Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What Parties Want

Everyone interested in political parties should read recent posts by Hans Noel and Greg Koger about what parties "really" want. Should we think of parties as ultimately interested in seeking and winning office? Or in ultimately controlling public policy?

I have a dog in this fight. I think both sides are (partially) wrong.

It's a mistake, in my view, to think of parties in such a way that they must ultimately be defined one way or another. It misses part of the essential nature of political parties, which is that they are open-ended: parties are creatures of their members, and of their political context (which includes such things as the rules of the political system, but also perhaps political culture), and therefore different parties at different times are interested in different things. Some will be driven by office; some by policy; some by organizational maintenance; some by profit.

For any given party, we can look at which of these motives tends to predominate. It's probably the case that we can generalize some, too. Within parties, politicians and others whose jobs depend on office will tend to be driven more by the election motive. Party-aligned interest groups and "amateur" activists will tend to be driven more by policy. Those within formal party organizations (the DNC, the NRCC) will tend to be motivated by institutional maintenance -- like government bureaucrats, they'll care more about maintaining their departmental and organizational budgets, and try to insulate themselves from either electoral defeat or public policy. The current US case is unusual comparatively and historically as far as I know, but it ads another potential group and motive. When party professionals are organized outside of formal organizations and become for-profit entrepreneurs (true of campaign consultants in US now; also presumably true of, say, Fox News), then the profit motive is involved, as well.

On the other hand, generalizations only take us so far. We think of politicians as motivated primarily by office, but Aldrich and others show that policy can really matter to them. In some situations, profit may as well; think of presidential candidates running for a Fox or MSNBC contract. Party-aligned interest groups may be in it for the policy...but it's not unheard of for organizational maintenance to be important within lobbying shops or PACs. For any particular party or party component, motivation is an empirical question -- and one that's hard to get at.

But putting that complication aside, part of the job of party students is to assess the factors which will make these various groups become more or less important within parties. What we know going in, however, is that parties differ, considerably, on which of these is more important -- and therefore we should expect "ultimate" party motivations to differ, as well. So no single study is going to tell us what "parties" or "politicians" or "interest groups" want, because we should expect all of those to differ over time and polity based on different political contexts.

Party scholars, too, could research the troubles associated with different parties as different motivations dominate, both in terms of the health of the polity and for democracy. So for example excessively bureaucratic parties may be problematic for democracy because they may be impermeable to anyone outside of the formal organization. Or, parties dominated by the profit motive may be dangerous if they wind up having incentives to lose elections.

I'm open, too, to other potential motives.

At any rate: I do think that this is the best way to think about parties, and that a lot of useful work could be done filling out the relationships I'm talking about here. I don't think we've done much of that within American party studies, and to the extent I'm aware of it (some, not nearly enough) the same holds true in comparative parties.


  1. Thanks for this clear post. I'm curious: How much of this party-studies research filters down into introductory political science courses that many/some journalists take in college (American Gov/Politics 101, etc)?

    1. PF: very little in most courses.

      PS 101 (whatever its called on any particular campus) often has to serve multiple masters. If it's an introduction to the entire field of PS, well, there's theory, methods, IR, comparative, and American (to name the big 5 fields, only). In such a beast, parties often get very little treatment at all, so getting into the details are tough, if only because the role of parties varies greatly from one system to another (never mind over time in many systems, like ours!)

      OK, so, assume it's the standard Intro to US course. The topic list there goes something like this: democracy, constitution, federalism, civil liberties, elections, media, interest groups, parties, voting behavior, Congress, presidency, judiciary, bureaucracy. If there's time, civil rights, policy making, or maybe using a specific policy to weave the whole thing together. Parties is IN there, sure, but in a typical class, you've got about 3 hours of lecture available to you for parties...maybe.

      Now, parties isn't the easiest subject to jump right in for neophytes, either. Our US parties, being so permeable and amorphic, require a lot of introduction, and some general familiarity with politics, to get into the kinds of discussions Jon, Hans & Greg are having.

      Fortunately, many institutions can get into these kinds of discussions (we have a class on American parties at my institution, for example) later. Your smaller institutions (with maybe 5 total PS faculty) can't do that, unless one faculty member really, really pushes to do it. Either way, if we're talking about "among PS majors," discussions like this can be decently common.

      Now, you want to make it worse? In very many institutions, PS 101 is general education. In mine, it's required, and there's no substitute, AND I have to cover California's government and constitution as well in there (Texas has similar requirements vis-a-vis their much so, that book publishers have separate "Texas editions" of their intro textbooks).

      Now, want to make it EVEN worse? The students that walk in the door at an institution like mine......Well, I'll put it this way: 1% of all students, in one essay or another on the final, will claim that the Senate is appointed by the president. The vast majority on day one think they have a direct vote for president, and claim to have never heard of the Electoral College.

      The simple truth is that, at a large state school, you're very likely dealing with a case of reteaching ideas they were supposed to have learned in high school. At an elite school, on the other hand, on day one, you can expect students that remember this stuff from high school and you really can build and have fun and go in depth. For an intro course at one of those institutions, I'd expect some might go into parties, or Congress, or whatever floats the instructors' boats, while still doing an overall survey.

  2. Parties guarantee special interest access to biddable legislators. SIs can offer future jobs, massive speaking fees, etc. to bribe legislators, but without an aggressive party to beat mavericks into line, industry-written travesties like the ACA would wither. With a party that's going to stick around forever, SIs have a low-time-preference, unscrupulous behemoth to deal with.

    1. On the contrary, "mavericks" in the Senate who threatened to hold up or filibuster legislation unless it protected the interests of insurance companies by not including a publicly administered alternative (such as Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad), or unless it contained explicit kickbacks to regional special interests (Ben Nelson). Contrast this with the House which managed to pass legislation that was primarily based on broad ideological interests at the national level. A strongly run legislative caucus that can guarantee its members' votes tends to focus on enforcing ideological and national interests, which results in legislation that is less influenced by individual legislators and thus does not advance as many local and entrenched interests. A weakly run legislative caucus that cannot guarantee its members' votes tends to focus on appealing to members' parochial and electoral interests or individual idiosyncrasies, which results in legislation that strongly protects local and entrenched interests. A system without parties would be an extreme version of the weakly run caucus. The fewer obstacles there are to passing legislation, the less chance for special interests to obstruct legislation, and thus the less chance for the legislation to favor special interests.


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