The American Political Party System: Continuity and Change Over Ten Presidential Elections

The American Political Party System: Continuity and Change Over Ten Presidential Elections

by John S. Jackson

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From party polarization, elections, and internal party politics, to the evolution of the U.S. presidency, John S. Jackson's new book has something for everyone interested in American politics. Beginning with a discussion of the creation of the U.S. government to the formation of today's political powerhouses, Jackson provides a narrative sweep of American party history like none other.

Unique to this book is a detailed breakdown of the evolution of political parties from 1832 to the current era. Jackson explains how the reform era came to be, as well as how it produced the polarized party era we have today. In doing so, he guides the reader to an appreciation of where U.S. party politics originated and the aspirations of those who helped create the current system.

Jackson also examines the internal mechanisms and personalities of the Democratic and Republican parties. He compares multiple presidential elections, thus telling a broader story of the unfolding of today's party polarization and gridlock. He also explores the theoretical meaning of the changes observed in the parties from the responsible party model perspective.

The themes of continuity and change are set in the context of group-think versus rational decisionmaking. Specific focus is given to political elites who are sophisticated about politics and who make strategic decisions, but are also bound by their humanity and occasionally fail to see the right deci-sion due to their own personal biases.

This book will be particularly useful for those who want to explore polarization, the responsible parties model, the rational actor model, and anyone who wants to better understand elections, party politics, and the evolution of the presidency.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815726388
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 10/14/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 225
File size: 2 MB

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The American Political Party System

Continuity and Change Over Ten Presidential Elections

By John S. Jackson

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2638-8


The Evolving American Political Party System

Documenting and explaining continuity and change is a crucial challenge in the study of American political parties and politics (Schattschneider, 1960; Campbell and others, 1960). This work takes up that challenge with respect to the party system over the last quarter of the twentieth century. The chapter also presents a stocktaking of the condition of the party system at the midpoint of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Ideological Party Polarization

It is now commonplace to observe that the nation and the parties are deeply polarized, divided into ideologically different and warring camps. That polarization happened over the four decades covered in this study. This book analyzes how and why that polarization took place among party activists and among the mass public. Understanding our political parties is a big step toward understanding where we are and how we got here. Complex organizations, like the two major American political parties, can attempt to preserve the status quo and survive in their traditional patterns, or they can change in the face of new demands. Any complex organization faces the challenge of deciding how much of its public identity, core values, and established patterns to preserve and how much to change in order to survive (Zald, 1970; Zald and Denton, 1963). American political parties and their leadership are no exception to this rule. The basic premise of this book is that political parties—that is, the organizations, the activists who run them, and the party in government—will do what they deem to be necessary to adapt and survive. This organizational imperative animates and disciplines them.

American political parties were confronted with tremendous challenges during the last quarter of the twentieth century and through the first decade of the twenty-first century. The ways the parties adapted and changed and the people who led the changes to meet those challenges are the focus of this book. The first three chapters provide a description and analysis of the recent history of the American party system and the major trends in American politics especially regarding presidential elections. The basic proposition explored here is that changing the way we nominate and elect presidents will have a significant impact on political parties and on the entire political system.

The subjects of the empirical analysis are delegates to their political party's national convention. National convention delegates include all elements of the party—national, state, and local officials elected to public office in the name of the party (the people who have the responsibility of governing the nation and its component parts, or the party in government); official members of the national, state, and local party committees, their officers, and staffs (who oversee the day-to-day affairs of the party as an organization); and political consultants, fund-raisers, pollsters, and the leaders of interest groups and social movements (who assist the party in both campaigns and governance).

National convention delegates are empowered to act on behalf of the national, state, and local parties in naming the party nominees to be president, the most important political position in the land. They are also empowered to define the public policy positions of the national parties in the adoption of the party platform and to establish the rules that govern the national parties and the rules by which the next presidential candidates will be nominated. In these capacities, they also face a myriad of challenges and pressures to speak for the party, represent its values, and make the crucial decisions that will chart the future course of their respective parties. They embody those signature values of the parties and thus help to create the images of the parties held by the mass public (Bartels, 2000; Hetherington, 2001; Aldrich, 1995). In addition, national convention delegates provide a window on local and state party organizations (Miller and Jennings, 1986; Miller, 1988; Maggiotto and Wekkin, 2000). There also is a symbiotic relationship between these party activists and the presidential candidates they choose. This broad definition and interaction is captured by John Aldrich (1995, 20–21):

Party activists shade from those powerful figures with concentrations of, or access to, money and information ... to the legions of volunteer campaign activists who ring doorbells and stuff envelopes and are, individually and collectively, critical to the first level of the party—its office seekers. All are critical because they command the resources, whether money, expertise, and information or merely time and labor, that office seekers need to realize their ambitions. As a result, activists' motivations shape and constrain the behavior of office seekers, as their own roles are, in turn, shaped and constrained by the office seekers.

