Political Party Exceptionalism in the United States

Nicol C Rae. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. Sage Publications, 2006.

In advanced democracies party government is the norm. A party or a coalition of parties in the legislature forms a cabinet responsible to the lower house. Legislators from the governing party (or parties) in turn have incentives in terms of reelection, career and policy goals to sustain the government in office. At election time the government is held accountable as voters vote for or against the candidates of the governing party (or parties). This in a nutshell is the theory of ‘responsible party government’ (Ranney 1982). Organized and disciplined mass party organizations provide the policies and the personnel for the executive, sustain the government in the legislature, and structure the vote at election time, thereby allowing the public to hold the government to account.

Party government has been elusive in the United States, however. This is partly due to the American ‘presidential’ system of separation of executive and legislative powers that makes party government difficult or even impossible. The organizational weakness of American parties also impairs their role as electoral vehicles for democratic accountability. This weakness, moreover, is due to a deep-rooted hostility to political parties in American political culture. This attitude, combined with the peculiar circumstances of America’s socio-economic development in the 19th century, explains the failure of European style ‘mass parties’ (Duverger, 1964) to develop in the United States.

Each of these factors will now be discussed in order to account for the relative absence of party as a governing institution in America.

A Separated System of Government

Party government requires that governmental power be concentrated so that it can be totally controlled by a party or coalition and that party or coalition be held accountable in its entirety to the legislature and ultimately to the voters. Thus in the parliamentary systems that predominate in most modern democracies, the legislative and executive branches are joined by the device of an executive cabinet of ministers chosen from and accountable to the legislature.

Wary of the potential for the ‘tyranny of the majority’ on the part of the democratically elected House of Representatives or an authoritarian president, the framers of the American constitution took some pains to ensure that the legislative and executive branches were elected separately rather than the one being effectively chosen by the other. These constitutionally separated institutions, moreover, shared most of the significant governmental powers in an elaborate system of checks and balances that also provided for a second chamber or Senate with special powers over foreign policy and presidential appointments, and a Supreme Court with the power of judicial review.

The framers of the US constitution did not think highly of ‘parties’, which they equated with ‘factions’ or interest groups rather than governing institutions (Madison, Federalist 51: see Hamilton et al., 1961), and the governmental system they devised effectively precludes the kind of party government outlined above. The president, Senate and House of Representatives are separately elected and at different times. Federalism, with important powers reserved to the state governments, sets another barrier against concentrated party government in the USA.

Although the American presidential system thus makes party government difficult, the political parties are the only American political institutions that can bridge the separation of powers, no matter how imperfectly. And despite the framers’ disdain, political parties formed as early as the 1790s: the Federalists led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and the Jeffersonians led by Jefferson and Madison (Goodman, 1975). This rudimentary party system proved to be short-lived, but as the franchise was extended to cover most adult white males—the world’s first mass electorate—by the mid-1820s, so more permanent political parties arrived on the scene to structure mass electoral choice.

The archetypal American parties formed around presidential elections and the candidacy of General Andrew Jackson, frontiersman, military hero, and spokesman for a mass constituency of farmers, laborers, and artisans that distrusted the commercially oriented federal government. After being robbed of the presidency in the electoral college in 1824, Jackson and his supporters (principally campaign manager Martin Van Buren, the father of American political parties) decided to short-circuit the electoral college (where it was intended that citizens vote for electors from their state worthy to choose a president) by putting forward ‘slates’ of electors committed to vote for Jackson, and creating a national political organization to rally Jackson’s voters behind those slates on election day (Ceaser, 1979). This national political organization became the Democratic Party, and the formation of the American two-party system was completed when Jackson’s opponents coalesced to form the Whig party by 1840.

The Rise of the American Party System

During the mid- to late 19th century it often appeared that American political parties had overcome the constitutional barriers and achieved party government. On closer inspection the 19th-century American parties were fundamentally less concerned with governing than with using government at all levels to reward their supporters and keep themselves in being organizationally. Yet voters undoubtedly identified with these parties and came to the polls to support them at levels astonishing by today’s standards (Silbey 1994).

