The Transpartisan Matrix: Help Understanding Our Volatile Politics II

Transpartisan Note #79

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

In 1994 the Republican Party took control of the US Congress from the Democratic Party, wining 54 House seats and 9 senate seats.  We believe that the Transpartisan Four Quadrant Matrix we advocate helps explain this shift in American political control.  We believe it also helps us understand the vote in 2016 and prepare for 2018.

The Republicans controlled Congress during the roaring 1920s, which seemed prosperous at the time and profligate in retrospect.  Scholarship, especially that by Milton Freedman, suggests that failure of government policy—notably a misunderstanding of monetary policy—led to economic collapse.  Republicans lost control of Congress.

The 1932 Depression began a six decades long run of essentially one-party Congressional government.  The Democrats held nearly total control of the House and the Senate most of the time.  Little vital conflict occurred during these years.  In one notable telling the 1994 elections followed the ‘end of history’ brought on by the 1991 collapse of the USSR.

In the sixties the collective impulse that had responded to the depression and WW II produced enormous public policy failures on poverty and Vietnam.  That decade, the collective action impulse lost ground to the impulse toward individual expression.  Free expression swept the culture, on both the left and right.

During the long period of Democratic dominance, political scientists called the parties ‘tweedle-dum’ and tweedle-dee’—the same.  The 1960s featured great political conflict between activist citizens and the government rather than between the parties (67% of House members voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act).  Democrats controlled Congress 30 more years.

Ronald Reagan, working with Max Kampelman his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s arms negotiator, brought an end to the Cold War and renewed optimism around progress through individual action.  Getting government off peoples’ backs’ gained favor—leading up to 1994, when Congressional elections became genuinely competitive.

The 2016 Presidential election seems outside past patterns.  We argue that widespread voter alienation, ignored by much if not most election commentary, greatly influenced the results.  There are now more Independents (40%+) than either Democrats or Republicans, and when you count age-eligible non-voters, both parties combined are a surprising minority.

The alienation was caused by increasing individuation of the electorate – moving from the order to the freedom quadrants – while government remained fundamentally unchanged.  Individuation drove people toward a strong concept of active citizenship, but policies remained centralized and bureaucratic, with little or no room for active citizens.

Both parties have significant problems heading into the mid-term elections.  The Democrats’ greatest problem may be eight years of sluggish economic growth under Obama yoked with the perception that Democrats prefer health, minimum wage and general regulatory pressure mandates to markets.  Order over freedom.  Rules over morals.

The most important antidote to these dangers, available to all parties, might be to redirect the narrative away from collective party solidarity to empowerment of varied individual initiatives in small, self-governing communities. Such efforts give everyone the chance that mass collectives make impossible often leaving many people isolated and alone.

Individuals participating in electoral efforts from all four of the Transpartisan Matrix quadrants provide real opportunities for the big brand parties.  The party that fails to tap them fails an historical opportunity.  When both fail chaos reigns.

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