Friday, January 27, 2012


Andrew Sullivan took aim earlier this week at the notion that there's any "Republican establishment" out there to stand up to Newt Gingrich:
I'm not sure what this phrase means or represents any more - the Chamber of Commerce? John Boehner? The Bush family? But the concept of a responsible, sane, pragmatic party leadership able to corral or coax or manage a party's base is, it seems to me, a preposterous fiction on its face, as we are seeing. The Republican Establishment is Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin.
Andrew Sprung called this "a crowbar to the political scientists' notion of a Republican 'party establishment.'" I should take a minute to explain where I stand on this.

I try very hard not to use the word "establishment," precisely because I have no idea what it means. Nor do I think that "insider" vs. "outsider" is usually a useful category. In normal politics, people use those labels as part of the rhetoric of intraparty (and interparty for that matter) competition, which is interesting in terms of political culture and public opinion but tells us little about influence within parties. What I talk about are party actors, and (less often and more problematically) party leaders. I can't speak for all political scientists on this one, but that's who we should be talking about, in my view. These party actors include a lot of people: politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists, formal party officials and staff, leaders of party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan press.

Some of those may be in the working majority of the party; some may not be. There's no theoretical reason to believe that everyone within any category will agree on anything, nor that people will agree across categories. That is, a party may have a situation in which the activists lean one way and the Washington-based politicians and others lean the other, but it's equally possible that activists will be split, or campaign professionals will be split, etc. Nor is there any theoretical expectation, in my view -- and here I differ from others who think about parties, I believe -- that one or another of these groups will be the most influential. In other words, I don't think that parties are "really" their politicians, or "really" the interest group which align with them, or "really" their formal organizations. Instead, I believe that any of those are possible, and that it's an empirical question which portion of the party is most influential in any particular time and place.

With me so far? What I'm saying is that influence within political parties is at least potentially contested, and nominations -- especially for the highest office -- are where those fights, fights which define what the party is, take place. Of course, sometimes there's no fight because everyone, or most everyone, agrees. When that's the case, it's very hard for us to see who is actually more influential. At other times, there are fights, and then we can get a better sense of who wields influence, but it can be extremely hard to study this stuff, because it's not a simple matter of casting votes or other easily counted indicators. Some party actors give money. Others make public endorsements. But some exert their influence in less visible ways, such as by spreading overall impressions of candidates within the party network. That's the kind of thing that's hard to get at without a lot of careful work. Remember, even the people involved may have inaccurate perceptions of who has the most influence.

Now, back to "Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin." Are they the most powerful players in the Republican Party? We don't know! We certainly know that if the GOP-aligned partisan press is united against a candidate in a nomination fight, that candidate will lose; after all, most GOP primary voters get most of their information from the partisan press, and believe what they hear. But that's not enough to tell us that Rush and Ailes are the critical players here. We don't know how much autonomy any individual talk show host, or even the head of Fox News, has, and it's very difficult at best to figure it out. I'm certain that they're not all-powerful, that there are at powerful constraints preventing them from just choosing on their own. After all, there's a death sentence that the party can pronounce on any of them: Not Conservative. RINO. But of course that's begging the question: who gets to declare someone else Not Conservative? Who can do it and have it stick?

So: certainly, Rush and Fox News are highly visible actors within the GOP, and certainly, they do a lot to originate or spread the ways that Republicans talk about things. Who exactly has the most influence within the party, however, is a much more complicated question. It's not best answered, in my view, by focusing only on the most visible actors, nor by positing that there's an "establishment/insurgent" split -- the latter just doesn't seem to fit very well.

When it comes to claims from me and others that (as Cohen et al. put it) The Party Decides, what we're saying -- at least what I'm saying -- is not that a party establishment trumps other party actors. It's that party actors are more important than the other players in the process: the (neutral) press; rank-and-file voters; and the candidates themselves, at least thought of as individual actors outside of the party (one way that the party controls things is through the transformation of self-interested candidates into party-oriented candidacies). That wasn't especially true for a variety of reasons, in my view, in the immediate post-reform era, at least on the Democratic side (that is, in the 1972 and 1976 cycles), which among other things reminds us that it doesn't always have to work that way. But by the 1984 cycle and going forward, it seems to be the case. It just isn't plausible these days for a candidate who is opposed by a sufficient number of sufficiently important party actors, whether individuals or groups, to get a nomination, no matter how able that candidate is at appealing to voters. The party, collectively, just controls too many resources that are needed to win nominations, whether it's money, or positive publicity, or personnel.