The Jacksonian era party system established a framework for American national parties that in many aspects persists to this day. The Democrat and Whig parties were alliances of pro- or anti-Jackson state organizations and they remained highly decentralized organizationally. This was hardly surprising since the level of government that was most significant to most 19th-century Americans was state and local government. This is also where most of the patronage that kept the party machines in business was available. The sole manifestation of a national party was the quadrennial national party convention (pioneered by the obscure Anti-Masonic Party in 1828) composed of state delegations selected by state party leaders to nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Although the Democrats and Whigs reflected genuine regional, socioeconomic, ethnic, and policy differences, they were hardly ideological parties. When the Jacksonian Democrats took power they thought it legitimate to divide the ‘spoils’ of victory among their followers who had hitherto felt excluded from the American political system. The Whigs adopted a similar attitude. Both political parties constructed formidable local and state party machines on the basis of jobs and political favors for the machines’ supporters in exchange for votes (Silbey, 1994). By necessity these organizations were well organized and disciplined, even if the national parties as a whole were highly decentralized. With livelihoods at stake, the voters’ motivation to become involved with parties and campaigns was greatly enhanced.

The political upheaval and national trauma of the Civil War era did not disrupt the pattern, except for the disintegration of the Whig Party and its eventual replacement by the more clearly anti-slavery Republican Party: the last time a third party supplanted a major party in the USA. Yet third parties, although invariably quickly suppressed by the cruel electoral logic of the plurality voting system, have played a critical role in American political history by channeling political protest into the electoral arena and acting as harbingers of change in the electoral/political order (Sundquist, 1983).

The American party system reached its zenith in the post-civil war period (1865-96). The two national parties—Democrats and Republicans -were remarkably evenly matched, with presidential elections being decided by very narrow margins in both the electoral and popular vote. Election turnouts reached their highest levels in American history and the US federal government came close to genuine party government. Yet these ‘governments’ were not led from the presidency (which remained in a generally weakened position during the period) but from the House of Representatives under the rigid party discipline imposed by Speakers Thomas B. Reed (1889-91 and 1895-99) and Joseph G. Cannon (1903-11). Indeed Woodrow Wilson, the most prominent congressional scholar of the time, envisaged the strong speakership evolving into a ‘Westminster-style’ parliamentary system (Wilson, 1981).

State and local level party machines continued to dominate as the spoils system reached new heights in the era of laissez-faire, rapid industrialization and urbanization (Ostrogorski, 1982). The onset of mass immigration also provided a new source of electoral support for machine politics. The continued weakness of the presidency was more or less guaranteed by the bosses’ control of the national party conventions, where their criteria for the selection of a nominee—offend no significant section of the party, deliver federal patronage if elected, and on no account challenge the basis of the patronage system—guaranteed a succession of mediocre and ineffectual occupants of the White House.

As in the Jacksonian system, party differences were grounded in regionalism, religion, and ethnicity—North/South, immigrants/WASPs, Protestant/Catholic—rather than doctrine. As national entities the American parties still possessed only an ephemeral existence in presidential election years. Despite powerful machines at the state and local levels and occasional strong party leadership in Congress, these parties little resembled the great mass ideological organizations budding contemporaneously in Europe. And this failure of the mass organized political party and its founding ideology—socialism -to take root remains key to understanding American exceptionalism in party development.

The Anti-Party Century: 1900-2000

A backlash against strong political parties and party machines arose in the first decade of the 20th century that effectively locked American political parties into a totally divergent pattern of political development from their European counterparts.

Anti-partisan sentiments aroused by short-term factors during the Progressive era (1900-20) resonated with deeply-rooted themes in US political culture. Suspicion of parties or any large concentration of political power had always been intrinsic to the American political tradition. The Lockean liberalism that inspired the American revolution focused on the rights of individuals as opposed to collective organizations. Classical Republican themes in the framers’ writings, moreover, equated parties with factions: selfish interests that would seek to control government for their own ends and thus were a threat to Republican virtue (Madison, Federalist 10). The evolution of the framers’ aristocratic republic into a mass democracy (Wood, 1992) necessitated the development of political parties to structure mass electoral preferences, inform and organize the mass electorate, and provide electoral accountability. The evolution of these parties into alliances of blatantly corrupt and self-interested state and local political machines, however, made the framers’ warning relevant again—particularly to the educated, professional, middle-class that constituted the core of the Progressive movement (Hofstadter, 1955).

The social fallout from rapid industrialization—overcrowded cities, disease, monopoly capitalism, exploitation of farmers and laborers—engendered a multifaceted reform movement that sought a greater role for government in regulation of the economy and social reform. America’s emergence as a world power also made reform of an inefficient and outdated governmental system even more imminent. Modern industrial society demanded a more extensive and professional government manned by educated bureaucrats with qualifications rather than the placemen of the party machines (Hofstadter, 1955). Starting with the 1883 Pendleton Act, reforms of the civil service at federal, state, and local levels gradually removed from political appointments thousands of patronage jobs that constituted the lifeblood of the political machines. The ending of mass immigration in 1924 also dried up the constant supply of poor immigrants on whom the machines had relied for electoral support. The advent of government welfare benefits superseded the minimal welfare functions that the machines had performed for some of their loyal supporters.

