Jordan Cash is Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Baylor University.
This past weekend, Donald Trump gave his first public speech since leaving the White House at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Apart from his insistence that he was not forming a new political party, much of the speech was what Americans have come to expect from Trump over the past six years, including his grievances towards members of his own party. Specifically, Trump called out congressional Republicans who voted for his impeachment and removal, including Rep. Lynne Cheney and Sens. Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and Lisa Murkowski. Notably, Republicans in Wyoming and Alaska censured Cheney and Murkowski for their respective impeachment votes while Maine Republicans are considering a similar action for Collins. Republican state legislators in Utah also briefly considered proposals to censure or recall Romney over his opposition to Trump.
A similar, though less extreme, intra-party struggle is occurring within the Democratic Party. In the 50-50 Senate where Democrats hold an edge only because of Vice President Kamala Harris, Joe Manchin of West Virginia has become “the most powerful man in Washington” and the “de facto president” with an effective veto on anything done within the upper chamber. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has similarly been declared “the most influential Democrat you never hear from” due to her willingness to work across the aisle. Yet Manchin and Sinema’s centrism and lack of party discipline has made them targets for progressives who are already seeking primary challengers for them, despite neither one being up for reelection until 2024.
Such partisan infighting—including efforts to purge the party of those who do not toe the line—is nothing new. Intra-party conflict and factionalism have been mainstays of the American party system for two centuries. Indeed, it is to be expected given that America’s major parties are coalitional by nature. Yet in seeking to reshape the Democratic and Republican Parties into ideologically homogeneous monoliths, both the left and the right have neglected the benefits of intra-party competition and made it more difficult to successfully achieve the one thing necessary to make their policy dreams a reality: a sustainable political majority.
As Dan DiSalvo’s work on intra-party factions illustrates, competition within political parties often helps parties more than it hinders them. In his study of intra-party factions from 1868-2010, DiSalvo shows that it is within parties on the factional level that new ideas are developed, honed, and promoted, and it is factions that provide a connection between party elites, activists, interest groups, and regular voters.
Notably, many intra-party factions DiSalvo outlines have had geographic bases. The Southern Democrats of the mid-twentieth century are the most obvious example, but even more ideological factions have had a geographic component. For example, Progressive Republicans of the early twentieth century were centered primarily in the Midwest and Mountain West, while the Republicans of the New Right at the end of the century found their home in the South and Southwest. It is only in recent years that the major parties have lacked prominent factions, and DiSalvo notes that contemporary party polarization has coincided with the simultaneous decline of party factionalism and major regional realignments. Particularly the decline of Northeastern Republicans and the disappearance of Southern Democrats.
These geographical observations are important for understanding how the parties have become more polarized, but they also point to how the structure of the political system itself imposes limits on those same polarized parties. To put it slightly differently, James Madison’s argument on the “extended republic” still matters.
Stripped to its essential core as articulated in Federalist 10, Madison’s argument holds that a large extended republic such as that created by the Constitution solves the problem of faction by being so large that no single faction would be able to gain a majority and with it an ability to oppress minorities. Given that this theory is one of the most original American contributions to political theory, it is justly famous and well-regarded. Yet its notoriety and resulting familiarity has somewhat desensitized us from appreciating its continuing implications, particularly the insight that large extended republics provide a structural defense against factional oppression.
We must, of course, be careful when applying Madison’s theory of factions to contemporary politics. Large political parties do not map on precisely to Madison’s conception of factions, which he defined as “a number of citizens […] united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Yet he did anticipate that coalitions of multiple factions could form. Remarking on this possibility in Federalist 51, Madison insists that such coalitions would be beneficial, as any coalition large enough to form a national majority “could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.” For Madison, any political party seeking national dominance would have to be a “big-tent” party with multiple internal factions working with each other to achieve agreed-upon ends. This suggests that the extended republic compels the factions towards moderation even as they work for their own self-interest. Since no faction is strong enough to dominate national politics, they must unite and compromise with other factions, and it is in that compromise that something approaching the common good becomes more realizable.
