The American Party System and the Problem of Union, Revisited

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Daniel Stid
April 3, 2023

Note the post below reprises a short paper I will be presenting at the upcoming “More Parties, Better Parties” conference at Stanford University later this month. Lyceum Labs is co-hosting the event with the Center for Ballot Freedom, New America’s Political Reform Program, Protect Democracy, and Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

What type of party system best suits the American regime? What can we do to cultivate such a party system in the present moment? The following memo explores these questions by revisiting the assessments of a cohort of conservative (in the small “c,” non-ideological sense of the word) political scientists in the mid-twentieth century. Recovering their collective insights will take some intellectual archeology. They have since been supplanted by three generations of more wishful and instrumental thinking about the American party system, which has materially contributed to our current challenges.

To preview the argument, the conservative cohort saw the problem of union–maintaining a modicum of national unity in Madison’s extended republic–as the persistent and fundamental challenge of American politics. They understood the country’s decentralized and ungainly party system–a system of party systems–to be intertwined with, and well suited for, our diverse society and constitutional arrangements. They also turned out to be prescient about the harmful consequences of moving toward the more responsible and nationalized two-party system sought (initially) by progressive scholars and (subsequently) by ideologues in both parties.

Given what idealistic reformers and determined partisans have since wrought, we cannot return to the more traditional party system fathomed by the conservative cohort. Nor would we want to, given its dependence on the spoils system and accommodation of Jim Crow. But perhaps we can regain some of the decentralized dynamics and subtle, consensus-building virtues of the previous era. Fostering factions, revitalizing local and state parties, and enabling more parties to take root in more places could help restore the coalitional politics needed to solve the problem of union. The first and most important step, however, needs to occur in the realm of ideas.

I. Conservatives and the great task of American politics (and political science)

Let me begin by introducing the scholars and works whose perspectives I summarize below. They include Pendleton Herring (The Politics of Democracy, 1940), Austin Ranney and Willmoore Kendall (Democracy and the American Party System, 1956), Clinton Rossiter (Parties and Politics in America, 1960), Edward C. Banfield (“In Defense of the American Party System” in Goldwin, ed., Political Parties, U.S.A.,1961), and James Q. Wilson (The Amateur Democrat, 1962). Given the confines of this memo, I limit my survey to themes and viewpoints common to all members of the cohort.

With the exception of Kendall, at the time none of the scholars identified as a conservative in the political or ideological sense (though Banfield and Wilson later would). In fact, Herring, the first and most influential member of the cohort, advised the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, and Ranney remained active in Democratic politics.

But they were all conservative in the small “c” sense of the word. They had reconciled themselves to humanity’s crooked timber. They had been steeped in and appreciated the American political tradition and its inherited dispositions and institutions. As grounded intellectual craftsmen, they were wary of grand theories and saw the best as the enemy of the good. And they regarded political order as a good but precarious thing.

Indeed, these scholars focused on understanding the institutional and social underpinnings that gird democracy in America and warned against naive or rash changes to them. In their eyes, the stability and unity of our system of government could not be taken for granted. Like the Founders and Tocqueville before them, cohort members grappled with how to preserve a republican form of government cast on a continental scale that intentionally encompassed myriad divisions. They took careful measure of what Ranney and Kendall termed the “civil-war potential” built into American society, a possibility that had not been stamped out by the Civil War. They contended that America’s pluralistic political parties, and the moderating dynamics of the party system produced by their recurring contest for power, had kept it from flaring up again.

II. The mutual fit–and reinforcement–of party system and regime

Another important aspect of this cohort of political scientists was the regime-level perspective they brought to their assessments of party politics in the United States. They viewed parties as institutions embedded in, and shaped by, the foundational features of the American regime, e.g., the separation of powers, federalism, and the republic’s extended sphere. Our governing arrangements for separating, checking, and balancing power made Westminster-style parliamentary parties impractical–and required negotiation and compromise between and among politicians of all stripes. Federalism meant we had an aggregate party system composed of scores of different party systems in states and localities. Multi-faceted variations along economic, regional, racial, and religious lines, combined with the need to cobble together a national majority across them, required parties to open their tents to all comers.

The pathways of American political development also factored into the heady mix of materials these scholars sifted through. That the U.S. had democratized before it bureaucratized its government meant patronage fueled party politics. Cohort members didn’t flinch from recognizing that behind-the-scenes party leaders–from postmasters general down to local bosses running teams of ward heelers–performed essential functions of political brokerage. And the richness and causes of Americans’ associational lives, in civil society and the economy alike, permeated parties and government, further complexifying coalitional politics.

Even as the parties bore the imprint of the American regime, the conservative political scientists recognized how the parties had, in turn, come to reinforce and support its core purposes. The parties served as pragmatic enablers of the horse-trading, log-rolling, and skid-greasing needed to make our complex governing machinery work–without setting grandiose and unsustainable forces in motion. Because both of the major parties spanned rival factions, interests, regions, etc., they served to defuse and muffle conflict even as they aggregated it. In their quest for votes across the diversity of the country, the parties’ decentralized competition was thus more apt to stay within constitutional bounds.

