In 1960, the political scientist Clinton Rossiter began his classic text, Parties and Politics in America, with the following memorable words: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no parties without compromise and moderation.” Rossiter saw U.S. parties as “creatures of compromise, coalitions of interest in which principle is muted and often even silenced.” For Rossiter and several generations of political scientists, this was the genius of America’s party system. It was what made it possible for the United States — in contrast to Europe or Latin America, where parties tended to be ideologically pure — to endure the wrenching change of war or depression without violence and revolution.
Today, the Democratic Party remains this kind of party. (For example, twelve Senate Democrats voted for George W. Bush’s tax cut in 2001, and, more recently, 27 House Democrats voted against Barack Obama’s financial-services reform bill.) But the Republican Party has become a very different creature. From 1995 to 2001, when the GOP controlled Congress and Democrats controlled the White House, the Republicans shut down the government, ambushed the president and his Cabinet with intrusive investigations into corruption — many of them mind-bogglingly trivial — and eventually tried to impeach President Bill Clinton on the most frivolous of grounds. In the last four years, faced with a Democratic majority in Congress and then with a Democrat in the White House, the Republicans have generally voted as a bloc and have used the filibuster — once reserved for rare situations — to require Senate Democrats to gain super-majorities for all sorts of legislation. The GOP’s strategy during these years disrupted the normal working of Congress and threatened not simply the president, but the power and prestige of the presidency.
In short, for the first time since the Civil War, the United States has a political party that is ideologically cohesive, disciplined, and determined to take power, even at the cost of disrupting the political system. - John B. Judis
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