Bryan Caplan  

One-Party Democracy Is Not Coming: I'll Bet on It!

Making Capital Disappear... Bet Accepted...
Arnold's worried that the U.S. is moving to one-party democracy. 

I completely agree with Arnold that one-party democracy is possible.  This is a central theme of my forthcoming article on Singaporean political economy, and over the past six months I've blogged quite a bit about this topic (see here, here, and here for starters). 

There is also some evidence that unified government is less libertarian than divided government (see here and here for starters).  I should add, though, that the effect is not huge, and Singapore is a striking counter-example.

Nevertheless, I disagree with Arnold's claim that one-party democracy is likely to happen in the U.S.  He assures us that, "it is quite easy for a one-party government to emerge when there are ethnic blocs and a large public sector relative to the private sector."  I see little evidence that either ethnic blocs or a large public sector are key variables here.  Instead, it looks like the key variable is voter homogeneity, which is in turn a strongly negative function of population.  It's easy to find a city - whether it's New York or Singapore - where almost everyone supports the same party.  It's much harder to get this level of homogeneity at a state level, much less a national level.

Suppose the growing Hispanic population really did become uniformly Democratic.  What would happen?  I predict that whites and Asians would respond by becoming less Democratic.  I also predict that as Hispanics' vote share grew larger, divisions would emerge; the Hispanic bloc voting would not persist if Hispanics were half the population.

If you dismiss this as idle speculation, I'm happy to make a bet.  Here's what I propose: Contrary to Arnold's fears, I predict that Republicans will regain control of at least one branch of the federal government at some point between now and January 20, 2017 (two inaugurations from now).  So Arnold, how about a $100 bet at even odds?  If you don't like those terms, make me a counter-offer.

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The author at The Volokh Conspiracy in a related article titled The Case Against the Libertarian Case Against Hispanic Immigration: writes:

    Economist Bryan Caplan, my George Mason colleague, has an excellent post taking apart the most important argument offered by those libertarians who ...

    [Tracked on May 19, 2009 5:00 PM]
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Randy writes:

Single party government is about the willingness of the party in power to suppress resistance. If the ruling Progressives are not willing to take the necessary steps to suppress resistance, then a resistance party will arise in time. But, with history as a guide, I do not believe that the Progressives will be unwilling to suppress resistance. They are true believers, and suppressing resistance is what true believers do.

Les writes:

I sincerely hope that Bryan is correct. But I doubt it.

He says: "It's easy to find a city - whether it's New York or Singapore - where almost everyone supports the same party. It's much harder to get this level of homogeneity at a state level, much less a national level."

I wonder what the chances are that Republicans could win states like New York, California and Massachusetts?

Eric writes:

State - Statewide Republican - Most Recent Year
New York - Gov. George Pataki (2006)
California - Gov. Arnold Schwazenegger (current)
Massachusetts - Gov. Mitt Romney (2007)

scott clark writes:


I think Les was referring to those states' electoral college votes going to a Republican presidential candidate. But, that notwithstanding, it was a nice rejoinder.

I myself think the republicans could easily sweep right back into House of Reps power in the 2010 elections, if they only understood politics in the slightest. Unfortunetly for them, they have no clue what they are doing as a party and so they may have to wander the wilderness for much, much longer.

Dan Weber writes:

You might want to specify an end date of January 21, 2017, not the 20th, because "between" might mean that a Republican presidential victory in November 2016 wouldn't count. Or specify that you explicitly mean either the House, the Senate, or the White House.

I think you're right, though. Whoever is in charge, people get fed up and vote them out, in at least one branch.

Ken Silber writes:

Will the $100 be indexed for inflation?

Brian Blase writes:

I think that you have to remember that a lot of the problems that the Republican Party has right now is due to the failings of the Bush administration. The Democrats in Congress will no longer be able to run against Bush now that they have huge majorities in both houses of Congress and the presidency. Plus, my fear of a 'permanent' Democratic majority is tempered by the fact that just four years ago, there was talk about a 'permanent' Republican majority.

What most concerns me is the damage that can be done in the short term by one party dominance. After the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater election with huge Democratic majorities in Congress, we got The Great Society, Medicare, and Medicaid. Now Medicare and Medicaid represent a huge drain on national and state budgets respectively and represent trillions in unfunded future liabilities. I am very concerned about the permanent consequences and drain on productivity and economic growth that may result from only a few years of one-party Democratic rule.

Justin writes:

Single party rule is bad. I don't want to be stuck in Jesusland ruled over by Karl Rove's permenant electoral majority. I agree with the guy on meet press who suggested that blue states need to start thinking seriously about seceeding.

Oh wait, you mean it's the year 2009 now? And the permenant electoral majority turned out to be temporary? Huh. Go figure. Curse you law of small numbers!