Aside from these long-term factors, the parties also came under direct assault from progressive reformers who saw them, correctly, as the principal vehicle by which corruption, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud entered into American politics. In their zeal to extirpate these malign influences, reformers at the state and local levels fought for the adoption of a state-provided, secret electoral ballot, and official voter registration to eliminate fraud. At the state level they introduced the initiative, referendum, and recall to circumvent machine-dominated state government and even prohibited party labels from appearing on local government ballots altogether in many areas (Hofstadter, 1955).

The most significant of the Progressive reforms, however, was the introduction of the direct primary election, a peculiarly American political device that removes from the party organization even the ability to select its own candidates. Of course that was the whole point of the reform: to take control over party nominations away from the corrupt state and local party leaders and instead have the voters choose party nominees for office in a formal election either among all voters voting in the primary of their choice or limited to those voters who indicated a particular partisan preference on registration. The primary had the additional benefit of providing some electoral choice in the many areas of the USA where one party overwhelmingly predominated.

The primary soon became almost universal at all electoral levels below the presidential. Party bosses were still sufficiently powerful in the major states to control national convention delegations and they controlled presidential selection for at least another half-century In most states the machines were also sufficiently powerful to organize themselves for a primary election, and the difference in party control of American politics was not immediately apparent.

The long-term effect of the primary however would be to undermine traditional party organizations, as the reformers intended. Walter Dean Burnham (1982) has demonstrated that a long-term decline in electoral turnout and participation in the USA began during the progressive era and has continued to the present interrupted only by a temporary revival following the New Deal. During the 20th century the great state and local party machines gradually eroded as their lifeblood, governmental patronage, evaporated due to civil service reform, and their underprivileged electoral constituencies moved up the socioeconomic scale or found other means of subsistence. The last of the great party bosses, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, died in 1976, and his formidable Democratic political organization did not survive him.

The University of Michigan surveys of the American electorate in the 1950s (Campbell et al., 1960) found that levels of voter identification with the parties were still high and that most Americans approached politics through the prism of a partisan identity, and voted straight party tickets. By the early 1970s, however, levels of party identification had dropped precipitously, with an increasing number of voters becoming independents, a drop in the intensity of identification among identifiers, and an increasing voter propensity to split their party tickets (Nie et al., 1979).

The electoral consequence was divided partisan control of the national government. In the half century between 1950 and 2000 Washington experienced 32 years of divided partisan control between Congress and the presidency and only 18 years of single-party control. In part this was due to the breakdown in partisan affiliations in the electorate mentioned above. The nature of the presidency and the membership of Congress, however, also evolved in a less partisan direction over the course of the 20th century.

The growth in the scope and extent of presidential power paralleled the slow decline of the major political parties. The decentralized nature of the traditional American parties and the key role played by state and local party bosses militated against strong national leadership in the presidency, as demonstrated by the nondescript presidents the bosses nominated during the late 19th-century heyday of American political parties. By the early 20th century the expectations of the office had changed as a result of America’s emergence as a world power and the new demands for strong national leadership for social and political reform and to regulate business. The tumult of the Progressive era produced two remarkably assertive presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—whose political strength came less from their partisan affiliation than from a direct popular appeal made possible by the new mass political media engendered by the telegraph, and advances in literacy and printing technology (Tulis, 1987).

While the bosses still controlled the presidential nominating process, they could no longer afford to select presidents who did not appear to possess the basic competence to perform a much expanded governmental role at home and abroad. The incompatibility of the modern presidency and the traditional party system was made glaringly apparent by the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt originally hoped that he could use the Democratic Party as his vehicle to expand the role of the federal government in economic and social policy. As the New Deal became more radical, however, FDR encountered resistance from conservative southern Democrats and some urban machine bosses. The failure of FDR’s attempt to ‘purge’ dissident Democrats in 1938 by campaigning openly to defeat them in the 1938 primaries convinced him that he would have to rely on the office of the presidency alone as his governing instrument. Thus Roosevelt and his successors increasingly disregarded the apparently outmoded parties and utilized the Executive Office of the Presidency (established in 1940) to govern directly from the White House, and relied on the new mass media of radio and later television to rally popular support (Milkis, 1993).

