If you were looking for a three-sentence summary of American politics in recent years, I think you could do worse than this: The parties are so different that even seismic events don’t change many Americans minds. The parties are so closely matched that even minuscule shifts in the electoral winds can blow the country onto a wildly different course. And even in a time of profound economic dislocation, American politics has become less about which party is good for your wallet and more about whether the cultural changes of the past 50 years delight or dismay you.
If there’s any period similar to ours, with two evenly matched coalitions, each struggling to attain a lasting victory over the other, it is in the late 19th century, with its sharp partisan polarization, closely contested national elections and astonishingly high turnout. Then, as now, the margins were narrow; then, as now, the fights were fierce; and then, as now, the combination of the two pushed some of the strongest and most ideological partisans to try to rig the game in their favor.
I think we are in for another round — or two or three or four — of close, hard-fought election cycles with no decisive victory or defeat for either party. But something will come; something — whether economic or environmental or constitutional — will shock the system and give one coalition or the other the chance to expand and attempt to win hegemony over the political system. The question in my mind is which forces in this country are best organized, either for good or for ill, to take advantage when that something eventually hits.