Our partisan alignments seem to have descended into nonsense with lower income union households flocking to the “party of big business” and upper income suburbanites backing our “party of the common man.” The strange alignments that make our present political situation so confusing rise from an awkward, little-noted feature of our system. America has three, not two, major political parties. We have always been a three-party nation locked inside a two-party political system.
Poles of partisan alignment have been scrambled by a rare event, something unprecedented in our history. One of those three parties just completed a decades-long shift in its affiliation and it will take time for our system to establish a new equilibrium. This journey toward a redefinition of political parties has no certain endpoint, no roadmap, and no promise of a happy ending.
Though our political parties have carried different names and brands over the centuries, their composition has remained remarkably constant. From our earliest origins, we have aligned around two named, publicly acknowledged political parties. Democrats were the party of farmers and laborers. Republicans (under a series of party names) were the party of tradesmen, merchants, investors and professionals. Both parties supported a broad spectrum of liberals and conservatives. Neither party fully dominated any geography outside the South. Splinter parties and offshoots appeared from time to time, but this Republican/Democratic rivalry has defined the visible shape of our system from our earliest days.
All the while, a third party with no public brand existed behind these alignments. Southern conservatives were nominally aligned with Democrats from the beginning, but they have always remained a distinct political entity. While elsewhere in the US Democrats and Republicans dueled their way through a two-party democracy, Southern states never tolerated partisan competition. The South has always been governed by a single party and continues under that alignment today.
Across the South, local conservatives built systems that tolerated little if any partisan competition. They controlled the region entirely, creating a country within a country and a party within a party. Over the past few decades those states completed their transition from single-party rule under Democrats to single party rule under Republicans without any meaningful changes in their policies, platforms or practices. America’s silent third party, the Southern Conservative Party, has chosen a new host organism, operating now inside the GOP.
That switch has scrambled the balance of power inside both the Democratic and Republican parties. Where both organizations once supported a broad range of ideologies, this Southern pivot has drained away the support that conservative Democrats once enjoyed inside their party. This change created an unbearably hostile climate inside the GOP that extinguished its formerly robust collection of progressives and liberals.
America’s two major parties have carried different names and slogans over time, but their basic alignments have been very consistent. Their historical outlines can be summarized as follows:
A party of farmers and laborers
Our party of “the common man” has been consistently nationalist and skeptical of trade and business. They have been friendly to government intervention to support small land ownership (including housing), wage supports, labor protections and social services. They have tended to be hostile to government action for infrastructure and military spending except when directly tied to job creation.
This party has been deeply hostile to banks and investment interests. It is largely unconcerned about tax rates or fiscal stability. They have tended to be conservative on social issues, interested in the protection of national and racial identities, and has been worried by loosening of constraints on women and minorities. These voters have traditionally been deeply attached to religion while hostile to libertarians, artists and intellectuals.
They have tended to resist the exercise of US power abroad and remained suspicious of foreign engagements. Their tendency to be skeptical of immigration was constantly challenged by the fact that many of them were either new immigrants themselves, or the second or third generation descendants of new immigrants.
Their support was concentrated in rural areas and among urban laborers. This voting bloc has historically been a Democratic constituency. The Democrats’ rural support and hostility to Industrial capitalism helps explain why Southern conservatives made their home inside this party. Thanks to the help of Southern conservatives, Democrats have always been the largest voting bloc.
A party of tradesmen, merchants, investors and professionals
America’s business party has generally been friendly toward trade, immigration, infrastructure investments, and public education. They have been hostile toward government spending on the social safety net, labor protections and wage supports. They are highly sensitive to taxation and staunch in their defense of property rights.
Their faith in markets, sensitivity to taxation, and their hostility toward regulation made them the country’s greatest proponents of capitalism. Apart from a few xenophobic outbursts, they have generally favored the loosest practical policies on immigration. This party has valued the economic dynamism created by immigration more than they worried about watering down an existing national culture.
Despite their resistance to taxes or safety net spending, they always pressed for government spending on economic infrastructure. They were the greatest proponents of federal investment in roads, railroads, schools, ports and other commercial development. They were successful in these efforts only when the could persuade the workers’ party of the potential for new jobs and patronage.
This party has been relatively less attached to religion, race, language or markers of a national culture than their opponents. Historically they were friendlier toward racial minorities than their opponents, but with a very important caveat. Our party of commerce and capital is very sensitive to any social disruption that might empower populists. Though hostile to racial discrimination, often to the point of sneering at ‘bigoted rubes,’ they were always far more interested in social calm than in social justice.
