In the Washington of the early 1960s that Robert Caro so vividly recreates in his latest volume on Lyndon Johnson, political scientists’ greatest concern was not too much difference between the two parties but too little. It’s worth recalling the flaws—and advantages—of that era as we confront a political order whose greatest challenge is very much the opposite: too much distance between the parties.
Political analysts in that earlier time talked about “four-party” congressional politics, with each side splintered into two factions: conservative Democrats primarily from the South and moderate-to-liberal Democrats from everywhere else; “old guard” conservative Republicans, mostly from the Midwest, and more-moderate-to-liberal Republicans concentrated in the Northeast and along the West Coast. This alignment produced a kaleidoscopic shifting of loyalties worthy of Game of Thrones. Presidents constantly had to navigate between factions to build evanescent legislative majorities, when they could build majorities at all. “The four great groups in Washington moved like planets that traveled along distinct orbits: They would briefly align, then drift apart,” as I wrote in my 2007 book The Second Civil War.
The most formidable force was the congressional alliance of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans. As Caro notes in The Passage of Power, published this week, that alliance coalesced in resistance to President Roosevelt’s 1938 Court-packing scheme and then stymied the next three presidents’ efforts to expand government’s role in providing security (such as health care for the aged), promoting opportunity (federal aid to education), and protecting civil rights. “The identity of the party in power didn’t matter,” Caro writes. “It was the Southern-conservative coalition that mattered—and the Southern-conservative coalition held firm.”
Although the coalition was first among equals in this era, it could not impose its will on all issues. No single faction could. The system was much more fluid and unpredictable than today’s. Presidents could count on the reliable support of fewer legislators than now, but fewer were entirely beyond their reach. As Caro demonstrates in his compelling accounts of Johnson’s initial legislative thrusts after President Kennedy’s assassination, that required the chief executive to manage and respond to diverse viewpoints (and interest groups) in both parties’ coalitions.
The most common complaint about this period’s politics was that it promoted too much consensus. Political analysts argued that the fractures in each party denied Americans a clear choice in elections and made it impossible for either side to implement “coherent programs,” as a celebrated 1950 commission lamented. In a 1963 book, political scientist James MacGregor Burns warned that the necessity to govern by “consensus and coalition” had left the nation incapable of bold action at home or abroad.
All of those complaints had merit. This four-party system (what I’ve called the Age of Bargaining) muffled too many voices and eclipsed too many issues, from the environment to poverty to civil rights. But this world had one great virtue: It required political leaders to court and bargain with other leaders of very different views, not only in the other party but also in their own.
Almost all important political debates during these years occurred not only between the parties but within them as well. That marked a critical difference from today’s politics. In most major legislative fights in recent years, Republicans and Democrats march in lockstep against each other. Most substantive objections to any policy come from the other party, which make them easy to dismiss as partisan grandstanding. In Johnson’s era, politicians could not so easily ignore dissenting opinions, because those dissents often came from their allies. As a result, policy usually reflected a broader range of views and tried to balance more interests than today.
Since then, the range of opinion has narrowed in both parties but especially in the GOP, where conservatives exert much greater influence than liberals do among Democrats. At a Bipartisan Policy Center panel this week, Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin, a new book on the decline of moderate Republicans, noted that even during President Reagan’s administration, the need to bargain with GOP centrists restrained conservatives from some ideological crusades that could alienate swing voters. But with moderates marginalized, Kabaservice says, GOP conservatives routinely push ideology to the point “that they can’t sell their program anymore” on issues such as transforming Medicare. Democrats haven’t faced as great an imbalance, but they could if the ranks of their congressional centrists diminish further.
Each party is more ideologically monolithic than it was in the period that Caro recounts, making politics more rigid and absolutist. Once in power, Republicans, in particular, but also Democrats, concede much less to opposing views than in Johnson’s day. Yet the nation is likely to divide almost evenly between the two sides in 2012. Against that backdrop, all-or-nothing politics in 2013 will produce either stalemate or explosive polarization (if one side tries to impose its agenda with a slim majority). Building inclusive coalitions that harmonize diverse views is more difficult now than in Johnson’s time. But it’s no less essential.
This article appears in the May 5, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.