, Research Paper
American Political Parties decline and resurganceFew elements of the American political process have changed as much inrecent years as the major political parties. For most Americans, politicalparties are essentially the government office-holders or aspiringoffice-holders who carry the party label at elections. Parties were notmentioned in the Constitution nor were they anticipated by its framers backin 1787. However two major parties – The Democrats and The Republicans -did come to the fore and it is my intention to prove that, after a centuryof rapid social and economic change, they continue to be an integral partof the political process and are still of meaning to most Americans.In assessing party strengths and weaknesses and their decline we mustrecognize that parties have to operate in diverse social circumstances,within the doctrine of separation of powers and a Federalist system ofgovernment. Parties tend, therefore, to be broadly based coalitions ofinterests; organized in a decentralized way as opposed to the ratherdisciplined hierarchical structure of many of their European counterparts. Parties are seen as manifold entities, attempting to select candidates forofficial positions, promote certain objectives and policies and strive togain government power (Epstein, 1986). Successfully operating within theAmerican system are two major political parties, the Democratic Party andthe Republican Party, and as we shall see the labels Democratic andRepublican continue to mean something to most Americans. In this essay Ishall examine some of the characteristics and functions of American partiesand focus upon the rise of candidate-centered campaigns and, wherepossible, show whether or not the party has declined. Party renewal will bediscussed in the latter part of this essay.Party decline primarily refers to a reduction in the importance of party asa determinant of voters’ decisions. In the U.S. a voter in any givenPresidential election year may have to cast a ballot for the Presidency, aU.S. Senator, a Member of the House, State Legislature, Local and Countyofficials. Coupled with this ballot complexity, complications associatedwith demographic diversity have, since the 1960s led towards electoralfracture. This fracture has manifested itself in three main ways vis- -visparty decline: the Party in the electorate, the Party in organization andthe Party in Government. The growth in the number of independents tends toconvey the sense that voters are alienated from the major parties and thatthey believe that they need to look elsewhere to gain meaningfulrepresentation. The electorate are now less inclined to identify witheither of the two major parties; with the percentage of people identifyingwith the two major parties dropping from 80% in the 1950s to 70% in the1980s – indeed one third of the electorate are now classified asindependent (Epstein, 1986). As a result of weakened party identificationthere has been a decline in straight ticket voting (this is voting for acandidate from the same party for all the offices on the ballot). Ticketsplitting between Presidential and House candidates increased from 12% to34% in the period 1952-1980 and had been on an upward trend until the 1980swhen it leveled off at around 20% for both kinds of ticket splitters. Congressional split election results have become more common in theAmerican voting pattern, that is, in seats where one party won thePresidential race but lost the Congressional race (Wattenberg, 1994).The problem for party leaders is that they are expected to promote anddevelop party unity, but are given few reasons to do so. In most Westerndemocracies the ability of party leaders to control the legislative processis predicated upon the support of a unified political party where partycohesion is strong, but, in the U.S. this has not been the case.In 1903-4 for example, 90% of the Republicans voted against 90% ofDemocrats on 64% of the total roll calls in the 58th Congress (Epstein,1986). Today there is an apparent lack of party unity in the United Stateswhich is in sharp contrast to the British system. A possible explanationfor this is that in The House of Commons the party leadership can imposesanctions on errant members, such sanctions are not available to leaders inthe American Congress. Therefore, it is difficult to hold together thevarious stages of the legislative process, or to promote a rigid partyline, which reduces substantially the chances of sustained periods oflegislative activism and legislative success. The consequence of suchdeadlock is that the political system has divided control at both theFederal and the State level .It has been argued that ticket splitting makes it more difficult for eitherparty to impose its will and assert itself on its own party values and onpolicies pursued. It is this peeling away of a collective responsibilitytowards the pursuit of individual legislation that is most evident in thevoters’ behavior and complements the tendency for ticket splitting by thevoter. This leads to disenchantment, and this has grown into cynicism aboutgetting acceptable government from either party.Electoral fracture has impinged on the importance of incumbency of the socalled personal vote. The incumbency re-election votes have hovered between90-94% for the House, 90% for the State legislature, and 65% (1976) to 93%(1982) in Senate elections. This would seem to indicate that the weaker theparty ties, the greater