Our trade and business bloc has enjoyed heavy support among urban professionals, voters in countryside towns, and more recently, the emerging suburbs, especially Northern suburbs. This bloc has always been outnumbered by Democrats, leaving their institutions consistently unstable. They were historically represented by Federalists, National-Republicans, Whigs and then Republicans.
The South always existed as its own political entity, a Caribbean slave economy encapsulated inside a wider classical liberal project. Southern politics is defined by a central problem – how to retain their peculiar institutions while sharing a national government dominated by a liberal democratic ethos. That defensive posture prevented the South from developing competitive political parties in the form that prevailed elsewhere in the US. Instead, slave states developed a unique, highly insular brand of conservatism.
Southern conservatism presumes the existence of a natural, inherited hierarchy. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explained in his criticism of our Constitutional order, “They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”
Southern conservatism finds freedom and equality, using its own unique definitions, through adherence to a hierarchy based on the white race, Christianity, a male duty to protect the race’s women (an ownership interest), and land. Though they have always been intensely hostile to government intervention in markets, this should never be interpreted as an affinity for capitalism, which they have always found to be grubby and low. Few forces are more disruptive of a perfect social order than the constant, churning creative destruction that accompanies capitalism.
They fall into occasional alignment with business interests due to their far greater fear of government power. They will tolerate bankers and industrialists, even Jewish ones, before granting one more ounce of authority to a central government premised on “all men are created equal.”
Southern conservatives have been at war with the premise of the Declaration of Independence from our earliest days. That war has flared into open, violent conflict at various times but it has never reached a climax and it perhaps never will. Like two trees that grow up next to one another, struggling, wrestling, and entwining, what is Southern is American and vice versa.
The Civil War destroyed their imagined utopia, but it failed to change the minds of the survivors. Within a few decades, the South had recreated most of their old order in a form that would remain unchallenged until the 60’s. Read the speeches of Alexander Stephens next to articles and statements from White House advisor Steve Bannon and you’ll see that, as Faulker once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When Republicans today talk about “violence in Chicago” they are referencing an ancient code. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and places like them are an ideological hellscape in which lower racial orders run riot, disregarding their natural place, and women engage in debauched acts that compromise their hallowed purpose.
If you have formed a perfect society in terms of culture, race, and religion, there is no such thing as “progress.” Every change is a descent from perfection. Progress is perversion. Preserving their unique racial and religious order inside a mostly hostile liberal democracy hinged on the jealous protection of each state’s individual sovereignty.
Driven by this mandate, conservatives in the slave states developed a political system unlike anything that existed elsewhere in America. Southern states never indigenously fostered a free press, freedom of expression or movement, or any of the liberal values that were taken for granted elsewhere. Every form of personal, religious, political, or economic expression was subjected to the overarching concerns of a white population living in fear of their slaves, or later their liberated former slaves.
“Freedom,” like every other term in the American political lexicon, took on a unique meaning in the South; reinterpreted through a lens of racial conflict. Freedom for whites depended on a racial and economic caste system that could suppress the impulses of the lower orders. Freedom was inseparable from security, and security was inseparable from fear.
Southern conservatism held two values, 1) Central government must remain as weak as possible, and 2) White racial and cultural supremacy must be enforced at all costs. Divisions of class and profession that influenced partisan alignments elsewhere in the US were suppressed in the South under the larger banner of racial solidarity.
Voting rights were jealously guarded and subject to a myriad of largely arbitrary local limitations. A system of private violence, without recourse to the justice system, was leveraged to maintain cultural conformity. That private violence also helped to enforce uniform single-party rule within those states, intolerant of open criticism or authentic political competition. It is that heritage of private mob violence that explains their strangely fanatical obsession with unregulated private gun ownership.
Southern conservatives worked to block every exercise of federal influence other than those connected with internal security. Early in the republic they blocked national investments in canal-building, railroads, banks and schools. Later they fought the establishment of public schools. Mass public schooling only arrived in the South with Reconstruction. Mississippi continued its fight against public Kindergarten and compulsory school attendance all the way into the 1980’s. Public spending on any function other than security was, and still is, viewed with the deepest skepticism among Southern conservatives.
Southern conservatives were aligned with the Democratic Party from the earliest days, though that alignment was consistently awkward. When the Democrats in the Cold War era began to attack racial discrimination, Southern conservatives starting looking for a new partisan home.
