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    Political Parties

    National conventions display party politics in its most colorful and distilled form. Here, Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, are greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm by delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention.

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    Copyright ©2018 by SAGE Publications, Inc. This work may not be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means without express written permission of the publisher.

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  • Political Parties

    PART 3


    Why does a nation as diverse as the United States sustain only two major parties?

    If the first generation of leaders elected under the Constitution rejected political parties on principle, why did they create them anyway?

    Today national party conventions merely certify the winners of primary elections instead of choosing the presidential nominees, as they did in the past. So why do the parties continue to hold these gatherings?

    Ninety percent of Americans claim they always vote for the person best suited for the job, regardless of party. Why, then, is party-line voting so prevalent, and why are partisans so polarized?

    I n 2016, billionaire real estate investor Donald Trump executed a hostile take-over of the Republican Party. Nearly the entire Republican establishment—elected leaders, elder statesmen, most major campaign contributors, and many prominent conservative pundits—opposed his nomination. They objected variously to his personality, character, inexperience, temperament, and unorthodox positions on economic and foreign policy issues. They con- sidered Trump’s divisive rhetoric targeting immigrants and minorities a threat to the party’s short- and long-term prospects by alienating, perhaps perma- nently, growing segments of the electorate.1 Trump swept the primaries any- way by tapping into the rich vein of right-wing populist disdain for cultural, corporate, media, and political elites found in a large faction of Republican voters. Failing to derail Trump’s candidacy, many prominent Republican leaders stayed away from the nominating convention and declined to endorse him afterward. Most House and Senate candidates running on the Republican ticket initially backed Trump rather than risk offending his supporters, but some deserted after a 2005 videotape showed Trump bragging about his sex- ual exploits, including groping assaults on women.

    A lot of ordinary Republican voters also had serious reservations about their party’s nominee; during the month before the election, an average of 30 percent expressed unfavorable opinions of Trump, compared with the more typical 8 percent expressing unfavorable opinions of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.2 On average, only 70 percent said Trump was qualified to be president; only 62 percent said he has the right temperament for the office; and only 57 percent said he respects women.3 Most Democratic leaders supported Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, but ordinary Democrats, especially those who had supported her main opponent in the primaries, Bernie Sanders, were less enthu- siastic; 18 percent held an unfavorable opinion of her, compared with 8 percent for Barack Obama in 2012.

    As these numbers show, in 2016 both presidential candidates, but Trump in particular, went into the general election with divided parties and historically low levels of popularity within their parties and among the general public. Most vot- ers, as usual, also took a dim view of the parties themselves. Large majorities of Americans claim they vote for the candidate they think is best suited for the office, regardless of party. Typically, more than half tell pollsters that the two major parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.”4 Most Americans also usually say they prefer that control of government be divided between the parties rather than monopolized by one party.5 The situation in 2016 thus seemed ripe for voters to desert their party (crossing party lines or voting for third-party candidates) or split their tickets (voting for different par- ties’ candidates for president and Congress) in large numbers. They did not. Nearly 95 percent voted for a major party presidential candidate.

    Copyright ©2018 by SAGE Publications, Inc. This work may not be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means without express written permission of the publisher.

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  • 12.1 Describe the origins of political parties and their basic features.

    12.2 Summarize the development and evolution of the party systems.

    12.3 Discuss the revival of partisanship over the past two decades and how modern parties are structured.

    12.4 Assess modern parties’ influence and effectiveness as a vehicle for politicians and voters to act collectively within the established institutional framework.

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    For partisans, antipathy toward the other party and its presidential can- didate swamped any reservations voters may have had about their own,6 and self-identified Republicans and Democrats voted nearly as loyally for their presidential and congressional candidates as they had in 2012, which featured the highest incidence of party-line voting in at least seven decades.7 Election results set a new record for consistency across states and districts. For the first time in history, every Senate contest was won by the party that won the state’s electoral votes. The coincidence of party victories at the House district level was nearly as high, approaching 92 percent. Despite Trump’s highly unorthodox and disruptive candidacy and the internal divisions within both parties exposed by the primary contests, differences between the parties remained far more important to voters, and the election of 2016 was as partisan, polarized, and nationalized as it had been in 2012.8

    Clearly, reports of the parties’ demise, common a couple of decades ago,9 no longer match reality. Indeed, anyone who looks at how people vote and evaluate politicians, which candidates win elections, and how the nation is governed will have to conclude that the two major parties rarely have been healthier. A large majority of voters are willing to identify them- selves as Republicans or Democrats, and, of these partisans, a very large majority routinely vote loyally for their party’s candidates. Rarely does any- one win state or federal office without a major party nomination; as of 2017, forty-nine of fifty state governors and all but 2 of the 535 members of Congress were either Democrats or Republicans.* Moreover, party remains the central organizing instrument in government (see Chapter 6).

    The wide gap between people’s opinions about and behavior toward political parties has deep roots in American history. None of the politi- cians who designed the Constitution or initially sought to govern under it thought parties were a good idea—including the very people who unwittingly created them. Even in their heyday in the latter part of the nineteenth century, parties never lacked articulate critics or public scorn. Still, parties began to develop soon after the founding of the nation and, in one guise or another, have formed an integral part of the institutional machinery of American politics ever since. The chief reason for their lon- gevity is that the institutions created by the Constitution make the pay- offs for using parties—to candidates, voters, and elected officeholders—too attractive to forgo. American political parties represent the continuing triumph of pure political expedience.

    Although expedience explains the existence of the parties, the activities that maintain them contribute to successful democratic politics in unfore- seen ways. Indeed, the unintended consequences of party work are so important that most political scientists agree with E. E. Schattschneider,

    * Two independents served in the 115th Congress (2017–2018): Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Senator Angus King of Maine; Alaska governor Bill Walker was elected as an independent in 2014. Of the 7,383 citizens serving in state legislatures in 2017, only 23 (0.31 percent) were neither Democrats nor Republicans.

    Copyright ©2018 by SAGE Publications, Inc. This work may not be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means without express written permission of the publisher.

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  • P o l i t i c a l Pa r t i e s 479

    who said that “political parties created democracy and [that] modern democracy is unthink- able save in terms of parties.”10 Parties recruit and train leaders, foster political participation, and teach new citizens democratic habits and practices. Beyond that, they knit citizens and leaders together in electoral and policy coalitions and allow citizens to hold their elected agents collectively responsible for what the government does. They also help channel and constrain political conflicts, promoting their peaceful resolution. Finally, parties organize the activities of government, facilitating the collective action necessary to translate public preferences into public policy (see Chapters 6 and 7). In short, political parties make mass democracy possible.

    This chapter examines the origin and development of national parti