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The Puzzle of Weak Parties and Strong Partisanship

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The following is a guest post by Julia Azari, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the Marquette University and 2019 Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center.

Partisanship shapes American politics, and, indeed, many parts of everyday life. Americans are increasingly negative about the possibility of their children marrying someone who affiliates with the opposite party. Many see the other party as a threat to the nation’s very well-being. In the 2016 election, about ninety percent of party identifiers pulled the lever for their party’s presidential nominee.

Yet, despite these fierce party attachments, institutional parties play a weak and unclear role in American political life. Party organizations face competition for volunteers and donors from issue-based and candidate-centered groups, and members of the public generally do not trust the two major parties. In fact, many Americans say they want a third party, even though third party candidates rarely attract high levels of support.

My research this spring at the Kluge Center focuses on this puzzle of weak institutional parties and strong partisanship. I seek to understand what this means and to put it in historical context. Here are three questions I hope to address in my research.

What function do parties serve?

Scholars of party politics don’t really agree on the answer to this question – some insist that parties are formal organizations like the national and state level Democratic and Republican parties. Others suggest that we are better off defining parties as broad networks of organized interests (like the National Rifle Association and others on the Republican side or Planned Parenthood and others on the Democratic side), that coordinate to help elect candidates.

But I’m also interested in figuring out what parties mean in the mind of the public at large. I look at survey research dating back to the 1930s to try and get a sense of what Americans really think about political parties and their place in politics.

A striking feature of the polling about political parties is that there isn’t a clear idea of what to ask. While polls question people on a core of common concepts – satisfaction, representation, the performance of the two-party system – there appears to be little consensus about how to frame these concepts. Polls also vary in the target of their questions. Some ask about political parties in a very general sense, investigating attitudes about whether parties improve democracy or are necessary in modern politics. Others ask about satisfaction with the two parties or the party system.

As a result, it’s actually pretty hard to know what people really think about parties. But we can learn a few things: One of the most important for my project is that while American attitudes towards parties are best characterized as mixed or ambivalent – not the fiery hatred that drives headlines – parties have failed to win over hearts and minds in some specific ways. Americans don’t find parties trustworthy – many in 2016 were willing to believe that it is at least possible that the presidential nomination process is rigged against outside candidates. They also don’t feel that parties represent or respond to “people like me.”

What do parties do?

Political scientists have been obsessed with the functions of parties for decades – maybe even longer. Parties motivate voters to go to the polls, structure the political debate, coordinate the nomination of candidates, and create stable coalitions of different interests in society.

I focus on the need for parties to coordinate on presidential nominees every four years, and the ways in which party leaders have tried to exercise control over the process. American parties are very fragmented, with leaders coming from Congress, the national organization, the states, and organized interest groups. Part of my book project traces how these different leaders have used the formal rules of the party (both interpreting existing rules and working to change them) and informal means to shape presidential nominations.

There’s an important and troubling connection between what people think about parties and how party leaders exercise leverage. When people distrust parties in concept, it’s harder for the parties as institutions to adopt formal rules that give party leaders control over the process. We saw this in action over the summer, when the Democratic Party cut back the role of “super delegates” in the nomination process. When parties can’t control nominations through the formal rules, elites will work through informal means to narrow down competition.

There are a couple of pitfalls with working through informal channels. First, informal elite coordination can fail, as it did in the 2016 Republican race, leaving the party vulnerable to nominating a candidate who is divisive within the party, or one who is an outsider without conventional political qualifications or an appreciation for party beliefs. The other possibility is that informal coordination works too well – as it did for the Democrats in 2016 – and reinforces the belief that the parties lack transparency and are trying to “rig” the process.

How have parties changed? (And stayed the same?)

Smoke-filled rooms and convention floor fights are part of the past. But American political parties have proven remarkably resilient and adaptive as institutions. Although party politics has become more national in scope, with national messages and organizations gaining power relative to the past, both major parties are still adapted from their 19th century forebearers – they are, technically speaking, the same organizations, despite changes in ideologies, coalitions, and rules. This means that neither party was really created for the purposes that its members now care about.

The Democratic Party has long been a patchwork coalition of different groups. It historically accommodated a pro-slavery faction and then a segregationist faction from the South. Now the party is heavily supported by racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and activists seek to push it to the left on policy issues.

The modern Republican Party is perhaps harder to characterize, but when it was created in the 1850s with the purpose of curbing the expansion of slavery, it was the party in favor of stronger national government. This heritage lent itself to a relatively unified national message, while the Democrats were held together by process and compromise. The parties’ positions and purposes have changed a great deal, but some vestiges of their organizational logics have remained. This fact further contributes to the problem of partisans not really feeling like their parties are representative or responsive.

Still, parties have also changed a great deal. Much of the analysis in my project hinges on the fact that parties now choose their nominees through primaries, which cedes control to media, voters, and interest groups. This change on its own is not necessarily either good or bad. But it does highlight an unsettling fact for parties and for anyone concerned about the health of American democracy: as parties have reformed themselves over the years to be more democratic and open, they have continued to lose the public’s trust.

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