May 4 2009

The Party's Over?

The Party's Over?

American party politics have had a few major realignments over the 220 years since we adopted our Constitution.  I took a class on this in school, but that was a long time ago, and I'll never remember all the details.  What I do remember is that they're somewhat chaotic.  And that they typically take several election cycles to take root.

I think we're in the middle of one now.  Arlen Specter's decision to become a Democrat is a particularly poignant example of it, though the fact that something like only 25% of the country now identifies with the Republican party is another.  With Specter, it's not that he changed his ideology — it's that his party changed its ideology.  Whether or not you view his switch as a cynical attempt to keep his job is irrelevant.  He has been a Republican for his whole public life of more than 40 years with a fairly consistent point of view and is a very popular public servant with his constituency at large, and now he believes he can't win a primary voted in mainly by party activists against Republican opponents. 

Something I read today – either the Journal or Politico – had a quote from a Republican hardliner that is further signifying the realignment:

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and welcome Mr. Specter's defection as an ideological cleansing. "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs."

That doesn't say much for the future of the GOP now, does it?  That said, I think prognostications of a permanent Democratic majority are unfounded. If I remember my history correctly, a realignment occurs when one party gets too powerful and too big — its opponents are the ones who realign as a check and balance.  Examples range from the Anti-Federalists becoming the original Republicans in the early 19th century, to the rise of the Whig and then Republican Party in the mid 19th century, to the Roosevelt era in the mid 20th century, to the Reagan Revolution in the late 20th century.  American politics are streaky.  Parties usually have a stranglehold on at least one branch of government for long periods of time, then a realignment shakes things up for a while, then control switches.  With the Whigs/Republicans, once they settled down with the election of Lincoln, for example, the party dominated the Presidency for 80 years, winning 6 consecutive presidential elections, 11 of 13, and 14 of 18 from Lincoln up through Franklin Roosevelt. 

I guess my point is that Republicans as we know them today may be doomed, but Democrats shouldn't spend too much time dancing on their grave.  Realignments won't take 20 years to kick in any more.  We move too quickly, information is too freely available, and public opinion is fickle.

What's the lesson here for a business?  It's all about competition.  Having a commanding market share is a great thing, but it's unusual for it to last.  Smaller competitors attack when you least expect it.  They attack in ways that you pooh-pooh based on your perspective of the world.  And they can often combine with other smaller players, whether through M&A or just alliances, in ways that challenge a leader's hegemony.  They redefine the market — or the market redefines them.

So be mindful of market realignment — whether you are CEO of the Democratic Party or CEO of, Inc.  Don't focus on what people have bought from you in the past, or why.  Focus on what they'll be buying in the future, and why.