Parties and Policies: How the American Government Works

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In this wide-ranging new volume, one of our most important and perceptive scholars of the workings of the American government investigates political parties, politicians, elections, and policymaking to discover why public policy emerges in the shape that it does. David R. Mayhew looks at two centuries of policy making—from the Civil War and Reconstruction era through the Progressive era, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan years, and the aspirations of the Clinton and Bush administrations—and offers his original insights on the ever-evolving American policy experience.

These fourteen essays were written over the past three decades and collectively showcase Mayhew’s skepticism of the usefulness of political parties as an analytic window into American politics.  These writings, which include a new introductory essay, probe beneath the parties to the essentials of the U.S. constitutional system and the impulses and idiosyncrasies of history.

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Editorial Reviews

Rick Valelly
"An indispensable contribution which taken as a whole shows how ambitious and challenging David Mayhew's view of American politics really is."—Rick Valelly, Swarthmore College
Fred Greenstein
"A cornucopia of original and instructive analyses of politics and policy-making in the United States. No student of American politics should miss it."—Fred Greenstein, Princeton University
Stephen Ansolabehere
“Wars, recessions, critical elections. It's all here. With a keen eye and deft hand, David Mayhew paints a sweeping picture of the big events in American politics over the past 100 years—how the electorate has reacted and how the government has responded. Mayhew proves once again to be one of America's great political scientists and historians.”—Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University
Ira Katznelson
"David Mayhew's original, lucid, and bracing essays have powerfully shaped thought about Congress, elections, parties, institutional rules, and the conduct of analytical history. What a treat, therefore, to have these pathbreaking analyses and reflections between covers!"—Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300137620
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/3/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 1,038,898
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David R. Mayhew is Sterling Professor of Political Science, Yale University. He is the author of numerous acclaimed books, including Divided We Govern, Electoral Realignments, and Congress: The Electoral Connection, all published by Yale University Press. He lives in Newton, MA.

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Read an Excerpt

Parties and Policies


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13762-0

Chapter One

The Electoral Incentive

What animates members of Congress? The discussion to come will hinge on the assumption that United States congressmen are interested in getting reelected-indeed, in their role here as abstractions, interested in nothing else. Any such assumption necessarily does some violence to the facts, so it is important at the outset to root this one as firmly as possible in reality. A number of questions about that reality immediately arise.

First, is it true that the United States Congress is a place where members wish to stay once they get there? Clearly there are representative assemblies that do not hold their members for very long. Members of the Colombian parliament tend to serve single terms and then move on. Voluntary turnover is quite high in some American state legislatures-for example, in Alabama. In his study of the unreformed Connecticut legislature, Barber labeled some of his subjects "reluctants"-people not very much interested in politics who were briefly pushed into it by others. An ethic of "volunteerism" pervades the politics of California city councils. And in the Congress itself voluntary turnover was high throughout most of the nineteenth century.

Yet in themodern Congress the "congressional career" is unmistakably upon us. Turnover figures show that over the past century increasing proportions of members in any given Congress have been holdovers from previous Congresses-members who have both sought reelection and won it. Membership turnover noticeably declined among southern senators as early as the 1850s, among senators generally just after the Civil War. The House followed close behind, with turnover dipping in the late nineteenth century and continuing to decline throughout the twentieth. Average number of terms served has gone up and up, with the House in 1971 registering an all-time high of 20 percent of its members who had served at least ten terms. It seems fair to characterize the modern Congress as an assembly of professional politicians spinning out political careers. The jobs offer good pay and high prestige. There is no want of applicants for them. Successful pursuit of a career requires continual reelection.

A second question is this: Even if congressmen seek reelection, does it make sense to attribute that goal to them to the exclusion of all other goals? Of course the answer is that a complete explanation (if one were possible) of a congressman's or any one else's behavior would require attention to more than just one goal. There are even occasional congressmen who intentionally do things that make their own electoral survival difficult or impossible. The late President Kennedy wrote of congressional "profiles in courage." Former Senator Paul Douglas (D., Ill.) tells of how he tried to persuade Senator Frank Graham (D., N.C.) to tailor his issue positions in order to survive a 1950 primary. Graham, a liberal appointee to the office, refused to listen. He was a "saint," says Douglas. He lost his primary. There are not many saints. But surely it is common for congressmen to seek other ends alongside the electoral one and not necessarily incompatible with it. Some try to get rich in office, a quest that may or may not interfere with reelection. Fenno assigns three prime goals to congressmen-getting reelected but also achieving influence within Congress and making "good public policy." These latter two will be given attention further on in this discussion. Anyone can point to contemporary congressmen whose public activities are not obviously reducible to the electoral explanation; Senator J. William Fulbright (D., Ark.) comes to mind. Yet, saints aside, the electoral goal has an attractive universality to it. It has to be the proximate goal of everyone, the goal that must be achieved over and over if other ends are to be entertained. One former congressman writes, "All members of Congress have a primary interest in getting re-elected. Some members have no other interest." Reelection underlies everything else, as indeed it should if we are to expect that the relation between politicians and public will be one of accountability. What justifies a focus on the reelection goal is the juxtaposition of these two aspects of it-its putative empirical primacy and its importance as an accountability link. For analytic purposes, therefore, congressmen will be treated in the pages to come as if they were single-minded reelection seekers. Whatever else they may seek will be given passing attention, but the analysis will center on the electoral connection.