Presidential nominating politics was also changing. Increasingly presidential candidates were mounting pre-convention media campaigns such as that behind the unknown Wendell Willkie for the Republican nomination in 1940. Presidential aspirants also competed increasingly in primary elections to generate favorable press coverage and momentum for their candidacy, and pre-convention opinion polls became increasingly important. The Democratic convention in 1952 was the last to require a second ballot for the presidential nomination, as the nominating process began to move outside the convention hall.

FDR accomplished an electoral realignment during the 1930s but the top-heavy Democratic coalition was now too broad to be useful to him, encompassing groups as diverse as northern blacks, Jews, union members, and southern segregationist conservatives. In Congress the latter increasingly sided with the Republicans and in the period from 1938 to 1975 both houses, while under nominal Democratic control most of the time, were effectively controlled by a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats. In 1910 an alliance of progressive Republicans and Democrats had stripped Speaker Joseph Cannon of most of his powers and replaced strong party leadership with a congressional power structure based on specialized committees in both chambers, with the committee leadership determined by seniority (Schickler, 2001). The impact of the primary and the slow decline of traditional state and local party organizations also led to the emergence of a new type of member of Congress, largely self-selected and financed and less beholden to the party in getting to Washington and less likely to adhere to a party line once elected. At mid-century party government seemed increasingly remote on Capitol Hill as well as the White House, and committee chairs and cross-party coalitions were the norm in passing major legislation.

The death-knell for the traditional parties finally arrived during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964—with most of its traditional party machines having disappeared—the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater, a conservative ideologue, for president. The Goldwater nomination campaign was based on the candidate’s personality and conservative issue positions rather than the traditional party criterion of general election strength and/or ability to unite the party. Conservative and other single-issue groups supplied the activists and hundreds of thousands of small conservative donors financed the campaign. Although Goldwater was overwhelmingly defeated in the general election, the style of the Goldwater campaign was the wave of the future in presidential politics (Brennan, 1995).

The Democratic Party’s machines lasted longer due to the party’s grip on power since the New Deal, but in 1968 they suffered a serious assault from the anti-Vietnam War forces of Senator Eugene McCarthy. With a political style and organizational make-up very similar to the 1964 Goldwater Republicans, the McCarthy campaign drove incumbent President Lyndon Johnson from office, and undermined the legitimacy of the eventual nominee, old New Dealer and Cold Warrior, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the Chicago convention (dominated by Mayor Daley) that nominated him. With violence outside and mayhem inside the convention hall, Humphrey was forced to concede a commission to study possible reforms in the nominating process. When Humphrey lost in the fall, control of the reform commission—chaired initially by the party’s eventual 1972 presidential nominee, Senator George McGovern—fell into the hands of the reformers who adopted a series of reforms to ensure that convention delegates were selected by open participatory processes involving rank-and-file Democrats rather than by state and local party leaders (Shafer, 1983). These rules were enforced by the national committee on the state parties and most conformed over the next eight years by moving towards primary elections for choosing national convention delegates. Despite McGovern’s landslide 1972 general election defeat, by 1976 over three-quarters of the delegates in each party (the Republicans followed suit because of state electoral laws and because they had no reason not to) would be chosen in primaries.

Thus control over presidential nominations moved away from the national convention and into a series of state primary elections with self-selected candidates building their own campaign organizations and financing. This completed the elimination of the traditional political party as a significant institution in American politics. As a governing institution, at least at the federal level, it had only been intermittently useful due to the formidable barriers of the separation of powers and federalism. Its peculiar 20th-century evolution towards greater organizational weakness (by contrast with the rise of mass parties and party government in most other advanced democracies) made the governing functions of American parties appear even less relevant. By the last quarter of the 20th-century the American parties seemed to have become little more than the instruments of candidates or interest groups that captured the party label, reduced to little more than their basic ‘vote-structuring’ function in US elections (Ranney 1978).

The Absence of Mass Parties in the USA

The fundamental reason why America does not have party government is the absence of mass parties. Maurice Duverger (1964), building on the earlier work of Robert Michels (1962), devised the concept of the mass party: the dues-paying, organized, disciplined, hierarchical, and ideological political organizations that had arisen following industrialization in Europe to represent the claims of the emergent industrial working class, hitherto excluded from political participation. Duverger saw the mass party as the archetypal modern political form since it provided the only effective means for the newly enfranchised masses to participate in politics. Mass parties started on the political left since working-class power depended on tight organization (financed by mass membership dues) to capitalize on the sole political advantage of the disadvantaged—their numbers.