The activists that are the subjects of this study are the people Jeane Kirkpatrick (1976, 22) calls "the new presidential elite" in her monumental study, in which she provides the rationale for focusing on convention delegates.

Delegates to national conventions are interesting to students of politics because, for the period that they serve as delegates, they are members of the elite political class, persons whose decisions are felt throughout the political system.... The political elite is that political class that has more influence than others in the shaping of specified values through political processes. Collectively, they embody the human, social, and political characteristics of a national party. Collectively the delegates constitute a slice of American political life broad enough to include persons from every state and thick enough to include representatives of all political levels. (italics in the original)

Although some scholars have studied state party organizations and county party organizations at one point in time with great profit and have produced important empirical and theoretical results (Eldersveld, 1964; Eldersveld and Walton, 2000; Gibson and others, 1985), others (Kirkpartick, 1976; Miller and Jennings, 1986) use the national conventions, as I do. The present study is also about the political reforms that have transformed the way we nominate presidential candidates, how the rules of the game have changed, and what that has meant in the candidates the parties nominate, the polarization of the parties led by the party elites, and the impact on the ability of the president to govern. If we change the rules, we are very likely to change the game, and this is what happened during the era studied here.

The 1972 election was the first held after the reforms instituted by the McGovern-Fraser rules were promulgated. The bulk of this study is devoted to what has happened since these reforms and how the party activists who nominate national candidates changed during this era. This study extends from 1976 through 2008 (indirectly, as a point of comparison, the data taken from other studies extend backward to 1968 and even earlier, where the data are available, before the reforms were instituted). The comparisons amount to a before and after and pre-reform versus post-reform study of the era. The reforms constitute what is now a mature rules regime, which has changed incrementally but which has been basically stable for ten presidential election cycles.

This study documents the longitudinal changes in the major players and in the way we nominate and elect presidents. These changes are fundamental to the way the parties changed at the organizational level, which in turn changed the way we nominate and elect presidents. The changes of this era also helped lead to the much-discussed polarization of the two major parties. That polarization has made it much more difficult for presidents to govern and indeed for the government to perform some of its basic and essential functions, like nominating key officials, implementing new laws, adopting a budget, and raising the debt ceiling. The resulting political stalemate and legislative gridlock are critical to explaining how the party system operates—and often does not operate—in today's America.

The government was shut down in the fall of 2013. Economic disaster loomed because of the failure to increase the national debt ceiling. The president finds it almost impossible to lead the fractured government. These are all important markers of the kind of government produced by ideological and partisan polarization.

Presidential Elections and Presidential Government

In a fundamental sense, this book is also a story of presidential politics. The presidency came to dominate American government thoroughly in the twentieth century. Thus the ways in which we choose the president are crucial to understanding how presidential government works. Originally, the federal government was not supposed to be a system with a dominant executive, and the framers of the Constitution were for the most part people who believed in and supported legislative power first and foremost. They wanted an independent executive, but they also actively feared executive power, believing that a chief executive might become too powerful and destroy liberty. They were all too familiar with this pattern from their experience and from their reading of history, and they were determined to avoid it in America. Madison's model of separated powers with checks and balances was designed to ensure that no branch of government had the power and authority to dominate the other branches and that the different centers of power established by the Constitution could serve as counterweights to each other, thereby keeping the entire system in the sort of equilibrium that would secure liberty. This balancing of power was particularly designed to rein in the power of the president. The list of delegated powers given to Congress in article I of the Constitution is much more lengthy and impressive than the powers provided to the president listed in article II. Madison and most of his colleagues at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention clearly thought the legislative branch should be the first among equals.

