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Yes, political parties can die

Raul Alfonsin campaigns in Argentina election October 1983.
Raul Alfonsin campaigns in Argentina election October 1983.
Greg Smith/Liaison

A lot of discussion over the 2016 presidential election has focused on the question of whether we might be witnessing the death of the Republican Party. What would that look like? Could that even happen?

Those of us versed in American politics tend to note the durability of American parties. After all, we haven't seen a major party die since the 1850s, despite suffering substantial setbacks. My own recent book focuses on parties' adaptability to new challenges and restrictions.

But a look beyond the nation's borders reminds us that parties are mortal. Noam Lupu's recent book Party Brands in Crisis looks at the rapid demise of several venerable political parties in Latin America.

What makes a party die? The answer, Lupu argues, is an interaction of forces. It's not just when the economy goes sour while one party is in charge. That will certainly hurt a party, but its most ardent supporters will stick with it even in tough times. Nor is it when a party suddenly changes its brand.

But a combination of those two can be fatal. If a party radically shifts its policy positions, it can alienate its most ardent supporters, who won't be there the next time the party is blamed for something that goes wrong.

Argentina's Radical Civil Union (UCR) provides an excellent example. The UCR and the Peronist party dominated Argentine politics for decades, winning about 80 percent of the vote combined between 1946 and 1999. The UCR took a bad hit in the 1989 elections when it was blamed for a hyperinflation crisis, but its core supporters stuck with it, and the party survived.

The story was different in 2003, when UCR and Peronist leaders shifted positions rapidly to address another economic crisis and formed some cross-party coalitions. Even the parties' most loyal supporters had a hard time figuring out what they stood for. The UCR had won the presidency just four years earlier, but in 2003 they were blamed for a bad economy and had no one left to fight for them. They pulled just 2 percent of the vote.

Lupu finds a similar fate befell Venezuela's two largest parties, Democratic Action (AD) and the Independent Political Electoral Organization Committee (COPEI). These parties dominated Venezuelan politics in the second half of the 20th century, only to functionally go out of business within one election cycle.

As Lupu notes, the death of a major party can lead to substantial instability in a political system. Venezuela was able to resist a coup attempt by Hugo Chávez when it had a functional party system, but in its absence, he was able to assemble a winning political coalition. Democracies, it seems, are surprisingly fragile in the absence of functional parties. And it's no coincidence that the last time a major American political party died, a civil war shortly followed. Parties provide a way for a democracy to process issues politically, rather than violently.

Is the American Republican Party facing an extinction-level event this year? Probably not. Donald Trump has certainly deviated from a great deal of party orthodoxy, but, apart from the notable case of free trade, he doesn't seem to be pulling his party with him. People still have a pretty good idea what the Republican Party stands for absent Trump.

What's more, although Republicans control the Congress and most state governments, they do not currently control the presidency, and thus are not going to be blamed if the economy crashes anytime soon. At least in Lupu's framework, the GOP isn't facing the sort of conditions this year that would cause it to go out of business.

Nonetheless, we should remember that under the right circumstances, parties can die, and regardless of our feelings toward any particular party, that's not necessarily something to cheer for.

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