Cohort scholars recognized the American party system could be messy and homely–especially compared to the ideal-type, Westminster-style party systems that had animated reformers from Woodrow Wilson’s day to their own. But the conservative political scientists knew that surface appearances and idealistic trans-Atlantic comparisons missed an underlying reality. The traditional American parties they studied and defended had developed in ways that were fit for purpose in the American regime. As a result, the country continued to enjoy the modicum of consensus and unity it needed to prosper. That, they knew, was no small thing.

In keeping with this conviction, the conservative scholars made a point of contesting what they regarded as naive reform proposals to remake the American party system. They saw the push to convert the pragmatic, decentralized, and ramshackle parties native to American soil into principled, nationalized, and coherent parties as a grave mistake. It was impractical given the constitutional constraints on parliamentary government in the U.S., such as the separation of powers and bicameral legislature, etc. Being conservative, the scholars also appreciated how attempts to “fix” one component of a complex web of political and governing arrangements risked unanticipated and confounding consequences. Most importantly, they believed efforts to sharpen political conflict threatened the country’s political and social fabric. It would raise the stakes of the problem of union, and not in a good way.

Even as they warned against misguided reform, however, the conservative political scientists had to reckon with developments that were eroding core elements of the traditional party system they defended. The ongoing expansion in the role and size of government, especially at the national level, had heightened debates between the parties and oriented them toward policy matters in Washington. The corresponding growth in the administrative state, and the demands for greater professionalism and expertise in its ranks, furthered calls for civil service reform. As sources of patronage dried up, party machines started to decline. As more Americans became better educated, they were less willing to leave politics to the professionals.

Moreover, a blindspot in the traditional party system began to unsettle it during this period: the longstanding accommodation of racial segregation, exclusion, and violence in the South. Jim Crow relied on decentralized and pragmatic party politics to sustain itself. The Democratic Party, and the American party system writ large, had obliged since the compromise of 1877. However, to the growing civil rights movement and its allies in Congress, the constraints of this compromise were unacceptable. It is no accident that the Democratic lawmakers who were early civil rights advocates, e.g. Hubert Humphrey and Richard Bolling, led the push for responsible partisanship within their party.

III. Toward a more responsible two-party system

Against this backdrop, a direct and telling attack on the conservative cohort’s political science came in the realm of ideas. It was led by Professor E.E. Schattschneider of Wesleyan University. His Party Government (1942) fired the opening salvo. Schattschneider subsequently served as both the intellectual and organizational leader of the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties. The Committee’s landmark 1950 Report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” transformed the debate about party politics in the U.S.

For all of their differences, it is striking how much Schattschneider and his fellow APSA Committee members agreed with the conservative cohort on the particulars of the American party system. Both groups’ diagnoses highlighted the same facts: Pragmatic and undisciplined parties in government operated in haphazard and fleeting coalitions, often in league with their opponents. Unofficial and incorrigible bosses dominated party organizations focused on getting and keeping power, not wielding it for systematic purposes. Party voters remained largely uninterested in politics unless and until they were riled up by emotional appeals at election time.

But while the conservatives appreciated the parties and all they had managed to accomplish, the reformers, generally of a more progressive bent, found fault with what they were not doing. The different perspectives lent themselves to more benevolent or harsher judgments, respectively. When it came to party bosses, for example, Herring praised the necessary albeit “peculiar contributions” made by “the specialist in human relations,” while Schattschneider denounced them as “parasites” and “racketeers.”

Beneath these divergent value judgments lay two fundamental points of disagreement. First, Schattschneider et al., like their progressive forebear, Woodrow Wilson, believed that new policy challenges confronting the U.S. both required and would enable responsible party government. The conservative cohort disagreed. The New Deal and World War II demonstrated that American democracy could rise, in its own inimitable ways, to the most severe occasions. And the constitutional obstacles to British-style party responsibility remained fixed in place. But Schattschneider and his colleagues drew inspiration from the post-war track record of the Labor Government in the U.K., not least the establishment of the National Health Service. It convinced them of the need to bring that type of policy-making engine to the U.S.–and that the main barriers were, as Schattschneider insisted, “intellectual, not legal.”

Second, Schattschneider and his fellow APSA Committee members discounted and ultimately dismissed the problem of union that was central to the political science of the conservative cohort. They took for granted the social cohesion that, in the eyes of conservatives, was a direct consequence of the dynamics of the traditional party system the reformers sought to overturn. The progressives believed that a more responsible two-party system would clarify and sharpen political debate, but only up to a reasonable point. “There is no real ideological division in the American electorate,” the Committee asserted. “Hence programs of action presented by responsible parties for the voter’s support could hardly be expected to reflect or strive toward such division.”

IV. The causes and consequences of polarization

Notwithstanding the relative merits of their arguments, the advocates of a more responsible party system carried the day politically. As Sam Rosenfeld has demonstrated in The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era (2018), party activists readily put the theory propounded by Schattschneider and the APSA Committee into practice. Reform-minded Democrats explicitly applied its recommendations as they sought to remake their party into a national organ taking responsibility for advancing liberal causes, not least civil rights. The GOP faction contesting Eisenhower’s Modern Republicanism in the name of conservative principles also made use of the theory in their quest to offer voters “a choice, not an echo.”