By recognizing the coalitional nature of the parties and the importance of intra-party factions, we can see how Madison’s observations on the extended republic are still applicable. As DiSalvo illustrates, rather than being divided into numerous factions spread across the country, factions have been internalized within the two parties. As a result, the “greater security” provided by the extended republic having “a greater variety of parties” is achieved not by having many distinct parties competing against each other at the national level, but by having intra-party conflicts between different factions in addition to the more general competition between the major parties. If a major party wishes to gain a majority on the national level, it must wrestle with and reconcile the many diverse interests that emerge in an extended republic that spans a continent.
By seeking to purge dissenters or commit to a particular ideology, the parties ignore the limitations imposed by the extended republic. As of February 2021, Pew Research recorded that Republicans and Democrats each made up only 25 percent of the electorate, while 50 percent of Americans describe themselves as independents, the highest level of proclaimed non-partisanship on record. Broken down by ideology, neither conservatism nor progressivism have majority support. According to Gallup, in 2020 36 percent of Americans described themselves as conservative, 35 percent described themselves as moderate, and only 25 percent described themselves as liberal.
Given these numbers, it is unsurprising that as the parties have become more polarized they have become less able to maintain unified control of government for a significant length of time. In the fifty-two years between 1969 and 2021, thirty-eight have seen divided control of government at the national level.
Morris Fiorina describes these “unstable majorities” as resulting from the disconnect between “ideologically well-sorted” party elites and regular voters who are not typically ideological. Because of this disconnect, parties often overreach when they get into power, misinterpreting electoral victories as broad mandates for change and going beyond what average voters want. The voters then respond by turning to the party out of power who, once in power, proceed to do the exact same thing.
Which brings us back to Manchin, Collins, and other members of Congress who consistently disappoint party activists and make life difficult for party leaders. Despite ideological and policy differences, each party relies on marginal senators like Manchin and Collins to achieve a numerical majority. This is the extended republic at work. A nation of 330 million people spread out over 50 states is highly unlikely to have an ideologically cohesive majority. There are too many diverse interests creating unique pressures for politicians to expect the kind of intense party discipline activists and ideologues expect. To try and purge senators like Manchin or Collins from their respective parties for slight deviations would do nothing except make the road to a sustainable majority more difficult. A progressive Democrat in the mold of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is unlikely to win in West Virginia, nor a conservative Republican resembling Ted Cruz win in Maine. Without Manchin West Virginia is lost to Democrats for the foreseeable future, and the same could be said for Republicans concerning Collins and Maine.
If the parties hope to win a sustainable majority, they must recognize the limits built into the system by its foundational structure as an extended republic. Such recognition would likely require the party to adjust its policy expectations and embrace a degree of moderation that is sorely lacking from the current political landscape.
This is not to say that the parties must compromise their core principles. The only reason to have a party is to advance some principle which the members generally agree on. Yet even here factionalism can be helpful, as having different intra-party factions forces the party as a whole to clarify what principles are central to their political vision and what policies aren’t as high priority. The fundamental issues become those all the factions can agree on while contentious issues become secondary. The end result may not be a sweeping policy agenda, but it creates a more stable base from which the party can gradually move the country in their preferred direction.
Madison praised the extended nature of the new American republic in part because it provided “greater security […] against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest.” That greater security remains as neither of our two major parties are able to dominate the political landscape, being left with fleeting majorities which are quickly reversed. In becoming more polarized and less factional, they are less able to appeal to the broad swath of the American people who populate the extended republic and thereby limit themselves and what they can accomplish. While the restraints of separation of powers and federalism are often remarked upon, the limits that the extended republic imposes on political actors, particularly in the formation of political coalitions, cannot be ignored. If the parties wish to win a majority that can last past the next election, they need to recognize the structural limits imposed by the extended republic and work to invite people into the party tent rather than spending time trying to kick people out.