All of this changed, however, in the twentieth century, as the national government became more important and the president became the spokesman for the American people. The twentieth century has been called the "era of the executive," since it was a time of expansive growth in the real political power of the president (Rossiter, 1960). This expansion of the presidency into a dominant role in the national government was led by two cousins, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt (Savage, 1991). It was initiated at the start of the twentieth century, when Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. He was a strong and activist president and he led the expansion of the power and scope of the federal government and the role of the presidency on both the international front and the home front. Increases in the power of the president dramatically expanded even more during the New Deal and World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented four terms in the White House and the role of the federal government expanded first to fight the economic ravages of the Great Depression and then to mobilize the nation successfully for World War II.

This trend accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s under the impetus and logic of a massive cold war against the Soviet Union and then under the impetus of the civil rights revolution, which required the federal government to address state-supported segregation and to erase the last de jure remains of the Civil War. After World War II the president also became the keeper and guarantor of our economic prosperity, at least in popular opinion and expectations, if not always in economic fact. Together, the two Roosevelts, reacting to the crises and challenges of their times, remade the job of president, changed public perceptions of the office, and expanded the size and scope of the executive branch far beyond that originally envisioned in article II. Presidential power now drives our form of government, and presidential politics dominates our national political dialogue and our daily conversations. These foreign and domestic challenges led to the expansion of the legal powers of the presidency as well as to the expansion of the public's expectations and, thereby, the informal power of the president.

We expect the president to keep the nation peaceful and prosperous, and all the candidates who seek that office essentially promise that both objectives will be met if they are elected. However, if war comes it is likely to be primarily a presidential war, with a decidedly secondary role played by Congress. The president's power to make war without a formal declaration of war from Congress was proved again and again by the significant wars waged in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan and by numerous smaller deployments of American troops to fight in places as diverse as Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. No other augmentation of presidential power has been more important than the growth of the role of commander in chief and all that title entails regarding the president's power and authority to raise and commit the military force of the one remaining superpower in the world. The American military is unchallenged and unequaled in modern warfare, and as that military has been deployed repeatedly around the world, the role and reach of the commander in chief have also grown. The fact that this role also augments the image and authority of the president in domestic settings helped the president to dominate the political discourse and politics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The growth of presidential power has led not only to debates about the nature of the office but also to questions about the proper method for selecting its occupant. The Constitution is almost silent on this question. Originally, the Electoral College was expected to be adequate for both the nomination and the election of a president, and it worked that way for the nomination of George Washington. However, the elections of 1796 and 1800 showed the inadequacies of the Electoral College as a nominations device, and something else was needed. Starting in 1804 the congressional caucus was the method employed. It consisted of the party's representatives in the U.S. Congress getting together and deciding on who they would support for the presidential nomination. This method worked reasonably well until the election of 1824, when that system broke down in chaos and the House selected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, thanks to a bargain Adams's supporters struck with Henry Clay's supporters. Jackson came back to defeat Adams in 1828, and subsequently Jackson and his followers profoundly changed the American party system, effectively turning it into the modern mass-based system that still survives today (Crotty and Jackson, 1985, chap. 1).

In 1832 Andrew Jackson's supporters introduced the national party convention as a more democratic way to choose presidential candidates. Through the remainder of the nineteenth century political party organizations dominated the process, picking delegates as well as choosing the nominee. In the early years of the twentieth century, direct primaries were introduced, with their proponents arguing that they were more democratic by giving individual party members a stronger voice in the picking of the nominees. The primaries were important in some years, but most years between 1912 and 1968 they were secondary to the main show, which was the national conventions.

Following the McGovern-Fraser reforms, first applied in 1972, presidential primaries came to dominate the process by which delegates to national conventions and presidential nominees were chosen (Ceaser, 1979; Shafer, 1988). This book looks at presidential nominations and elections since those reforms were instituted in order to provide a context for understanding the contemporary system.


Excerpted from The American Political Party System by John S. Jackson. Copyright © 2015 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
1 The Evolving American Political Party System, 1,
2 Party Politics in the Reform Era, 21,
3 The Era of Party Reform, 47,
4 On Representation, 62,
5 On Political Values, 91,
6 Party Elites and Party Identifiers, 116,
7 Party and Political History of the Delegates, 148,
8 The Candidate and Party Factions, 171,
9 Summary and Conclusions, 189,
Appendix A. About the Book Sources, 215,
References, 219,
Index, 229,

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