I’m deeply ambivalent about the new book by Grossman and Hopkins and the associated arguments in general. (Admittedly, this is not a new point from me)
On the one hand, Grossman and Hopkins are the first in decades, since the pioneering work by Mayhew back in 1960s, to recognize that there is something asymmetric about the Democrats and Republicans, and how they organize themselves. I think this is critical: we theorize too much about “the party” in the abstract and expect the same from them, implicitly, or even explicitly presuming that there is only one way for a party to organize. This is a mistake. A useful point of comparison, indeed, might be various theories of oligarchy from Marx onward, discussed in this article. (from an admittedly “political source,” but a very well-informed discourse nevertheless). The significant point is that, as circumstances change, the nature of those who wield power, their motivations, and their strategies change, and with these changes comes a divergence in what takes place.
But a decade after the work exploring the differences between the parties, Mayhew seemingly changed his tune completely, authoring a book that seemingly dismissed parties. Did he change his mind? He did not, I think. He simply reached the logical extension of his original argument, abstracting beyond the politics of 1950s and 60s. The key difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in 1950s and 60s was that the Democrats depended on a much less oligarchical organization that emphasized uniform distribution of the benefits from party rule: everyone who made up the Democratic coalition got a piece of the pie, and as consequence, everyone was expected to cooperate. The distribution scheme extended not only to the tangible, divisible benefits like pork barrel projects, but also to matters of policy and associated collective reputation: too controversial policy may promote reputation for some, but not for others, and as such, they were to be avoided as much as possible. For the sake of coalitional unity, even the oddballs who made up a relative minority within the party were to be given veto power over party policy, even when the majority of the party might desire a change. Thus, the significant but still relatively small conservative wing of the Democratic Party was able to frustrate the larger liberal wing for decades. Mayhew notes this wryly in the conclusion of his 1966 work: even if the Democrats may be the “dominant” party in Congress, its ability to articulate and accomplish what it “wants” is constrained. I suppose the same argument is repeated by Rohde and Aldrich, but with a wholly different connotation. For Mayhew, the absence of a clear party policy is by design, brought about by a deliberate attempt to reconcile the the internal divisions and maintain the party cohesion. For the latter, it is simply a sign of weakness. These interpretations imply a different interpretations (that are not logically different in essence) of what took place next: when the internal balance began to shift in the Democratic Party, the liberals saw their conservative copartisans as a stumbling block who were frustrating their policy goals who had to be gotten rid of, and the so-called party reforms accomplished exactly that. In a sense, assuming that parties are naturally coalitions for making policy (which Mayhew, and a long tradition in political research preceding him, did not accept, incidentally) this was a manifestration of party “strength,” the coalition becoming what it should be. If a party is to be viewed as a coalition to win elections everywhere, means that the Democrats decided to commit a partial suicide by losing elections in 1/3 to 1/4 of their districts. Of course, a party can be both: the choice by the liberal Democrats in 1970s and beyond was that they would rather have policy than win elections. In order to bring this change about, of course, the leadership had to change: the party reforms came about after a successful coup against Speaker McCormack and his hostility to the liberal “troublemakers” who interfered his wish to deal “fairly” with all factions.
This inclusive coalitional strategy captures the the change in Mayhew’s perspective: by 1974, there was only one party left in Congress that encompassed all as its sub-factions. The Democrats were so dominant that the Congressional Republicans were really just another faction. This was unacceptable to the liberals who, for the sake of “fair dealing,” had to make concessions not only to the Democratic conservatives, but to the “Republicans” as well. This broad cooperation was unnecessary and was getting in the way of policymaking. Thus the reform, to kick the dissenters out of the Democratic coalition.
Incidentally, this was the difference between the 1960s Democrats and Republicans. People like Rayburn and McCormack built and maintained the Democratic coalition by treating all Democrats fairly, as long as they played nice with other Democrats, without imposing ideological requirements: liberals and conservatives, segregationists and civil rightsmen, union busters and union men, reform politicians and machine hacks were all welcome–as long as they didn’t fight each other. They would all get something, but not so much that they would cut into others’ “fair share.” This was, of course, why the “liberals” in the Democratic Party were getting frustrated by 1970s. Republicans, at least by mid 1950s, no longer bothered with coalition building (They may have adopted a broader coalition building strategy, however, in 1920s, Mayhew speculates, when their de facto ranks included people like Robert LaFollett, and when the formal power of the leadership was effectively ruined in the aftermath of the revolt against Speaker Cannon in 1910). At least by 1950s, Republican were defined by a certain set of collective policy positions on which they mostly agreed on and the belief that any power that their leaders wielded should be used to advance them. Those who did not share these views had no business signing on with the Republicans, since they would get no opportunity to influence policy and would have trouble dispelling the Republican reputation vis-a-vis voters anyways. This, of course, according to Mayhew, was why the Republicans of 1950s could not be, at least in Congressional context, the “dominant” party–the narrow but focused worldview could not win elections in a diverse array of settings.
