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The political scientist E. E. Schattschneider asserted that “democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” But what exactly are political parties, and how do they matter? 

Many people think that parties are strongest when their members’ views are most in sync. They see how powerful today’s party leaders are and infer that our current environment must be one characterized by an unusual degree of internal party cohesion. 

As intuitive as this view is, it misses one of the central functions of political parties, which is to hide disagreement between their members and thus make them appear more unified than they really are. Strong leadership actually becomes more necessary as conflicting concerns within a coalition proliferate. Accordingly, to understand our current political environment, we need to reorient our view of what parties do. 

From the beginning, American political parties have been seen by their members as instruments to help them facilitate collective action. Parties were, rightly, not viewed as coalitions of legislators who had the same policy preferences. On the contrary, parties had to be created in the first years of the early republic precisely because members did not agree on policy. 

For example, John H. Aldrich explains that, in the first several Congresses, organizing majorities for or against building a powerful central government proved extremely difficult. Loose coalitions formed and dissolved with great rapidity. For this reason, America’s first two organized parties, the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans, emerged less to connect politicians to the mass electorate than to organize conflict around this great central question and to prevent coalitions from falling apart over interest-based concerns — especially those rooted in sectional differences. They did so by enabling the presentation of a unified front around central issues (“developing a solid brand,” in today’s terms), while actively trying to exclude issues that divided their members. 

Put simply, when members disagree on policy, parties can facilitate the formation of majority coalitions in Congress by controlling the legislative agenda. To do so, members must empower party leaders to structure the legislative process to advantage policy outcomes around which they are relatively united, while avoiding those that divide them. 

The operation of today’s Democratic and Republican parties can best be understood in this light. In spite of offering a united rhetorical front in favor of repealing Obamacare, for example, Republicans turned out to be quite divided on the particulars of what should take its place. Leaders’ inability to keep the issue off the agenda resulted in a clear view of divisions within the party. Ever since, leaders have steered clear of health-care questions.

Meanwhile, Democrats have rhetorically represented themselves as favoring expanded legal immigration and a path to citizenship for many of those in the country illegally. But their leaders have been surprisingly reticent to actually force votes that might have a chance of changing the situation on the ground. This is because their party is considerably more divided on the issue than they would like the public to understand. If Democrats can simply rail at the injustice of the current regime without taking any legislative action, they can release pressure that might otherwise threaten their party’s cohesion.

Given this basic institutional logic, we need to acknowledge that strong leaders are not only found in cohesive parties. Indeed, parties with widening internal divisions may be more in need of delegating agenda-setting power to their leaders to ensure that those divisions do not jeopardize their ability to act in other areas. If anything, the role of leaders becomes less important when partisans agree on everything: Loose and informal coordination structures would be sufficient to allow like-minded members to act together. Leaders are likely to step in precisely when agreement between partisans begins to break down. 

As more and more issues divide a given party’s members, there is a greater need to exclude more issues from the agenda in order to prevent the preexisting party coalition from fracturing. The fear of a messy and potentially majority-costing break-up causes its members to further empower their leaders to keep divisive issues off the agenda. This logic explains the near-exclusive control of the legislative process by party leaders today, especially in the Senate. 

Leaders oblige their rank-and-file by focusing on issues that unite their partisan colleagues and draw a favorable contrast with the other party. In the process, they manage to create the appearance of tidy polarization, despite the fact that their members disagree on quite a lot. In this way, declining cohesiveness ends up creating the impression of polarization. 

Party leaders are skilled at using their ability to control the agenda to serve members in another way, too: When potentially coalition-splitting decisions must be made, such as passing legislation to fund the government, they engineer “must pass” bills that effectively diminish members’ accountability. Leaders almost always wait until the last minute to unveil legislation to confront members with a fait accompli. If they fail to assent, the story goes, voters will punish them for their abject failure by voting against them in the next election. Leaders are thus able to keep divisive issues from disrupting the appearance of partisan unity without actually jeopardizing a bill’s passage. 

Such votes allow cross-pressured legislators to speak out of both sides of their mouths at once, and therefore often garner bipartisan support. To his or her constituents most concerned about avoiding catastrophe, the assenting member can say: “I did it, I kept things going, I served your interests.” To those constituents outraged by any particular in the bill, the member can ruefully declare, “I wanted to take a stand for our shared value, but in the end, I had no choice but to go along.” By declaring opposition-in-principle but begrudging support-in-practice, members can try to have things both ways rather than being forced to sort out thorny conflicts.

In this way, rank-and-file members actually acquiesce to the status quo because they view electoral competition and campaigning for reelection as critical to attaining their policy goals in the long run. While reelection has always been a concern, in the past, it has been generally understood in terms of a member’s relationship to his or her constituency. Members today, however, increasingly see reelection through the lens of their political party. In their eyes, if the party’s national reputation is tarnished, its champions will suffer all the way down the ballot, which opens the door to control by the dreaded opposition — a situation members see as completely unacceptable, no matter how much their own party’s agenda control may remove the potential for action on issues they view as pressing. 

And so members generally remain loyal — not because they think in lock-step but because they feel that both the framing their party can offer and the electoral advantage that doing so successfully can bring is absolutely vital. But that loyalty can weigh heavily on them when they so often feel shut down by their party leaders. If the negatives of party agenda control begin to outweigh the positives, a sense of futility may creep in. Members may begin to despair of the institution’s ability to act on anything. This could ultimately break open the floodgates and usher in a period of uncertain disequilibrium. 

In order to change the status quo in Congress, members must demand that their leaders loosen their tight grip on the legislative agenda. Until that happens, gridlock and inaction will persist as Democrats and Republicans continue to avoid the internal disputes that keep them from acting. 

Philip A. Wallach and James Wallner are both seniors fellow at the R Street Institute.

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