In the decades that followed, the push for overdue civil rights legislation and the political realignment resulting from it played into the polarizers’ hands. So too did the expansion in the federal government’s policy role in the 1960s and 1970s, prompting the fight that our increasingly sorted and entrenched parties have waged ever since.

Looking back across three generations, the steady progression set in motion by the polarizers–first in the realm of ideas, then in political practice–is readily discernible. Thanks in large part to their efforts, we now have a party system that, from a certain vantage point, resembles that for which Schattschneider and the APSA Committee called. The organizational infrastructure of our major parties has been nationalized (with their state and local organs left to play vestigial roles). The parties have drawn and divided along distinct lines of policy that their officeholders feel unstinting pressure to toe. Congress, the redoubt of so much parochialism and irresponsibility in the eyes of reformers, has more and more found itself subordinated to the national leadership of the presidency. Politics and policy in Washington now loom much larger in the lives of many Americans who have been politically activated by the clash between the parties. Schattschneider, et al.’s claim that there was no legal or formal constitutional barrier to these developments in the U.S. has, in this sense at least, turned out to be correct.

But taking in the full picture, the promise of a more responsible two-party system has gone badly awry. The constitutional impediments to parliamentary-style responsibility have continued to frustrate the plans and policy agendas of even our periodic unified governments in Washington. Moreover, in polarized federalism, Republican states now actively resist the policies of Democratic policy-makers when they control the federal branches, and vice versa when power in D.C. changes hands. Policy-making in America continues to be, as it always has been, about muddling through to more or less coherent policy. But the partisan charge produced by polarization has increased the odds of gridlock and made muddling through more difficult.

The biggest threat from the failed attempt to make our party system more responsible has been the vociferous tribalism it has instilled in our politics. The problem of union is once again rearing up. Unlike Schattschneider and his fellow APSA Committee members, however, the current generation of political scientists does not have the luxury of ignoring it. Indeed, the problem is much more pressing today than when conservative scholars, writing more than sixty years ago, helped Americans understand how their party system had been mitigating it.

V. Where do we go from here? Toward a more pluralistic party system

The prior discussion raises fundamental questions: can we adjust our parties and party system so that they might once again help us resolve, rather than exacerbate, the problem of union? If so, how? What would it take to foster more pluralism and pragmatism across our party system? How can parties better reflect and help reconcile the diverse and competing values, interests, beliefs and agendas that abound in our extended republic? How can we restore the legitimacy of political opposition that democracy requires? There are no easy answers, but we can note and encourage promising political developments.

One such development could be the emergence of more robust factions within the two major parties. As Steve Teles, Robert Saldin, and Daniel DiSalvo have suggested, by intensifying conflict within the parties, we can reduce the negative effects of polarization between them. While the clash of disparate and competing factions inside the parties runs counter to ideals of responsible partisanship, it creates more leeway for creative coalition-building and policy-making. Without squinting, we can see factions beginning to challenge the dominant wing of each party, though they will need ideas, organizations, and thus funding to press their case.

Having a solid geographic base of support helps factions gain traction. Thus a related and similarly positive development may come through the revitalization of local and state party organizations. This is already happening in some locales via new patterns of year-round, relational organizing that reorients these entities to be more responsive to local needs and viewpoints. Scholars including Tabatha Abu El-Haj, Didi Kuo, Hahrie Han, Lara Putnam, Theda Skocpol, Caroline Tervo, and Vanessa Williamson have written about why and how this is occurring. There are examples of it in both parties–an encouraging sign. We don’t know yet how widely this pattern can spread and if it will foster intra-party pluralism, but it appears promising.

A development that could help seed new state and local parties, revitalize existing ones, and reinforce pluralism is expanding the use of fusion voting outside of New York and Connecticut. Enabling minor parties to develop their own agendas and support candidates of major parties when warranted gives people more reasons and ways to engage in local and state politics. By equipping factions with their own ballot line and the power that comes with it, fusion voting also elevates the importance of coalition building and negotiations within and between parties. In contrast to voter-centric formats (e.g. RCV, open primaries) favored by the democracy reform community, fusion voting is a party-centric reform. It assumes, correctly, that parties are key building blocks of democracy and seeks to empower them to play constructive roles within it.

I’ve sketched out three green shoots that may (or may not) come to fruition. No doubt others are needed. But first, a critical development has to occur in the realm of ideas. We cannot go back to the traditional party system. But we can and should endeavor to follow in the conservative cohort’s footsteps. We need to once again see the problem of union as the fundamental challenge of the American regime. We must also endeavor, as they did, to fathom the workings of and support an appropriately American party system to help us cope with if not solve the problem. If we start with their focus, curiosity, and reflective patriotism–from there, we can build!

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Daniel Stid
Daniel Stid is the Executive Director of Lyceum Labs.