Since its first appearance fifteen years ago, Why Parties? has become essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the nature of American political parties. In the interim, the party system has undergone some radical changes. In this landmark book, now rewritten for the new millennium, John H. Aldrich goes beyond the clamor of arguments over whether American political parties are in resurgence or decline and undertakes a wholesale reexamination of the foundations of the American party system.
Surveying critical episodes in the development of American political parties—from their formation in the 1790s to the Civil War—Aldrich shows how they serve to combat three fundamental problems of democracy: how to regulate the number of people seeking public office, how to mobilize voters, and how to achieve and maintain the majorities needed to accomplish goals once in office. Aldrich brings this innovative account up to the present by looking at the profound changes in the character of political parties since World War II, especially in light of ongoing contemporary transformations, including the rise of the Republican Party in the South, and what those changes accomplish, such as the Obama Health Care plan. Finally, Why Parties? A Second Look offers a fuller consideration of party systems in general, especially the two-party system in the United States, and explains why this system is necessary for effective democracy.
About the Author
John H. Aldrich is the Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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WHY PARTIES?A Second Look
By JOHN H. ALDRICH
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePOLITICS AND PARTIES IN AMERICA
Political parties lie at the heart of American politics. E. E. Schattschneider (1942, 1) claimed that "political parties created democracy, and ... democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties." A fair, if minimal, paraphrase would be to say that democracy is unworkable save in terms of parties. All democracies that are Madisonian, extended republics, which is to say all democratic nations, have political parties. To be truly democratic it is necessary for any nation's leadership to be harnessed to public desires and aspirations, at least in some very general sense. The elected leaders, being granted political power by the public, must ultimately be held accountable to that public. It may be that each official can be held accountable for his or her own personal actions by the constituency that elects and reelects that official. But government policy is determined by the collective actions of many individual officeholders. No one person either can or should be held accountable for actions taken by the House, Senate, and president together. The political party as a collective enterprise, organizing competition for the full range of offices, provides the only means for holding elected officials responsible for what they do collectively. Morris P. Fiorina has written (1980, 26) that "the only way collective responsibility has ever existed, and can exist, given our institutions, is through the agency of the political party; in American politics, responsibility requires cohesive parties."
But perhaps there is more. The scholars mentioned above used the plural, "parties." It may be, as V. O. Key Jr. argued (1949), that at least two parties are necessary, that it is the plural parties that lie at the heart of, that make workable, and that provide responsibility for democracy. Indeed, we might have to go even further. It may not be the mere presence of two parties at any one time that matters, for sometimes and in some places parties arise and then disappear from electoral competitiveness rapidly, as the American Independent Party and the Reform Party did in the United States in the 1960s and 1990s, respectively. What matters is the sustained competition that comes from the interaction between or among durable parties, such that it is the fact that any winning party must seriously consider the prospect of losing an election before democracy becomes tenable. A necessary condition for effective democracy, in this view, is that there must be a party system, an ongoing set of parties in sustained competition for access to power.
Of course, to think about a system of parties requires understanding the basis of individual political parties. Most of this book examines why the political party exists. It is important to know what the answer to this question is, because it is then a much shorter step than before toward understanding why a party system exists, and hence why some democracies are tenable and potentially durable. In this chapter, we begin by examining the political party and the elements that go into a theory of the political party, from which we can then consider what a party system might be.
THE POLITICAL PARTY
With the ability to shape competition for elected office comes responsibility. Many people, whether academics, commentators, politicians, or members of the public, place the political ills of the contemporary scene—a government seemingly unable to solve critical problems and a public distrustful of, apathetic toward, or alienated from politics—on the failures of the two great American parties. Members of Congress are too concerned with their own reelection, in this view, to be able or willing to think of the public good. The president worries about his personal popularity, spends too little time leading the nation, and when he does turn to Congress, finds it impossible to forge majorities—primarily partisan majorities—to pass his own initiatives or to form workable compromises with Congress. Elections are candidate centered, turning on personality, image, and the latest, cleverest ad. Party platforms are little more than the first order of business at national conventions, only to be passed quickly and, party leaders hope, without controversy or media attention, so that the convention can turn to more important business. Ultimate blame for each of these rests, from this perspective, on the major American party.
With few, if important, exceptions, in the 1970s and 1980s the scholarly study of American parties turned from foundational theory to an examination of what appeared to be the central set of issues of the day concerning political parties: party decline, decay, and decomposition. Since then, parties have revitalized. But now there are new ills—extremely polarized "red and blue" politics, bitter public debates that are essentially demagoguery, intractability, and failure to find compromise regardless of the consequences for the public. Where is the bipartisanship of that era of decline, decay, and decomposition? Parties are, in this view, the problem, whether they are too weak or too strong. And yet, whether stronger or weaker, they are there, and thoughtful observers see them as essential.
