The phrase, "politics makes strange bedfellows" can be originally sourced back to William Shakespeare's The Tempest, when the character Trinculo seeks shelter from a storm under the cloak of Caliban, a character described as part man, part fish. While the line was actually modified from its original, "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows", given today we have neglected working class voters from the Rust Belt and Evangelical Christians throwing their support behind a billionaire who cheated on his third wife with a porn star, meeting someone half-man, half-fish doesn't seem all that strange.
Of all the strange bedfellows in American political history, none have lasted longer than the pairing of a large population of people with diverse, sometimes contradictory, interests and a two party system trying to sew them together into a platform that doesn't not make any sense (that's an intentional double-negative, for the grammar nerds out there).
To explain exactly why Trinculo always seems to find his Caliban in American Politics, I invited Mark Horger, Senior Lecturer at the Ohio State University, to this week's episode of You Don't Have to Yell to talk about America's two-party system and the sundry coalitions that have made them up over the years. What I found most fascinating about this conversation was the fact that, not only did both political parties effectively swap platforms over the years, but they did so while having entirely contradictory political blocs claim the same party affiliation.
(Sidenote: You can read Mark's article on the history of the two-party system here. Written right after Romney's loss to Obama in 2012, the description of a defeated Republican Party searching for a message is oddly similar to the conversation surrounding Democrats today.)
Over the years, America's political parties have been more an exercise in marketing a political identity than uniting disparate factions under a common political vision. The post Civil War Democratic Party, for example, saw northern Catholic immigrants and Southern Confederate Loyalists bond together against a largely anti-Catholic, anti-Immigrant, pro-Union Republican Party.
To make things even stranger, as disenfranchised African-American Republicans fled the South to industrial cities in the North, they began to ally themselves politically with the immigrant laborers they worked alongside with. The result - by 1940 the Democratic Party was composed of African Americans seeking an expansion of Civil Rights and Southerners essentially seeking an expansion of slavery.
While we like to think of the two parties in America as unifying people under a common political vision, history shows us they're often composed of a coalition of the slighted - people underrepresented seeking a greater voice, or the formerly represented seeking to hold on to their position in a fading era.
The unfortunate result is a platform based on grievances that leaves many in the middle out of the conversation.