That shift began at the top of the ticket, where voters could dissent in private without local consequences. Southern states began voting for Republican Presidential candidates for the first time in the 60’s. By the 80’s, the change was starting to percolate down the ticket as Southern conservatives began to flood into an empty Republican precinct structure in Southern states. The two highest elements of the Southern conservative social order are race and religion. America’s revolution in civil rights destroyed their ability to organize openly on issues of race, so they began to campaign on religion. That pivot powered a new Southern insurgency.
Thirty years ago Elizabeth Warren was a Republican and Rick Perry was a Democrat. By 2014, the last of the former slave states had completed their transition from single-party authoritarian Democratic rule to single-party authoritarian Republican rule without changing their policies.
What this meant for the other two parties was a dramatic and chaotic power shift. Southern conservatives forged new alliances with Northern religious activists, rural populists, and socially conservative labor voters, shifting the political center of gravity for the entire nation.
Traditional Republicans were first heartened by an influx of new support, then concerned by their party’s southward shift. Over time, Republicans who still maintained an affinity for their party’s old alignment as “The Party of Lincoln” found themselves marginalized, silenced, or purged.
Democrats have experienced a similar upheaval. Their party’s conservative wing found its influence collapse as their Southern allies on the right left the party. Across the southern half of the country Democrats lost virtually all their white support as Southern conservatives in control of the Republican infrastructure pulled voters away with a remarkably blatant white nationalist appeal cloaked in the language of religion.
Only one position cost Democrats nearly a thousand legislative seats over the past decade. That policy position did not come from the Obama Administration. It was not adopted in this century. And there is nothing modern Democrats can do about it. Civil rights for African-Americans and women is the single issue that drove Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party.
The collapse of Democratic power across half the country was the final stage of a transformation that started with Truman’s decision to desegregate the military and was sealed by Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Acts. Having a black President added momentum to this movement, but it was merely the final, inevitable stage of a process which was already in motion and could not be halted. That shift by Southern conservatives robbed Democrats of their legislative influence while robbing the Republicans of their souls.
For the moment, Republicans have established almost unanimous dominance among rural whites in Southern states. They have seen similar, though less uniform success in rural areas of the North, while abandoning cities almost entirely. This translates into a strange bloc of minority power, in which the party’s rural base allows them to dominate a majority of states while becoming odiously unpopular to a majority of voters nationally. They have successfully taken the Southern, one-party political model nationwide.
It is no accident that the last two Republican Presidents assumed office after losing the popular vote. A Republican has won the popular vote once in the last seven Presidential elections. Southern conservatives, by seizing control of the Republican Party, have built an unstable, temporary power bloc on an electoral plurality. Millions of nominal Republican voters have not yet awakened to the transformation of their party while Democrats have seen a huge bloc of their former coalition partners support decamp for the other side.
Neither of our two major parties has fully adapted to this new environment. Southern conservatives remain an awkward fit inside America’s party of capitalism and commerce. Democrats, robbed of a core populist base, are falling into alignments at odds with their history and established institutions.
For the moment, the GOP encompasses an inherently unstable two-party coalition with formerly Democratic Southern conservatives. Almost all the official infrastructure of the GOP abandoned their party’s leadership in 2016, creating an enormous brain drain and leaving an inept new administration devoid of any institutional support. But those traditional Republicans have found no new home. Meanwhile lightly engaged, less informed Republican voters have not, for the most part, recognized the transformation of their traditional party.
There are good reasons why commercial professionals and the merchant class, which formed the Republicans’ traditional power bloc, have struggled to form a coalition with the remnants of the Democratic Party. The departure of the Democrats’ conservative wing has removed any counter to party’s traditional anti-business, democratic-socialist impulses. Alienated Republicans tend to be higher-income enthusiasts of capitalism and trade, leaving little on which to form common cause other than their shared loathing of Southern conservatives’ racist and authoritarian impulses.
For the moment, this means that a ferociously unpopular third party, which had been pressed to the margins of American life for most of our history, governs the country under the Republican brand. The zombie corpse of Dixie has captured Washington.
No one knows how this unstable scenario plays out. The geographic concentration of Southern conservatives’ voting power presents a threat to the country’s stability today, just as it did in the 19th century. Unless some new alignment can be formed soon to oust the Southern conservatives, we face a challenge to the survival of the American experiment. That new alignment is not yet apparent on the ground and it isn’t clear how it would be formed.
The Civil War did not end at Appomattox. It was not resolved by the Civil Rights Acts. The conflict between the ideals of the American Revolution and the ideology of Southern conservatism is woven into the fabric of our identity. Each generation must wrestle with this conflict in a fresh context. The past is not dead. It’s not even past.