To address these two questions—how do we understand and evaluate political parties, and how do we understand their role in democracy—I return to consider the foundations of the major American political party and the two-party system (or, more generally, the multiparty system). My basic argument is that the major political party is the creature of the politicians, the partisan activist, and the ambitious office seeker and officeholder. They have created and maintained, used or abused, reformed or ignored the political party when doing so has furthered their goals and ambitions. The political party is thus an "endogenous" institution—an institution shaped by these political actors. Whatever its strength or weakness, whatever its form and role, it is the ambitious politicians' creation.
These politicians, we must understand from the outset, do not have partisan goals per se. Rather, they have more personal and fundamental goals, and the party is only the instrument for achieving them. Their goals are several and come in various combinations. Following Richard Fenno (1973), they include most basically the desire to have a long and successful career in political office, but they also encompass the desire to achieve policy ends and to attain power and prestige within the government. These goals are to be sought in government, not in parties, but they are goals that at times have best been realized through the parties. The parties are, as we will see, shaped by these goals in their various combinations, and particularly in the problems politicians most typically encounter when seeking to achieve their goals. Thus, there are three goals, three problems, and three reasons why politicians often turn to the organized party in search for a sustainable way to solve these problems and thus be more likely to achieve these goals.
Ambitious politicians turn to the political party to achieve such goals only when parties are useful vehicles for solving problems that cannot be solved as effectively, if at all, through other means. Thus I believe that the political party must be understood not only in relation to the goals of the actors most consequential for parties, but also in relation to the electoral, legislative, and executive institutions of the government. Fiorina was correct: only given our institutions can we understand political parties.
The third major force shaping the political party is the historical setting. Technological changes, for instance, have made campaigning for office today vastly different than it was only a few decades ago, let alone in the nineteenth century. Such changes have had great consequences for political parties. In the nineteenth century, political parties were the only feasible means for organizing mass elections. Today's technologies allow an individual member of Congress to create a personal, continuing campaign organization, something that was simply unimaginable a century ago. But there is, of course, more to the historical context than technology.
Normative understandings have changed greatly. Even Ronald Reagan, who claimed that "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem," also held to the value of a "social safety net" provided by the government that is far larger than even the most progressive politician of the nineteenth century could have imagined. Ideas, in short, matter a great deal. Founders had to overcome antipathy verging on disgust over the very idea of political parties in order to create them in the first place, and MartinVan Buren's ideas about the nature and value of the "modern mass party" greatly shaped the nature of Jacksonian Democracy and political parties generally for more than a century. Neither Van Buren nor anyone else set out to create a system of competing mass parties (although he and others of that era recognized the importance of sustained partisan competition, they merely—but always—wanted to win that competiton). But the creation of the modern mass party led quickly to the creation of the first modern mass two-party system.
History matters in yet another way, beyond the ideas, values, and technological possibilities available at any given historical moment. The path of development matters as well. Once a set of institutional arrangements is in place, the set of equilibrium possibilities is greatly reduced, and change from the existing equilibrium path to a new and possibly superior one may be difficult or impossible. In other words, once there are two major parties, their presence induces incentives for ambitious politicians to affiliate with one party or the other, and some of these incentives emerge only because of the prior existence of these two parties.
The combination of these three forces means that the fundamental syllogism for the theory of political parties to be offered here is just what Rohde and Shepsle (1978) originally offered as the basis for the rational-choice-based new institutionalism: political outcomes—here political parties—result from actors' seeking to realize their goals, choosing within and possibly shaping a given set of institutional arrangements, and so choosing within a given historical context.
Before outlining this theory I provide a brief overview of the three major approaches that have long dominated the study of political parties. These prepare the way for understanding the theory of the political party, as each focuses attention on a different aspect and often on a different goal of politicians and their motivation to create or maintain a political party. I then turn to the question asked primarily in this chapter, briefly in chapter 2, and then more fully again in chapter 9 about the necessity of a system of political parties for an effective, functioning democracy. These preliminaries will provide a better sense of just what is at stake in the attempt to make sense of the major American party. Chapter 2 asks the most fundamental theoretical question: why are there parties? This discussion introduces three major theoretical problems that I believe have guided ambitious politicians as they have created, reformed, used, or ignored political parties. Part 2 puts the three major theoretical claims to test. Chapter 3 examines the origins of the first two political parties in the 1790s, emerging out of the legislative arena, attempting to solve a fundamental problem of social choice, and "completing ratification" by deciding just how strong and active the new national government was to be. Chapter 4 looks at the formation of the modern mass political party by focusing on its hallmark, the mobilization of the electorate—perhaps the most evident example of collective action and its inherent problems. Chapter 5 examines the other side of the Democratic and Whig parties of this period, the complex institutional arrangements these two parties helped shape that effectively kept the slavery issue off the agenda, making the union viable into the 1850s. That chapter then turns to the breakup of that party system and the rise of the Republican Party, looking especially at the interplay between the career goals of ambitious politicians and the slavery issue that culminated in the Civil War. The three chapters in part 2 conveniently illustrate the three theoretical problems that parties have been employed to attack (when it has been in the interests of politicians to use the parties), cover the formative period of political parties ending with the establishment of competition between Democrats and Republicans, and establish the form of parties and the basic nature of the historical path that survived, albeit with many important changes, through the post–World War II era.
