, making finding that common ground more elusive.

The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed by David Stockman

To a large degree, I love this excellent political memoir (Stockman served as Reagan’s first Director of the Office of Management and Budget) because I do not share its author’s ideological viewpoint. Stockman was a staunch fiscal conservative who genuinely believed in 1980 that a radical combination of deep personal income tax cuts and federal spending reductions would produce considerable long-term economic benefits. He was also the Cassandra who first warned about the mountain of red ink (massive federal budget deficits) that ultimately did result from passing the tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts. His observation that, politically speaking, tax cuts are fairly popular and easy to pass while spending cuts exact unbearable pain, yielded the book’s title. There may be better political memoirs, but few are more poignant.

[Quick observation: Mondale was pilloried for declaring in his acceptance speech that these already-looming deficits would require the next president to raise taxes, and that he was admitting up front that he would do so (which  both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton ultimately did, with both punished for their fiscal responsibility). That was a moment of rare political courage that got lost in raw political calculation. The triumph of politics, indeed.]

The American Voter by Angus Campbell, William E. Converse, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes

Before this landmark 1960 work, written by four political scientists and opinion researchers at the University of Michigan, the prevailing (somewhat naïve) view (see here, for example) was that voting decisions were based primarily on a combination of demographic traits, social class, inter-personal relationships and mass media. While this is not, strictly speaking, untrue, Campbell and his colleagues found something different: that voting decisions were almost exclusively based on party identification, itself usually acquired from one’s parents. This book, then, marks the beginning of the modern study of voting behavior—one that is far more “tribalistic” than we may want to believe.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher L. Hayes

OK, this page-turning modern classic is not, per se, a book about politics (much less a work of political science). However, I wanted to include at least one contemporary work (besides Mayhew’s recent books) addressing our current cultural and political climate, and other than this paradigm-shifting look at American history, this is the best, even after acknowledging that Nell and I are devoted watchers of the MSNBC weeknight 8-11 pm lineup[3]. Hayes uses a series of institutional “crises” (the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the 2007-08 financial collapse, the failures of intelligence that led to the Iraq War, etc.) to illustrate how the laudable idea of meritocracy—the notion that societal advancement should be based solely on ability and achievement, not birthright or social class—slowly corrupted nearly every key American institution. In many ways, the system really is rigged, resulting in untenable economic inequalities, which both political parties need to find a way to address substantively sooner rather than later; color me optimistic.

To be continued…

[1] It may well have been a day in late 1982, as I stood in the upstairs parents’ bedroom of a close friend, leafing through a Newsweek magazine whose cover story previewed a possible Democratic presidential nomination battle between Mondale and Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy (who ultimately did not run). From what I was reading, Mondale seemed to have that Goldilocks “just right” quality.

[2] Sundquist, James L., 1983, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (revised edition). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, pg. 134.

[3] We usually start by watching the last few minutes of Hardball, as the girls are getting ready for bed. The girls then go to sleep in the latter half of “Chris,” definitely before the start of “Rachel.” Nell and the dog generally go to bed at “first commercial Lawrence.” Who needs clocks?

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