Joseph Lawler writes:

What!? Are your discount rates really that low, or are you just that poor? Come on, you are economists. Make it $1000.

Eric writes:


I also think that was a reference to electoral votes, but California et al being a lock for the Democrats in the electoral college doesn't say much about the viability of a one party system. Texas (for example) is a lock for the Republicans. All California's presidential votes say is that California is enough to the left of the US median voter that they won't go Republican in a national election. Despite this slant relative to the national median, the Republicans still drift enough leftward in Cal/NY/Mass to claim governerships.

RL writes:

Am I completely misremembering, or was it not that long ago that California often went Republican in the Presidential elections? Didn't it all start to go south when California Republicans started jumping on the illegal immigrant bandwagon?

Steve Sailer writes:

California went Republican in nine of ten Presidential elections from 1952-1988, then Democrat in the five from 1992-2008. Immigration plays a direct role, and an indirect one in driving out Republican type voters (e.g., families who find homes in "good" public school districts now unaffordable).

The GOP can win routinely in states where minorities have a very large percentage of the vote -- e.g., the South. But will whites outside the South switch to voting as a racial bloc? The GOP Presidential candidates in recent elections have all shunned running against the most single obvious issue, illegal immigration.

In hindsight, wouldn't we be better off if the survival of two-party government didn't depend on one party becoming the white party and the other party the minority party? But, decades of massive immigration have left us with few palatable choices.

Dr. T writes:

Bryan Caplan is too optimistic. My hypothesized scenario:

1. Obama wins re-election due to his pandering to the (economic) lower class and lower-middle class who love government benefits at the expense of the well-to-do.

2. A "spontaneous" "peoples" movement to repeal the 22nd amendment begins in 2013 or early 2014.

3. The 22nd amendment is repealed.

4. Obama is re-elected in 2016. Executive branch powers continually increase. The Supreme Court, with five or six Obama appointees, uphold every power grab.

5. By 2020 we have an Obama-led socialistic-fascistic government with a pseudo-democratic icing. The new Obama party (still labeled Democrat) is the only party that matters.

Kurbla writes:

I think in long terms Democrats will win stable majority in USA, but it will be followed by shift of importance from general to internal elections and probable split or formation of new significant leftist parties. And that is good, multiparty system is more democratic than two party system.

The_Cupboard_Is_Bare writes:

Where I live, third party candidates are running against Democratic candidates who would otherwise run unopposed.

So, yes, I believe we can end up with a one-party system.

Troy Camplin writes:

Is it possible, in a system like ours that has primaries, that the effect of one-party rule would be essentially no-party rule, as the Founders envisioned? In other words, the primaries would be where the real election takes place, with people getting elected for their own actual beliefs rather than for party affiliation? In such a system, couldn't libertarianism actually do better?

Bob Smith - Fort Worth writes:

From Reconstruction to the mid-70's one party rule was common in the Democrat South. With Roosevelt and the New Deal, a split developed between the "Liberal" Dems and the "Conservative" Dems. In Texas, the fighting between the two wings was as vicious as it is between the two parties today. The reality is that no party is, or can be monolithic; electoral politics prevents it. It seems that when national security is an issue, and the economy isn't, the voters elect Republicans while when the economy is an issue and national defense isn't the voters elect democrats. However, there seems to be greater "buyer's remorse" with the election of Dems than Republicans.

Bob Smith - Fort Worth writes:

Dr. T I think that you will find some relief in Article V of the Constitution. Two thirds of both houses and two thirds of the several states are required to amend the Constitution. That would be 291 votes in the House, 67 votes in the Senate and 34 State Legislatures. While not impossible, it is still highly improbable that someone as polarizing as the current president would be able to climb this particular mountain. . Roosevelt was elected four times because there was no constitutional prohibition. Now there is one. Without something on the order of WWII, and the already established confidence of the voters in the reigning president, the amending of the Constitution is extremely unlikely. Also, it could easily be sidetracked by the Republicans by offering a phrase that prohibits the current president from benefiting from this amendment to the amendment. It would strike even the casual observer as a naked grasp for power should the Democrats resist such language.
Furthermore, given that McCain was out-spent 4 or 6 to 1 in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Colorado, President Obama's margin of victory is rather thin. I don't expect the next Republican nominee to be outspent on the same order of magnitude. Add to this the mis-steps of the current administration in its first 100 days, rising unemployment through the next election and the distinct possibility of high inflation and the likelyhood of a filibuster-proof House and Senate disappears in 2010 and loss of the House by Democrats in 2012 is much more likely, as well as the White House.
But I'm open to further discussion.

MDC writes:

How do you respond to continued black bloc voting in South Africa? The ANC is pretty awful ("showers cure AIDS!") yet it is still riding high on the wave of anti-apartheid in a country where there is no serious possibility of apartheid actually returning in any form.

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