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American foreign policy and Congressional volatility

American foreign policy and Congressional volatility

Joint Session of Congress, 2017 (Wikipedia)

United States foreign policy has lacked an aspirational guiding principle for a generation.  One reason might be the historic volatility of political parties, unlike anything in the past century.

United States foreign policy has a record of long-term trends that depend in part on the political parties in power.  During the Cold War, for example, Congressional Democrats were sometimes considered “softer” than “hardline, anti-Communist” Republicans. The President is the primary source of modern U.S. foreign policy.  FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan: these men drove American foreign policy and thereby much of world politics for the half-century during and after World War II.

The Presidency rotated between political parties fairly regularly after World War II. Democrats filled the White House (from 1933) until 1953. Then it was Republicans for eight years, Democrats for eight years, Republicans again for eight years, Democrat Jimmy Carter for four years, and Republicans for the last decade of the Cold War.

But the party caricatures of strong Republicans and soft Democrats were not always complete pictures.  Truman, a Democrat, led the Korean War. Kennedy, a Democrat, (unsuccessfully) invaded Cuba  and (successfully) faced down Soviet premier Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Meanwhile Nixon, a Republican, initiated détente with the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations with Communist China.

Presidential administrations came and went with some regularity. From Truman through G.H.W. Bush, the average presidency lasted just over five years.  But Congressional leaders lasted in power for decades.

In the Senate, John Stennis (1947-1989) and Russell Long (1948-1987) served for approximately the entire Cold War.  Warren Magnuson and Milton Young served from the end of World War II into the early 1980s.  Robert Byrd, Daniel Inouye, Strom Thurmond, Edward Kennedy, James Eastland, Quentin Burdick, William Proxmire, and Clairborne Pell each served in the Senate for all or nearly all of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (and in most cases, beyond that).  Richard Russell, Ted Stevens, Ernest Hollings, A. Willis Robertson, Clifford Case, Margaret Chase Smith, Jacob Javits, and Carl Hayden all served for at least 20 years of the Cold War.  Of these 20 Senators, 14 were Democrats.

In the House, Democrats held the majority almost the entire Cold War.  After the 1948 elections, Republicans held the majority only in 1953 and 1954.  At least 46 members of the House of Representatives, mostly Democrats, were in office for at least 30 years between 1947 and 1990.  Another six men make the 30-year mark with combined House-Senate service.

In short, the lack of volatility in the House and Senate during the Cold War contributed to a remarkable continuity in Congress’s membership – and leadership.  The Senate was led by just three Democrats – Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield, and Robert Byrd, for most of the Cold War.  Of the seven Speakers of the House from 1947 to 1990, only one was a Republican, for just two two-year terms, 1947-1949 and 1953-1955.

Historical Volatility

The question of continuity and volatility of political parties can be seen from a longer time frame as well.  The back-and-forth changes of party control in Congress and the White House seen during the past decade are unlike anything in the last hundred years.

From 1914 through 2016, there were 52 presidential-year or mid-term elections.  From 1914 through 1990, a party in control of the White House, Senate, or House of Representatives lost at least one of those in 13 of those 39 elections.  From 1992 to 2016, a party lost control of at least one of these bodies in nine of those 13 elections.  If the Democrats win the House in 2018, as is largely expected, that would be a change in party control in 10 of the last 14 elections.  That is, a change in party control of the presidency, Senate, or House (or a combination) in 33 percent of the elections from 1914 to 1990, and in 70 percent of the elections since 1992.

From 2006 to 2016, a party has lost one of these in five of those six elections (83 percent). If the House flips to Democrats in 2018, that would be changes in six of the last seven elections (86 percent).

There is no comparable volatility in the last hundred years.  The closest comparison is the decade after World War II.  Compared to the results of the previous election, both the House and Senate flipped parties in 1946, 1948, 1952, and 1954 – four out of five elections, and the White House flipped in 1952. In the decade after the 1944 election, World War II ended, the Cold War began, and the Korean War was fought for three years. The Soviets launched a successful nuclear weapons test, Mao turned China communist, and the U.S. was involved in the overthrow of regimes in Iran and Guatemala.  Truman integrated the military, and the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education.  It was a period of sharp economic swings, with short periods of GDP growth over five and even ten percent, followed by sharp economic contractions.

The electoral volatility since 2006 has some possible explanations as well.  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Republicans were re-elected in Congress in 2002 (restoring their 2000 Senate victory temporarily lost by the switch of Jim Jeffords to the Democrats) and to the White House in 2004. But the following elections were influenced by increasingly unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the election of the country’s first African-American president during an historic financial crisis, and the rise of TEA Party intra-Republican divisions during the subsequent recession.  Immigration and identity politics emerged as important issues.  Candidates Obama and Trump campaigned relatively independent from their national party organizations, and in their own ways were social media innovators.  Party favorites like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton struggled.  #NeverTrump Republicans and Clinton’s 2016 battle against “outsider” Bernie Sanders revealed prominent intra-party divisions in both parties.  Whichever party wins in November 2018, in January 2019 Congress will have its fourth change in Speaker of the House in 12 years.

Implications of Party Volatility

This sharp – and sustained – rise in volatility among party control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives raises a number of questions for further inquiry.  What causes these periods of volatility – seen after World War II and in the past ten years? Is this a temporary phenomenon, or a “new normal”? What are the implications – including for American foreign policy – of this volatility?  Some of these answers might include analysis that the United States has had difficulty building and advancing a positive, cohesive, big-picture, aspirational foreign policy because it has lacked – among other things, institutional continuity.

Photo: Wikipedia via



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks