Political Party Meltdown
DURING the tumultuous wartime summer of 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt fielded an incredible proposal. His Republican opponent from 1940, Wendell Willkie, would quit his party and join the president in a new, liberal coalition.
Both men had grown deeply frustrated with the conservative factions of their own parties. The more isolationist Republican “Old Guard” had just blocked Willkie’s bid to win his party’s nomination again, and scoffed in particular at his idea for a postwar “world government.” A coalition, Roosevelt told a close adviser, would enable the Democrats “to get rid of its reactionary elements in the South, and to attract to it the liberals in the Republican Party,” while “leaving the conservatives in both parties to join together as they see fit.”
Roosevelt elaborated: “We ought to have two real parties — one liberal and the other conservative. As it is now, each party is split by dissenters.”
He was wrong. The idea of two ideologically consistent, European-style parties that offer voters clear-cut choices may sound logical. But our federal government has always worked best when our major parties were instead messy, exasperating contradictions, sprawled across many different regions. In fact, that’s almost the only time our government has ever functioned well.
The former opponents’ dreams of one big liberal party were soon dashed by both men’s deaths, but what Roosevelt and Willkie wanted has largely come to pass. The Republican Party has shifted hard to the right on virtually every issue and moved its base to the South. The Democrats remain more ideologically diverse, but are increasingly isolated along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, plus a few sections of the Midwest and the Prairie States. ...