Thursday, November 5, 2009

NY-23 and Parties 3: The Party Label

Returning to David Karol's guest post on NY-23 at the Monkey Cage. David concludes by saying:
Finally, the fact that the party label cut so little ice with voters has two implications: it supports claims that the scope of “party revival” has been overestimated at least in terms of affect and allegiance and suggests that party identification, which in many formulations is distinct from ideology, is probably not all that it is cracked up to be in the literature.
I think he's on to something here, but I'm really not sure how best to think about it.

Let's see...

On the one hand, what happened in NY-23 is, I'm confident, best thought of as a fight within the Republican Party. It was in the first instance between local formal party organization officials and national ideologues, professional communicators, and party-aligned interest groups, although some national Republicans entered on the side of the local officials. All of these actors are part of the expanded Republican party; they are part of Republican networks, or the Republican team. The people who would eventually decide that fight -- the Republican voters of NY-23 -- mattered, and could be fought over in the way they were fought over, precisely because they were Republicans. They watch Fox News, and listen to Rush, and know who Beck is; they may be NRA members, or be on right-to-life mailing lists.

But at the same time, these voters don't necessarily think of themselves as Republicans. Some do. Others may think of themselves as independent conservatives, or as Tea Partiers, or some other label. Now, I think it makes sense for us as outsiders to treat them as Republicans, because they behave as if they were hard-core Republicans, whatever they call themselves (and the same applies to Democrats). It is probably, and here's what David Karol is getting at, worthwhile to remember that there might be some important consequences of the complexity of their self-identity. For one, they don't seem to be particularly loyal to the party label! Now, to me that doesn't mean that they aren't acting as Republicans; they are, after all, following GOP-affiliated opinion leaders (Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh) when they cast those votes. It just means that things are a bit more complicated than a simple party strength picture might look.

Back in my dissertation, I talked about this a bit. I absolutely believe that parties right now are quite strong, and in part my diss was about the ways that parties are strong that traditional party scholars missed (that's the party network stuff). What I did note, however, is that there is one category in which contemporary parties are really weak, which is the realm of symbols and rituals. Are there "Republican" songs? Not patriotic songs that Republicans shout out to prove their patriotism (as do Democrats, with a similar, overlapping group of songs), but real Republican songs? The Democrats have "Happy Days are Here Again," but that belongs to a long-ago generation; beyond that, there's nothing. There's the donkey and the elephant, which have been surprisingly (if you think about it) persistent over time, but other than that...the only thing I can really think of that's pretty explicitly Republican is Reagan worship. The Democrats don't even have that; as Matt Yglesias comments today, Democrats have Jefferson-Jackson dinners, which is all well and good and, as far as I can tell, meaningless to 99% of all Democrats.

So one way to think about the Tea Parties is that there are a whole lot of people who objectively appear to be Republicans but in fact would feel silly rallying for Republicans, so they're up for something that is a Republican Party rally disguised as a whole new set of rituals that are careful not to call attention to it's Republican party origins. And that would be equally true on the other side of the aisle.

And that's all I have on this; I think it's interesting, but I'm not really sure what to make of it. If I had to summarize, I guess I'd say that we have strong parties, but one point of weakness is the symbols and rituals of party.

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