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Establishment Republicans vs. Tea Party Republicans: Why it Won’t Matter

Recently pundits have been discussing early 2014 Republican primary results as wins by “establishment Republicans” over “Tea Party Republicans,” suggesting there is a great schism in the party that may provide an opening for Democrats in November. Former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove penned an opinion column in today’s Wall Street Journal that argues that early results, like Thom Tillis’ victory in the NC Senate primary was actually bringing together various elements within the Republican Party. Rove points to a poll run by his American Crossroads PAC showing support for Tillis from business-leaning, tea party, and social conservative Republicans as evidence for a unified party heading into the fall campaign.

To me the Tillis victory was a case of a more well known candidate with a huge money advantage beating inexperienced opponents. I don’t read much else into his win or other early Republican candidate victories in primary elections. I do think, however, that Rove’s view is very short-sighted and that both major parties–Democratic and Republican–are more fractured than at any point in the last four decades and we are about to enter a period in which both parties are going to face existential problems and, by 2020, we may see a very different political landscape, even to the point in which a legitimate third parties rises and threatens the continued relevance of one of the current major parties.

Political scientists often talk about political realignment when there is a dramatic change in the political system. V. O. Key, Jr. (1955) hypothesized that a single election often dramatically changes the political landscape and can even cause political parties to fundamentally change or even disappear. The election of 1860, for example, caused the Republicans to ascend in power, particularly after the collapse of the Whigs in 1852.

Other political scientists believe that realignment happens more gradually and regularly. Walter Dean Burnham (1970) argues that political realignments occur every 30-36 years in this country and, that, these fundamental changes in the political system don’t always occur because of an individual election, but could occur more gradually over several years.

Although political scientists may disagree about the time period for this fundamental changes in the political system, they agree that it is a result of major changes in voters. At times, through true realignment, as we have seen in North Carolina starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, conservative voters switched in large numbers from the Democratic to the Republican party. At times in American history, voters have moved away from political parties and become more independent, called “dealignment” by academics.

We are entering a very important period for both parties as changing demographics will continue to affect elections. Much has been written about how the changing ethnic and racial makeup of the country may be favorable to Democrats, both nationally and in regions of the country considered Republican strongholds for the last thirty years.

Although I believe that the changing ethnic and racial demographics of the country will significantly affect future elections, it is the massive influx of the millennial generation into the political system that may have the most profound impact on the political system. There is already significant evidence that this generation, although its voting rates are dwarfed by that of senior citizens, are already affecting social policies in this country. The pendulum shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage and the corresponding legalization of this is almost twenty states reflects the opinion of a majority of millennials and the legalization of recreation marijuana use in Colorado and Washington has strong support among this generation.

The larger impact of the millennials over the next decade will be in the political process. Research from Pew, for example, states that a majority of this generation don’t trust government to do the right thing and that a majority consider themselves independent. That, coupled with the research on “The New American Center,” conducted by Esquire and NBC News that found that this generation is more moderate on many political issues than on older generations, bodes very poorly for the current Democratic and Republican parties. Millennials see themselves as problem-solvers and ones that can compromise to make important changes in their communities. The political parties are more prone to drawing lines in the ideological sand.

As the millennial generation becomes a larger force in the political system, their very numbers could lead to the formation of a centrist party, one that may attract moderates dissatisfied with the ideological extremists in the Democratic and Republican parties. The millennials are already dealigning themselves from the tradition parties and it may be the 2014 midterm elections, particularly if partisan gridlock and warring continues as it has for the last four years, that leads to a major realignment in the political parties, this time lead by younger voters.


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