Again, that doesn't preclude intraparty fights, or predict who will win those fights. And it doesn't mean that the views of rank-and-file voters are irrelevant: those voters are often the constituents of party actors, who therefore care what they want (they also are used by party actors as clues to a candidate's electibility, for better or worse). Recall, too, that parties are permeable; it's generally very easy for rank-and-file voters to become party actors, although of course how influential they'll be depends on lots of things.  But when we try to figure out what's up in these contests, the place to start is by thinking about where the party is. Not the mythical "establishment," whatever that is, but all of the party -- that is, all party actors. That's going to get us a lot farther down the road than any other form of analysis.


  1. Surely the Republican Party is drastically different from what it was 8 years ago, is all Sullivan or anyone is saying, and I'm not seeing how that is even debatable.

  2. I tend to think of the Republican Party Establishment as those big-money donors who are able to pull the strings. While Rush Limbaugh is certainly the voice of the Republican Party base, I'm not sure the Establishment really gives a crap about what the base wants, hence 8 years of deficit spending and big government under Bush The Lesser. Rush is a useful tool of the Establishment for distracting the rubes with Islamophobia and immigrant-bashing, and he's great at poisoning the base against anything liberal, but I wouldn't call him the Establishment. He gets tossed aside as soon as he crosses the line and threatens the GOPs hold on power.

    That's why Glenn Beck is off Fox right now. He was tarnishing "the brand."

    That's just how I see it.

  3. Perhaps in part in response to your prior post, I think everyone underestimates the importance of the contemporary finding in cognitive psychology that thinking follows language. That is, we all assume that we first establish an opinion about a matter, say global warming, and only later evaluate arguments for and against. Research pretty conclusively shows that the opposite is true: we hear particular individuals making an argument about an issue, and really irrespective of the truth value of those arguments, simply hearing them guides our opinions. (Its a great shame that this important research isn't more widely known; particularly when arguments blithely dismissing something like the fairness doctrine are advanced - Derek Besner at the University of Waterloo in Ontario is one of the important figures in this area).

    To the topic of party actors, perhaps it is helpful to recall that said actors have two agendas: first, of course, they want to push their own priorities, but second, and possibly just as importantly, they want to protect their status as party actors! Some party actors, perhaps say the Bushes, can say just about whatever they want and not worry about losing influence. Other actors of a more peripheral nature - think of a nervous Christine O'Donnell during the second Gingrich boomlet, having endorsed Romney - can easily have their status jeopardized by a bad public move. A fringe actor, today, would likely not endorse Gingrich, even if they really loved Gingrich and wanted him President, since Gingrich is increasingly dead money, and what fringe person would bring that upon themselves at this point?

    Tying this all together: the reason why the right wing partisan media matters (last post) is precisely because thinking follows language - even if no one believes this to be the case - and because (this post) any partisan mover not firmly entrenched is not going to go against the canon for fear of jeopardizing their status.

    How did the global warming hoax become the Republican canon? Because every visible talker said so. Was it true? Who cares? Cognitive science has pretty conclusively shown that to be irrelevant, and that's typical human information processing, not some particular weakness of the Republican brain.

  4. The only thing you get wrong in this post is 1972 and 1976. The heavy favorite won both those primaries too.

    Obama is the only upsetter in either party since I've been born, and he won it with substantial support from party actors and leaders.

    1. 1972 and 1976? I don't think so. Muskie, or perhaps Kennedy/Muskie/Humphrey, was the solid favorite in 1972. In 1976, other than Kennedy, there was no real favorite, but it surely wasn't Carter.

    2. Both Carter and McGovern consistently led in the polls and fundraising and were the favorites from the start.

      No politician portrays himself as the favorite if he can help it, and nobody in the media wants to further the narrative that the favorite always wins. So there's a cottage industry in declaring people to be "upsetters". E.g., Bill Clinton, who was the favorite 2 1/2 years before the election but managed to instill a narrative that he was an underdog. But if you actually look at the reporting that was done in 1971 and 1975, you'll see that McGovern and Carter were both seen as the likely nominees for the standard reasons.


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