Yet another question arises. Even if congressmen are single-mindedly interested in reelection, are they in a position as individuals to do anything about it? If they are not, if they are inexorably shoved to and fro by forces in their political environments, then obviously it makes no sense to pay much attention to their individual activities. This question requires a complex answer, and it will be useful to begin reaching for one by pondering whether individual congressmen are the proper analytic units of an investigation of this sort. An important alternative view is that parties rather than lone politicians are the prime movers in electoral politics. The now classic account of what a competitive political universe will look like with parties as its analytic units is Downs's Economic Theory of Democracy. In the familiar Downsian world parties are entirely selfish. They seek the rewards of office, but in order to achieve them they have to win office and keep it. They bid for favor before the public as highly cohesive point-source "teams." A party enjoys complete control over government during its term in office and uses its control solely to try to win the next election. In a two-party system a voter decides how to cast his ballot by examining the record and promises of the party in power and the previous record and current promises of the party out of power; he then calculates an "expected party differential" for the coming term, consults his own policy preferences, and votes accordingly. These are the essential lineaments of the theory. Legislative representatives appear only as modest "intermediaries." If of the governing party, they gather information on grassroots preferences and relay it to the government, and they try to persuade constituents back home that the government is doing a worthy job.

How well a party model of this kind captures the reality of any given regime is an empirical question. One difficulty lies in the need for parties as cohesive teams (members whose "goals can be viewed as a simple, consistent preferences-ordering"). In all nonautocratic regimes governments are made up of a plurality of elective officials-not just one man. How can a group of men be bound together so that it looks something like a Downsian team? Probably nowhere (in a nonautocratic regime) does a group achieve the ultimate fusion of preference-orderings needed to satisfy the model; party government in Britain, for example, proceeds substantially by intraparty bargaining. Nonetheless, it is plain that some regimes fit the model better than others. For some purposes it is quite useful to study British politics by using parties as analytic units. Britain, to start with, has a constitution that readily permits majoritarian government. But, beyond that, at the roll call stage British M.P.s act as cohesive party blocs that look something like teams. It is not inevitable that they should do so, and indeed there was a good deal of individualistic voting in the Commons in the mid-nineteenth century. Why do contemporary M.P.s submit to party discipline? There are at least three reasons why they do so, and it will be profitable here to examine them in order to allow later contrasts with the American regime.

First of all, in both British parties the nominating systems are geared to produce candidates who will vote the party line if and when they reach Parliament. This happens not because nominations are centrally controlled, but because the local nominating outfits are small elite groups that serve in effect as nationally oriented cheerleaders for the Commons party leadership.

Second, British M.P.s lack the resources to set up shop as politicians with bases independent of party. Television time in campaigns goes to parties rather than to scattered independent politicians. By custom or rule or both, the two parties sharply limit the funds that parliamentary candidates can spend on their own in campaigns. Once elected, M.P.s are not supplied the kinds of office resources-staff help, free mailing privileges, and the like-that can be used to achieve public salience. These arguments should not be carried too far; M.P.s are not ciphers, and obviously dissident leaders like Aneurin Bevan and Enoch Powell manage to build important independent followings. But the average backbencher is constrained by lack of resources. It comes as no surprise that individual M.P.s add little to (or subtract little from) core partisan electoral strength in their constituencies; the lion's share of the variance in vote change from election to election is chargeable to national swings rather than to local or regional fluctuations.

Third, with the executive entrenched in Parliament the only posts worth holding in a Commons career are the ones doled out by party leaders. Up to a third of majority party M.P.s are now included in the Ministry. "For the ambitious backbencher, the task is to impress ministers and particularly the Prime Minister." Party loyalty is rewarded; heresy is not.

The upshot of all this is that British M.P.s are locked in. The arrangement of incentives and resources elevates parties over politicians. But the United States is very different. In America the underpinnings of "teamsmanship" are weak or absent, making it possible for politicians to triumph over parties. It should be said that Madisonian structure and Downsian teamsmanship are not necessarily incompatible. Connecticut state government, in which party organizations exercise substantial control over nominations and political careers, comes close to the British model; governorship and state legislative parties are bound together by party organization. But Connecticut is exceptional, or, more accurately, it is at one end of a spectrum toward the other end of which there are states in which parties have little binding effect at all. In American politics the place where Downsian logic really applies is in the election of individuals to executive posts-presidents, governors, and big-city mayors. To choose among candidates for the presidency or the New York City mayoralty is to choose among "executive teams"-candidates with their retinues of future high administrators, financial supporters, ghostwriters, pollsters, student ideologues, journalistic flacks, hangers-on, occasionally burglars and spies. In executive elections the candidates are highly visible; they bid for favor in Downsian fashion; they substantially control government (or appear to) and can be charged with its accomplishments and derelictions (President Nixon for inflation, Mayor Lindsay for crime); elections are typically close (now even in most old machine cities); voters can traffic in "expected differentials" (between executive candidates rather than parties). When the late V. O. Key Jr., wrote The Responsible Electorate, a book in the Downsian spirit, he had the empirical good sense to focus on competition between incumbent and prospective presidential administrations rather than more broadly on competition between parties. Indeed, it can be argued that American representative assemblies have declined in power in the twentieth century (especially at the city council level) and executives have risen chiefly because it is the executives who offer electorates something like Downsian accountability.

