Fifty-fifty forever.

Political commentary and more.
Nov. 29 2004 8:30 PM

Fifty-Fifty Forever

Why we shouldn't expect America's political "tie" to be broken anytime soon.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The mass market newsweeklies (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News) can't be seen as taking sides in political campaigns -- imagine Time writing a cover story on "Bush's Dangerous Iraq Policy," or "Why the Democrats Can't Be Trusted." It would be a commercial disaster. Yet the weeklies are also expected to deliver more in the way of bold, dramatic analysis than can be found in your daily paper. As a result, every two years they glom on to some sweeping, seemingly-biting-but-also-neutral story line through which to tell the story of the election. When I wrote for Newsweek in 1988, our Neutral Story Line was "Is This Anyway To Pick a President?" More recently, the favorite NSLs have been along the lines of "Oh, What a Negative Campaign" or "Money Talks: The Influence of Campaign Fund Raising." Yet these story lines have by now been worked so hard even the weeklies can't pretend that they're fresh anymore.

What to do? This week, Newsweek's Howard Fineman makes a good try at casting the campaign as a giant family feud  between the Clintons and Bushes. (Fineman's a genius at coming up with plausible NSLs and fleshing them out, one reason he's anchored Newsweek's political coverage for decades.) As a believer in cheap Darwinian analysis, I find the Family Feud line -- with its mixture of genetic solidarity and status-seeking -- highly useful. (Ann Bardach's new book Cuba Confidential, to pick another example, plausibly and entertainingly describes all of U.S.-Cuba relations since 1959 as a big family feud.)

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But neither Newsweek nor Time, as far as I know, has showcased the most obvious Neutral Story Line for 2002 -- the idea that the nation is, for the second election in a row, split right down the middle by virtually every national political measure. Columnist Michael Barone did advance this notion after the 2000 Florida recount -- Barone notes that Clinton was elected in '96 with 49 percent of the vote, Bush in 2000 with 48 percent, that the popular vote for the House splits about evenly between the two parties, each with either 49 or 48 percent, etc. etc. Barone calls his NSL "The 49 Percent Nation," though I tend to think the phrase "50/50 Nation," used elsewhere, is more instantly accessible.

Barone's big 50/50 essay, which appeared in the National Journal of June 9, 2001 -- in other words, before 9/11 -- subtly describes how a split along religious and urban/rural lines led to the current deadlock. Barone holds out hope, however, that the deadlock will be broken in Bush's favor for reasons of demography (the "Americans of the Bush nation tend to have more children ... and the communities of the Bush nation tend to welcome growth") and substance (voters will like Bush's plans on education and Social Security that "provide citizens with more choice [and] rely less on centralized authority").

But why should we expect the deadlock to be broken at all? Think of it in ... well, cheap Darwinian terms. Imagine that we have a two party system, and each party is a collection of status-seeking individuals looking for power by winning a greater "market share" of the vote. Imagine that they each have their ideological principles --one is more to the left, one more to the right -- but these principles are quite flexible in the face of imminent or repeated failure at the polls. Over time, as each party crafts its message to maximize its appeal -- and adjusts its message after each election to regain any lost share of the votes -- wouldn't one expect the system to reach a roughly 50-50 equilibrium, in which every election was a cliffhanger?

Surely, you say, this 50-50 equilibrium couldn't last. Wouldn't demographic shifts push one party into the lead? Yes, but only temporarily. Suppose, as Barone argues, that more families are moving from the pro-Gore cities to the pro-Bush rural areas. Also assume, somewhat implausibly, that, rather than making these counties more liberal, these yuppie migrants are assimilated into the rural, God-fearing, gun-loving, anti-abortion red-state culture. Does that mean Republicans will gain a permanent edge? No. It means Democrats will have to adjust to become more pro-gun and anti-abortion, which is exactly what is happening in elections like the current Arkansas Senate race. Likewise, if the growth of the Hispanic vote currently favors Democrats, Republicans can be expected to counter with elaborate and not-very-principled efforts to appeal to Hispanics. That, too, is exactly what's happening.

Even large substantive trends can easily be fairly easily countered. I'm not convinced by Barone's wishful thinking regarding the pro-GOP tie-breaking power of "individual investment accounts" or Medicare "choice." But I've often argued myself that the need for some sort of universal health coverage offers a similar tie-breaking advantage to the Democrats -- and maybe I was just as wrong about that. What's to stop Republicans, if a wave of support for a rationalized, secure national insurance system materializes, from shifting to accommodate it? It won't be because Republicans are too tied to corporate interests. Corporations are pragmatic. Once they see that the demand for universal health insurance is unstoppable, they'll adjust and figure out how to maximize profits within that constraint.

In other words, our politics may drift either to the left or to the right. (I still expect them to drift to the left, thanks to the health care issue.) But this ideological drift won't translate into political dominance by one party or the other. Both parties will simply move toward the new popular center of gravity, as poll-driven pols are wont to do. We'll still have a tie between Coke and Pepsi -- between the more-left party and the more-right party.

What about external shocks or epochal domestic events? Couldn't they alter the 50/50 equilibrium? Sure. It took a long time after the Civil War for Southern conservatives to even consider switching to the Republicans. But it happened. We've just had about as big an external shock as can be imagined -- the 9/11 attacks, which profoundly altered our idea of our place in the world. But 9/11 is an argument for the permanence of the current stalemate, not an argument against it. After all, 9/11 was a year ago, and we're still stuck at 50/50! If the nation can endure that sort of external shock and still not be jogged out of its political deadlock, it's frightening to imagine what it might take to disrupt the stalemate. Invasion by an overwhelming force of space aliens who demand repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act or the Second Amendment -- something along those lines might force one party or the other out of contention. Anything short of that seems insufficient, however.

Viewed in this light, the important developments of the past few decades have been, not the substantive and demographic changes that more or less accidentally combined to produce the current deadlock (just as they produced one in the late 1880s), but the changes that made American politics more like the cheap, cynical, flexible 2-player Darwinian system that might inevitably tend toward a permanent deadlock. Those changes include:

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