Once the mass party had proved its electoral success through the dramatic growth in electoral support for socialism in most European nations by the time of the First World War, those opposed to socialism on the center and right of the political spectrum were compelled to imitate the mass party’s organizational form and political style in a process that Duverger (1964) termed ‘contagion from the left’.

The absence of the mass party in America is thus linked to the absence of socialism as a major political force. Since Werner Sombart (1976) first raised the issue in 1906, America’s individualistic political culture, mass immigration, a divided American working class and labor movement, and political repression have all been offered as sole or partial explanations (Lipset and Marks, 2000). Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that offered by Leon Epstein (1980). He argues that America had a mass electorate by 1830, prior to the social ravages of industrialization. Thus when the American ‘proletariat’ finally emerged after the Civil War it did not have to fight for voting and other basic political rights to the same extent as its European counterparts. In Europe industrialization occurred prior to or contemporaneously with political enfranchisement and the potential for radical ideologies to mobilize the working class was therefore much greater. In short, because America never experienced feudalism or absolutism, it also lacks the mass socialism that almost inevitably occurs when a feudal or absolutist regime has to deal with the social consequences of industrialization.

Epstein also argued against Duverger’s tendency to regard American parties as retarded forms of political development. In fact, argues Epstein, these parties make excellent sense in the American political context, which is much more culturally resistant to large concentrations of political power. This, combined with the association of America’s traditional major political parties with corruption, has led to what Epstein (1980) describes as the American tendency to treat parties as ‘public utilities’, subjecting them to a great deal of governmental regulation to the point of severely debilitating them organizationally In a sense Americans have recognized that the vote-structuring function of the parties is so intrinsic to democracy that they have to be severely regulated against the danger of corrupting or misrepresenting the popular will or threatening individual rights. However, one price of such regulation is the virtual impossibility of a third party being able to organize nationally and meet the ballot requirements and various regulations on parties in all 50 states, and thus the Democrat-Republican duopoly is preserved at the possible expense of more radical alternatives.

Signs of Revival

Since the nadir of the mid-1970s there have been signs of revival of the American parties in almost all aspects.

The political upheaval of the civil rights revolution finally ended the conservative coalition and allowed more ideologically coherent national parties to develop. In Congress this led to a rise in the power of the party leadership and party voting in both chambers. The seniority rule has also been superseded by partisan considerations and the committees are no longer fiefdoms independent of the party leadership (Sinclair, 1995).

The national party committees have also become more important, and play a greater role than ever these days in promoting party positions and messages, recruiting candidates at all levels of the party, and raising funds and participating directly and indirectly in campaigns on behalf of party candidates. State parties have also revived as fundraising and campaigning organizations (Reichley 1992).

At the mass level there are indications that the decline in party identities bottomed out in the 1970s and that these have stabilized and even revived somewhat. Levels of split-ticket voting have also declined from their 1970s peaks (Jacobson, 2000; Green et al., 2002). There has been no great revival in electoral participation, but ironically this has probably enhanced the role of parties and encouraged political polarization by making mobilization of each party’s voter base more important in election campaigns (Schier, 2000).

In presidential politics, at least since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, American presidents have relied more on their parties as a base of support in Congress, and a source of direction and ideas for their administrations. Both conservative and liberal think-tanks have sprouted in close association with the parties since each has become more coherently liberal or conservative in ideology, and these have supplied much of the policy and personnel for Democratic and Republican administrations.

Yet mass party development or party government in the USA remains highly unlikely to occur. Much of the apparent revival of parties and partisanship in the USA is a consequence of the ‘capture’ of both parties by coalitions of single-issue and ideological interests who use the party labels as instruments to achieve their ends. Low-turnout primary and general elections enhance the control of these groups over party nominations, and campaign finance legislation has made candidates of both parties more heavily dependent on these groups than they are on the party (Schier, 2000). The separation of powers still militates against party government, since even if one party controls all three branches of the federal government the shortness of the election cycle—2 years—entails that the long-term control necessary for party government is hard to achieve. Moreover, given the nature of the separated system, prolonged single-party control of the three branches of the federal government would likely lead to a weakening of party control on Capitol Hill (as occurred in 1910 and after the New Deal realignment) to preserve the constitutional prerogatives and institutional power of the House and Senate against the encroachments of the executive.

Parties fulfill essential functions in American democracy in terms of structuring electoral choices for which no effective substitute has been devised, and they also play a crucial role in organizing the legislature. Party government in the USA, however, is likely to remain an elusive and ephemeral phenomenon due to the constitutional system, American political culture, and the extreme unlikelihood of anything resembling European-style mass parties emerging in the United States.