What is a party in American politics?

by Henry Farrell on November 9, 2010 · 4 comments

in Uncategorized

As John mentioned a while back (my recent Monkey Cage time has been allotted to tedious back-end work on the website), I posted some semi-informed speculations on the other blog about what is happening to the Republican Party. What I was interested in was the question of (a) what a political party is in the US, and (b) whether this is changing, thanks to changes in media and fundraising opportunities. For other blog takes on these questions, see John’s post from last year summarizing the debates on whether Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are part of the Republican party, and Jonathan Bernstein’s post arguing that Fox News is indeed part of the Republican party, and Clyde Wilcox’s comment here.

At greater length, Richard Skinner’s Do 527s Add Up to a Party, Cohen, Karol, Noel and Zaller’s book on parties and presidential nominations, Seth Masket’s book on party politics in California, and the Bawn, Cohen, Karol, Masket, Noel and Zaller paper on political parties (which has become a classic without ever to my knowledge being published) are all interesting. Many of these people read the Monkey Cage. I’d really be interested to see a serious discussion about how the changing relationship with Fox News (where several Republican presidential hopefuls are contributors), with donors (the American Crossroads model) and activists (the Tea Party) is changing the Republican party, and what consequences one might expect. I’d also be interested in reading similar discussion of changes in the Democratic party.

{ 4 comments }

arbitrista November 9, 2010 at 4:23 pm

With regard to the Republican Party at least, the distribution of influence within their coalition has certainly shifted (in particular away from officeholders), but it seems that the ideological character of the party is relatively unchanged from what it was a generation ago. More extreme perhaps, but the long-range policy objectives are the same. I think it might be important to distinguish between the Republican Party and the conservative movement. The big change is that the latter has entirely consumed the former. The Democrats on the other hand still seem to be much more in the traditional party mode of a coalition of office-seekers.

Tracy Lightcap November 9, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I noticed something very telling on Fox during the runup to the election. There were several “news stories” were Fox analyzed the campaign statements of candidates – always Democrats, of course – as news stories. “Is candidate X actually in favor of conservative taxation policies? Why no!! He/she is another Democrat, always voting with Pelosi and Obama!! 11!!” It was essentially a use of “the news” to deliver Pub talking points about particular candidates.

Well, that pesky old 1st amendment stops you from doing anything about that, even if you wanted to. What it does remind me of, however, is the US during the pre-Civil War era. In those days, parties had sets of newspapers that were openly partisan and cued in to the leadership of the parties involved. It was not rare, for instance, for sitting presidents to submit columns to their party’s newspapers explaining why they were adopting certain policies. Being committed to a particular party has always been an easy way to get and keep a market for mass media outlets. Only Americans with our slightly ridiculous adherence to the press as “objective” and “independent” make a big deal about this.

So, yes, Fox is the house organ for the Pubs. There isn’t one yet for the Dems, though MSNBC is trying hard. But I have to say I think this is simply a reassertion of a long standing trend that we got away from in the post WW2 era. It probably couldn’t last past the collective experience of that generation.

Hans Noel November 10, 2010 at 8:12 am

Having been called out, I’ll bite, even if this post is already stale by blog standards.

My quick reaction is plus ca change. Yes, there are developments worth tracking here, but the role of activists “taking over the party” is not new. What the Tea Party has done is not terribly different, in effect, than what the conservative movement did in the 1960s, culminating in the nomination of Goldwater. Or what the religious right did in Congress over the course of the 1980s and 1990s (see Marty Cohen’s work on this).

The role of Fox news might be more interesting, although there, too, we have lots of precedent for a partisan press in the United States. What’s potentially interesting to me about the partisan media is that since they don’t need reelection to keep their jobs, they can be more ideologically pure. That’s really a different question (but one that my other work is concerned with).

None of this is to say that these changes don’t have consequences, but I think the right perspective on them is still that so much of the underlying motivations of party activists, party leaders and office holders has not changed, and that the balance of power among them, while fluctuating, has always fluctuated.

Hans Noel November 10, 2010 at 8:13 am

P.S — TMC needs a “parties” tag in its list of categories.

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