But at the congressional level the teamsmanship model breaks down. To hark back to the discussion of Britain, the specified resource and incentive arrangements conducive to party unity among M.P.s are absent in the congressional environment: First, the way in which congressional candidates win party nominations is not, to say the least, one that fosters party cohesion in Congress. For one thing, 435 House members and 98 senators (all but the Indiana pair) are now nominated by direct primary (or can be, in the few states with challenge primaries) rather than by caucus or convention. There is no reason to expect large primary electorates to honor party loyalty. (An introduction of the direct primary system in Britain might in itself destroy party cohesion in the Commons.) For another, even where party organizations are still strong enough to control congressional primaries, the parties are locally rather than nationally oriented; local party unity is vital to them, national party unity is not. Apparently it never has been.

Second, unlike the M.P. the typical American congressman has to mobilize his own resources initially to win a nomination and then to win election and reelection. He builds his own electoral coalition and sustains it. He raises and spends a great deal of money in doing so. He has at his command an elaborate set of electoral resources that the Congress bestows upon all its members. There will be more on these points later. The important point here is that a congressman can-indeed must-build a power base that is substantially independent of party. In the words of a House member quoted by Clapp, "If we depended on the party organization to get elected, none of us would be here."

Third, Congress does not have to sustain a cabinet and hence does not engage the ambitions of its members in cabinet formation in such a fashion as to induce party cohesion. It would be wrong to posit a general one-to-one relation here between party cohesion and cabinet sustenance. On the one hand, there is nothing preventing congressmen from building disciplined congressional parties anyway if they wanted to do so. On the other hand, as the records of the Third and Fourth French republics show, cabinet regimes can be anchored in relatively incohesive parties. Yet, to pose the proposition in statistical rather than deterministic form, the need for an assembly to sustain a cabinet probably raises the likelihood that it will spawn disciplined parties.

The fact is that no theoretical treatment of the United States Congress that posits parties as analytic units will go very far. So we are left with individual congressmen, with 535 men and women rather than two parties, as units to be examined in the discussion to come. The style of argument will be somewhat like that of Downs, but the reality more like that of Namier. Whether the choice of units is propitious can be shown only in the facts marshaled and the arguments embellished around them. With the units nailed down, still left unanswered is the question of whether congressmen in search of reelection are in a position to do anything about it.

Here it will be useful to deal first with the minority subset of congressmen who serve marginal districts or states-constituencies fairly evenly balanced between the parties. The reason for taking up the marginals separately is to consider whether their electoral precariousness ought to induce them to engage in distinctive electoral activities. Marginals have an obvious problem; to a substantial degree they are at the mercy of national partisan electoral swings. But general voter awareness of congressional legislative activities is low. Hence national swings in the congressional vote are normally judgments on what the president is doing (or is thought to be doing) rather than on what Congress is doing. In the familiar case where parties controlling the presidency lose House seats in the midterm, swings seem to be not judgments on anything at all but rather artifacts of the election cycle. More along a judgmental line, there has been an impressive relation over the years between partisan voting for the House and ups and downs in real income among voters. The national electorate rewards the congressional party of a president who reigns during economic prosperity and punishes the party of one who reigns during adversity. Rewards and penalties may be given by the same circuitous route for other states of affairs, including national involvement in wars. With voters behaving the way they do, it is in the electoral interest of a marginal congressman to help insure that a presidential administration of his own party is a popular success or that one of the opposite party is a failure. (Purely from the standpoint of electoral interest there is no reason why a congressman with a safe seat should care one way or another.)


Excerpted from Parties and Policies by DAVID R. MAYHEW Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The Electoral Incentive 19
2 Congressional Elections: The Case of the Vanishing Marginals 54
3 Why Did V. O. Key Draw Back from His "Have-Nots" Claim? 73
4 Divided Party Control: Does It Make a Difference? 94
5 Clinton, the 103d Congress, and Unified Party Control: What Are the Lessons? 102
6 U.S. Policy Waves in Comparative Context 137
7 Presidential Elections and Policy Change: How Much of a Connection Is There? 153
8 Innovative Midterm Elections 180
9 Electoral Realignments 198
10 Actions in the Public Sphere 227
11 Supermajority Rule in the U.S. Senate 273
12 Wars and American Politics 288
13 Events as Causes: The Case of American Politics 328
14 Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record 358 Index 393
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