Part 3 turns to the modern era. In this section I analyze the contemporary scene generally but look especially at the changes wrought in elections, governance, and hence parties in the 1960s. It was this set of changes that set in motion the empirical patterns that some saw as the decline (dealignment, decay, even decomposition) of parties but culminated in the rise of polarized parties. Chapter 6 examines the "party-in-elections." Chapter 7 develops the theory of the party-in-government, in light of the electoral forces. Chapter 8 looks at the oft-ignored party-as-organization and the new form of party I argue emerged in response to the politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The lacuna that many noted as the decline of parties was not, by this account, so much simply decline as the change from what I call the "party in control" of its ambitious office seekers and holders to the "party in service" to them. Chapter 9 concludes by reexamining the historical dynamics of the post–World War II era and considers the role of a party system in American democracy.
PREVIOUS APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF AMERICAN POLITICAL PARTIES
Parties as Diverse Coalitions, Aggregating and Articulating the Interest in and of the Public
There are three basic views or understandings of major political parties in America. The first is most often associated with V. O. Key Jr. (e.g., 1964), Frank Sorauf (1964; now Hershey 2009), Samuel Eldersveld (1964, 1982), and others. The major American party, to them, is a broad and encompassing organization, a coalition of many and diverse partners, that is commonly called umbrella-like. In seeking to appeal to a majority of the public, the two parties are based on similar values, roughly defining the "American creed." McClosky (1969) said of political (which is to say partisan) elites, "The evidence suggests that it is the [political elites] rather than the public who serve as the major repositories of the public conscience and as the carriers of the Creed. Responsibility for keeping the system going, hence, falls most heavily upon them" (286). His basic finding was that such elites share most elements of this "creed."
On many policy issues, however, there are clear and sometimes sharply drawn lines between the two parties. What Benjamin I. Page (1978) referred to as "partisan cleavages" are possible, even likely. On civil rights, as on many other issues, the Democratic Party has been more liberal than the Republican Party for decades, and on New Deal economic issues even a generation longer. In chapter 6 we will see a great deal of evidence that Democratic officeholders and activists are, in fact, more liberal than comparable Republicans on many issues and that the public perceives those differences (see table 6.1). The line of cleavage now is especially sharp, but it has been clearly discernible for a long time, even when parties were at their most diverse.
On other issues the line is less sharp and at times all but invisible. Even in this era of resurgent polarization between the two parties, many (and often most) roll call votes are not partisan. Survey researchers rarely choose to ask about issues that do not divide parties, but table 6.1 illustrates several policies on which the two parties are less clearly distinguished. Although both parties value democratic principles, the free market, equal opportunity, and the like, and though both adhere to the principles of a strong economy, peace maintained by a defense adequate for that purpose, and so on, they differ in the relative emphasis they place on such values, and they differ even more in the means or policies they consider appropriate for achieving those ends. Thus the Democrats are more likely to favor the active intervention of the government, especially the national government, on economic and social welfare issues, whereas the Republicans are much less so inclined. Democrats have long appealed to the poor, the working class, and Franklin Roosevelt's "common man." Republicans have sought support from the middle class and up, suburbanites, and the burgeoning Sun Belt.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Political Parties and Democracy
1 Politics and Parties in America 3
2 Why Parries Form 27
Part 2 Party Formation in America, 1790-1860
3 Founding the First Parties: Institutions and Social Choice 70
4 A Jacksonian Democracy: The Mass Party and Collective Action 102
5 Whigs and Republicans: Institutions, Issue Agendas, and Ambition 130
Part 3 The New Political Party in Contemporary America
6 Party Activists and Partisan Cleavages 169
7 Political Parties and Governance 202
8 The Critical Era of the 1960s 255
Part 4 Conclusions
9 Political Parties, Historical Dynamics, and Democratic Politics 295