the personal vote. It is thus important for theincumbent to stress personal achievements rather than those of the party;as a result the party then becomes distant, voters think less of theirparty and turn round their voting choices. In addition, one could alsoattribute lack of party identification to a similarity in ideology betweenthe two parties in that, until the mid 1960s to early 1980s, neither partyoffered a clear-cut alternative; there was no collective reference point ora benchmark to adhere to or develop from. People were therefore ambivalenttowards the parties. Since the mid 1980s, however, the Republican Party hasbecome more focused and conservative in its posture. Clear differences interms of government regulation of business, social policy and budgetdeficits became noticeable during Reagan’s presidency.Epstein also refers to the concept of the youthful cohort of voters who areless likely to identify with the old party label and who have become morevolatile in their loyalties – thus offering a generational explanation ofparty decline, where these changes led to the replacement of partysupporters who lived through the Great Depression and New Deal (1930’s).Party decline can also be seen within the party organization. At the turnof the century business leaders were to the forefront in seeking to weakenand reduce the party machine by reducing the symbolic strength of the partywithin the American political system. By the 1970s more than three quartersof all States used non-partisan ballots in elections. The second bout ofreform spawned a number of institutional changes; with the introduction ofthe direct primary being the most important one.The demise of organizational strength and the disaggregation of theirelectoral base contributed substantially to the rise and persuasiveness ofindividualism among candidates running for office. One could argue thatAmerican parties now have more grass than roots, given the fickleness ofparty allegiance. Citizens are now conceptualizing issues only in terms ofcandidates, and less in party terms. Whilst the Party still stands forbroad principles, when it comes to specific policies, candidates standaloof from the parties. So in this sense, yes, the candidate centeredcampaign has obscured the enduring strength of the Party. Indeed Peele, etal (1992), alludes to this point; that strong leadership overshadows theparties and hence issues become further personalized and personified. Sovisible was this that in the period 1952-1980 a contest betweenPresidential candidates and political parties took place when a series of
strong candidates contributed to the erosion of the electoral importance ofparties, thus reinforcing the rise of candidate-centered campaigns over thepast thirty years.This transition from a party-dominated system of campaign politics to acandidate-centered one during the mid twentieth century further weakenedthe parties, especially at the level of local party organization where mostof the parties’ activities had previously been conducted. This is evidencedby the fact that since 1968 the proportion of conventions’ delegatesselected via primary elections has risen from one third to four fifths,showing us that nomination of candidates is heavily dependent onaccumulation of primary votes. Therefore the party, as an institution, isbeing pushed out of the public spotlight (Wattenberg, 1994).The direct primaries, new regulations, a new civil service structure andother reforms deprived party bosses of their ability to hand pick potentialnominees and reward party workers with government posts and contracts, thusreducing the traditional party role. In addition social mobility,education, declining immigration and growing national identity contributedto the dilution of the closely knit, ethnic neighbourhoods that spawned thecore of the party machine, depriving local Party Committees of their coresupport. The collective effort of such changes meant that electoralpolitics were shifting from a manpower intensive, party-focused system intoa candidate-centred money driven enterprise.Prior to the 1970s, Political Action Committees (P.A.C.s) played a minorrole, but they have increasingly been providing candidates with a greatershare of their campaign funds. P.A.C.s’ contributions in 1982 accounted for30% of money given to general election candidates for the House, and 17 %of the money given to candidates for the Senate; effectively making themthe second largest source of campaign contributions. P.A.C.s challenged thetraditional party functions of recruiting candidates, helping candidatesdevise strategies for campaigns and the mobilisation of votes – againobscuring the parties’ relevance. So much so that during the period1950-1980 neither party could claim full credit for the nations’achievements nor accept responsibility for any failures (Peele et.al,1992).It has been argued that the party in government suffers from overload, inthat the increased democratisation of American society has inhibited thedecision making process where failure to provide coherent programmes and alack of compromise between Congress and the Presidency tends to negate therelevance of the party. Congressional majorities are limited substantiallyin power, given the bicameral system, and the majority group often has toreject Presidential initiatives, as to accept them would recognisePresidential prowess and thus indirectly support his re-election, and vice-versa. This does convey to us the