Fast forward to 2016, neither party looks much like the diverse Democratic Party of 1950s and 60s. The Democrats cannot compete in rural Midwest or the South, for example–even in House elections. While gerrymandering has played a role, that is not the only factor. The very “diversity” in the Democratic Party is misleading: it is the diversity of “multiculturalism,” associated with a single end of the political spectrum. Let us not forget that, in 1960, Democratic candidates won votes from African Americans in Harlem and the Klansmen in Mississippi alike. That’s the real political diversity, the one that counts for elections. In other words, parties today look essentially like the Republicans of 1960–they are both exclusive coalitions, that systematically kick out dissidents who interfere with the collective pursuit of policy. In order to achieve this, they are organized at a top down level, where the ability of the factions to systematically veto the collective policy goals (the key component of the old Democratic Party–and what frustrated the liberals so mightily) is nearly nonexistent. Since the power is so concentrated at the center, the intraparty struggle for capturing this power, fight by factions within each party to dominate other factions, occupies the center stage of politics.
The last point is the significant dimension of what sets modern politics in Congress apart from that of the past, I think. It is taken for granted, by all factions involved, that “Democrats” and “Republicans,” and the associated factions thereof, will never cooperate. So as long as one faction can dominate the machinery of one party, and that one party controls the majority of the seats in a chamber of Congress, the winning faction in the majority party, however small, will have the whole power of the chamber to itself. But this works as long as the interparty disagreement and non-cooperation can be taken for granted. Congressional politics of 1880s through 1910 seemed to be such: enough that David Brady called it, when he was writing about Congress in 1970s, “the partisan era.” The era came to a sudden halt in 1910 when the Republican insurgents of the Progressive wing, who got fed up with their own leaders, decided to remove their powers and reorganize Congress by enlisting help from the Democrats. How significant was this change, though? That is less obvious: parties themselves did not reorganize–the interparty divisions were such that the Republican insurgents did not want to be Democrats, and the Democrats did not want them. While the power of Congressional leadership was severely cut down, the Republican party machinery remained powerful enough that the insurgents were essentially hunted down and driven out of Congress in the next election. While this cost the Republicans Congress for the next decade, they were back by 1920 or so. On the other hand, as Mayhew observed, the Republicans of 1920s was a very different coalition from that in 1910, run in a far less centralized manner with little care for developing a clear collective reputation, at least at the Congressional level.
I don’t think, if a comparable change is to take place today, the locus will be in Congress: it is unlikely that enough potential “rebels” for either party would be elected given the nature of elections today. That such a rebel coalition might form at the popular electoral level, rallying behind an outsider who might take advantage, is and, in a sense, has always been a distinct possibility: the election of 1912 being the closest real life case, where the same coalition that broke the Republican leaders’ power in the House also rallied behind Theodore Roosevelt’s third party bid. (I don’t think the other third party runs, from Henry Wallace to Ross Perot, are quite comparable–they did not emerge from the fundamental scleroticization of the party politics as did the Bull Moosers). In this sense, it is significant that the 2016 rebels, Trump and Sanders, sought to fight it out on the partisan stage, rather than the usual third party route: they were cognizant of the problems arising from the way both parties operate today, that the similarly centralized organization was leaving great many latent party supporters alienated and frustrated by their exclusivist operations. This contrasts with the usual third party run where the candidate seeks to draw in the voters who are alienated by the parties, rather than alienated partisans. This applies more to Trump than Sanders: Trump drew a rather significant chunk of his support from the voters who claimed to be “Repbulicans,” notwithstanding his claim to be drawing from moderates and Democrats (not that this necessarily makes his claim “untrue,” in the sense that many of these voters were not typical Republicans who actually vote, indicating a high degree of dissatisfaction with the status quo–but most of them did identify themselves as Republicans nevertheless), while roughly half of Sanders’ support came from independents (still, this signifies far larger discontent within the Democratic coalition than what Grossman and Hopkins might acknowledge). Basically, it’s the Republicans in the electorate (or a large proportion thereof) that don’t like their party. (although, by the same token, it’s also the other Republicans who don’t care much for Trump.)
The implication of this, of course, is that while the parties might be increasingly dysfunctional, with the “insiders” (whoever that might be–since the insiders will only be just one smallish faction taking over the whole centralized power of the entire party) and the rest growing, the electoral arena, at the present at least, may not be a good venue for the frustrated partisans to let their dissatisfaction known. The prospects for a party reform of the kind that took place after the revolt against Cannon in 1910, in which a more inclusive coalition might be built instead of an exclusivist one, are dwindling, for the reform, necessarily, will have to be carried out by the insiders themselves. It will take a coalition of “outsiders” who may not agree among themselves much, but none of which singly has prospect at taking the power all for itself. They might each accept half a glass, with some form of vetoes for all, rather than a full glass that they control unilaterally. Such outsiders are hard to find because becoming the insiders has become too easy, even for small factions. Ironically, nominally powerful though the party leadership might be, it is also disturbingly easy to capture, seeing as that it is backed up only by a tiny faction itself usually–something analogous to a lot of third world dictatorships: a few dozen mercenaries–or some hoodlums meeting at a beer hall–in the capital are enough to overthrow the government and capture the dictatorial powers. (This may be yet another difference between the Democrats and Republicans–Democratic leadership tends to rest on a broader, more stable coalition, while Republican leaderships are weak, unstable, and rest on flimsy coalitions.)
