Friday, October 2, 2009

Party Networks, Rush & Co., and the GOP

John Sides has a terrific post up the Monkey Cage laying out some of the theories-of-parties basis for understanding the conflict breaking out in earnest this week between Rush, Glenn Beck, John McCain and his campaign operatives, Lindsey Graham, David Brooks, and others. John's question is:
Do Beck, Limbaugh, and their kindred sit outside of a political party, as Graham suggests, or are they essentially part of a political party?
John talks about two theories of party. For John Aldrich, parties are creatures of office-seekers. Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller disagree; from a party network perspective, they see parties as conspiracies of policy-seekers ("intense policy demanders" -- see also Bawn, Cohen, Karol Masket, Noel and Zaller 2005). I'll add to that Hans' comments to John Sides:

I’d say that Beck and Limbaugh are “ideologues.” One thing ideologues do is tie issues together…the way they do influence people is they convince partisans that all of their issues are important ones. So when cultural conservatives start fretting about socialism, that’s coming from the ideological link between social conservatism and economic conservatism.In a pithy diagram,

I’d say ideologues —> policy demanders —> political party platforms.
OK, my turn now. My analysis is also from a party networks perspective, and what I find is that the answer isn't one or the other -- it's both, and more. Parties are made up of all of these things, and other overlapping categories (that is, someone can belong to more than one of these groups). So we have office-seeking politicians; benefit-seeking traditional interest groups; activists, who may be benefit-seekers but might be after more symbolic benefits (such as changes in abortion policy, as opposed to subsidies for a business); campaign and governing professionals, who have their own sets of incentives; party officials and functionaries, who have yet another set of incentives; ideologues; and perhaps others.

In my view, there's nothing inherent in the notion of a political party that determines which of these groups, and which of these sets of incentives, will prevail. Instead, they're all part of the party, and the particular rules of the game, relevant institutions, and political context will determine which sets of incentives predominate for any particular party at any specific time. So with one particular set of institutions, rules, and context you wind up with a party that empowers bureaucratized functionaries, while with another you get a party that empowers classic machine politicians, or lone-wolf entrepreneurs of another type. Sometimes the changes happen by deliberate design, and sometimes the changes happen because technology or other institutions change, or as unintended consequences of poorly thought out deliberate design.

While a real study would need to actually demonstrate it, for a blog post I'm comfortable saying that of course Rush Limbaugh is a member, and an important one at that, of the Republican party (I'm not quite as certain about Beck, but I think more generally Fox News is safely within the Republican network).

Moreover, if my basic idea of parties is correct, then it's certainly possible that in this particular time, with its particular rules of the game and institutions and political context, Republicans have a real problem. There's something about the current situtation that empowers those within the Republican party network who have incentives for the party to lose elections and/or hold nutty beliefs, and minimizes the influence of those who have incentives to win elections and hold reasonable policy views.

Now, what those things are is only, as far as I can see, in the speculation stage. Yes, it's easy to see that Rush is going to maximize his ratings when he says crazy stuff while Democrats are in office. But what is it about parties right now, or at least Republicans right now, that tends to empower Rush & Co. at the expense of, say, doctors (as a policy-seeking GOP-leaning group), or politicians (as an office-seeking GOP group). Or, what is it that causes some of those groups to act contrary to the roles we would expect them to play, like the Chamber of Commerce preferring fact-denying ideology at the expense of the interests of its members, or Joe Wilson preferring the benefits of controversy, even at the very possible cost of his House seat.

Those are the questions that, in my view, party scholars would be smart to be answering.

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