structural constraint of the separationof powers, with parties unable to suppress candidate-centred politics andtheir campaigns.The campaigns themselves have been transformed by the mass-media. Since the1960’s the media have become the primary link between voter and candidate. Many voters evaluate candidates in personal terms more than in terms ofissues. With careful use of the media the candidate has a good opportunityto change voter perception. Television in particular plays a large role increating candidate impressions and rarely do T.V. advertisements mention acandidates’ party affiliation; their prime focus is on personal attributes. A lessening of party influence can also be seen in the way campaigns aremanaged, where aspiring candidates are now counselled by an elite group ofspecialists and professionals. These individuals are accountable to theiremployers – the candidates – and not the nations’ citizens or votingpublic. As Rousseau would put it, the particular will (the elite) willprevail over the general will (the electorate). Epstein (1986), however,argues that many candidates run a campaign based on personal appeal ratherthan party appeal, yet they are financed and resourced by the party. Therefore, parties do play an important role, even in candidate-centredcampaigns.The first attempt at party reform came in the McGovern-Fraser Committee of1967, and later commissions opened up the process to the rank- and-filemembers thus leading to increases in size and representation. The embryo ofDemocratic reform developed from a progressive movement leading to theproliferation of Presidential primaries and to the lengthening of theparty’s selection process. The Republican Party adopted a similar reformprogramme which was foisted upon them by Democratic Governments andDemocrat-controlled legislatures. Reforms made it difficult for partyregulars to actually attend State or National Party Conventions, thusincreasing the signifance of issues and encouraging candidate activists toplay a bigger role in the politics of the party. The Democratic NationalCommittee was given the power to require State Party Committees to conductparty activities in compliance with National Party rules, copperfasteningthe flow of authority; with flows up from local and State Party Committeesand down from the National Committee and National Convention thusinvigorating, enhancing, and adding coherency to National State/Partyrelations.The emphatic trouncing of the Republicans in the 1974 and 1976 electionsheralded in party renewal for the Republicans. These changes weresubstantially influenced by the candidate-centred nature of Americanelections. The emphasis now in both parties was to assist their candidatescampaign rather than replace them. The domination of Federal elections byparties was now impossible through the Federal Election Campaign Act(F.E.C.A.) of 1974 which limited party expenditure on candidates, thusreinforcing the candidate-centredness of American elections.Party renewal led to the reconstruction of the party organisation; theywere now fiscally solvent, more diversified and more professional. However,P.A.C. fundraising accounted for the final source of party revenue andcontributed substantially towards the organisational and infrastructuralinvestment of the party. Party roles have now changed through the reforms,the new-found strength and modernisation, candidate recruitment, campaignfinance and recruitment for the House and Senate, State and local offices. The party organisation has become more cohesive and high-profile inCongressional elections. These changes have taken place within thecandidate-centred system but have not reduced its relevance. Epstein(1986), however sounds a cautionary note and argues that the increasedpolitical role of financial resources cannot of itself account for thedevelopment and rise of candidate-centred politics as a substitution forparty decline. Reform and renewal have indeed changed the role of theParty, however, many Americans still retain Democratic and Republicanidentification.Partisanship has declined substantially from the perspective of its abilityto structure the vote. Ticket splitting has increased with only a smallmajority of the electorate now actually believing that they should votestrictly on the basis of party labels. Though having become less central invoting decisions, parties do provide cues for voters even in the absence ofcandidate-centered appeals. Decline is obviously visible but not to theextent that Wattenberg (1994) argues. They have changed their roles and nowperform different functions differently. It is precisely this adaptiveelement, which could well be the parties’ strength in the dynamic of theAmerican political process. Parties are now more organized and have betterresources, but the authority of the party still depends on the support ofthe incumbent President. The major objective for the party is to help electindividual candidates rather than promote policy; there will still be alimitation on their development and authority in the sense that thecandidate-centered election system is unlikely to be overturned by partyactivities.BIBLIOGRAPHYPeele, G., et. al. [eds.], 1992: Developments in American Politics,Basingstoke: Macmillan.Epstein, L., 1986: Political Parties in the American Mould, London:University of Wisconsin Press.Wattenberg, M., 1994: Decline of American Political Parties 1952-1988,Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.