The bottom line is that both parties are in similar institutional trouble, arising from analogous factors, although things do seem far worse for the Republicans, if only because they were committed to a narrower but deeper coalition much earlier on. The paradoxes of party government are crushing them both. Prospects for reforms to reverse the trend seem difficult.
PS. Somewhat simpler way of summing up my argument is to invoke what someone (whose argument those who know me in real life would recognize) called “dictator’s paradox.” Every ruler needs allies to govern, and each ally places constraints on the ability of the ruler to do as he or she pleases. Thus, in a sense, a dictator with the fewest allies has the greatest freedom of action–and in this sense, is the most powerful. But, the ability of the ruler to both actually obtain compliance from the subjects and to survive over a long time is also a function of how many allies he or she can call upon. A ruler with many allies will be able to actually accomplish more and survive for longer, even if he or she will face more constraints in coming up with a program that the allies will find acceptable. This general idea is applicable to any political system, of course, and allows for multiple equilibria, depending on how much risk the “ruler” is willing to take on, while trading off with respect to the “program.” For those to whom the risk of losing power, or not having any access to it, is serious, sacrificing the program for more allies is not a great loss.
The Republicans in 1970s were happy to be Demcorats’ subordinates because defeating Democrats in Congressional elections seemed impossible. The Democrats built an inclusive coalition in mid 20th century because losing either the South or the unions was incompatible with their continued hold on power. By mid 1980s and certainly by 1990s, things changed: many Democrats were willing to cast off members of their old coalition both because they were less necessary electorally and many Democrats needed policy accomplishments for their electoral credibility; because of the changes in the Democrats’ internal organization, they became more vulnerable, opening up opportunity for the Republicans to take the whole enchilada, rather than play a subordinate role–or, play a “tax collector for the welfare state,” to quote Newt Gingrich, who, to his credit, recognized the self-inflicted Democratic vulnerability.
The trouble, of course, is that, now that both parties began to exclusivize, can they reform an inclusivist coalition? Both have incentives: both are oddly internally contradictory lot, with the affluent and well-educated lot playing a pivotal role (in the political science sense), and the less well-to-do divided along the cultural lines: many whites on the Republican side and the minorities on the Democratic side. Let’s be honest: both rely on cultural appeals that are largely exclusivist in character, while, at the same time, playing the same economic tune, to compete for the affluent. A large number of voters who don’t care for the “culture wars” but are not affluent are left out of the loop (also largely whites, if only for the fact that more than 2/3 of the US population is made up of whites still). (I think many of these voters were Sanders voters.) The trouble, I think, is that, as the political conflict continues on the premise of consensus on the economy (or race for the alleged median) and divisions on the culture, these voters will be forced to make a cultural choice and potentially legitimize the sort of divisive politics that we might want to avoid. That’s my two cents.
PPS. What makes the present multicultural coalition of the Democrats and the old Democratic coalition different? Right now, if the Klansmen and the Civil Rightmen were both in the Democratic coalition somehow, it will always be the Klansmen who will have to make concessions, because their side is “obviously wrong” by the modern standards of “inclusiveness” (which itself becomes paradoxical.) The Democratic Party of 1950s would not have seen things that way: the party will not stand behind the Klansmen if they want to hurt the interests of the Civil Rightsmen beyond the status quo, but they will not allow the Civil Rightsmen to hurt the Klan beyond the status quo either. So the Jim Crow stays in the South, but it will be protected in the South. Cynical political ploy, perhaps? But it allowed the Democrats to keep them both. If this logic seems wrong, or perhaps even incomprehensible to the modern audience, that will be precisely why the old Democratic-type coalition might be gone for good in today’s politics.
In a sense, of course, this is why states’ rights was so critical in 1850s, then again in 1950s: it was the device that indicated the commitment of the national political actors to let the constituent factions maintain the status quo. But in 1850s and earlier, things became worse because of the Southern willingness to bend this commitment to their own advantage–the Mexican-American War, attempts at pro-slavery foreign policy, fugitive slave laws that intruded on Northern states’ rights, and Dred Scott, among others. These came about because of their belief that slave was property and property was “right.” (both “a” right and “right,” in a sense.) Or, in other words, uncritical association of moral righteousness to a political position.
Morality should never be allowed to enter politics if the goal is to maintain a pacted, contractural coalition, if only for complications of this sort. This, of course, is not easy. For most people, morality, rather than the contractural fine prints, take precedence: Corporations are not people, and all that. Not surprising that successful coalitions are not so easy to maintain and are invariably “corrupt,” at least as people see them.