The US’ Nonhierarchical Parties
Lack of control of label is lack of control, ultimately, of a party.
In the comment thread of a previous post, Matt Bernius points out the following tweet from Matt Grossman (a political scientist at Michigan State University who studies American politics):
Now, I am nowhere near as versed in the Americanist literature as is Grossman, but I will point out that from a comparative politics point of view, the weakness of US parties is not a shock.
US parties are candidate-centric and they have, ultimately, very little control over the use of their labels because the threshold to being a precandidate* (i.e., being a candidate for the nomination, and hence the usage of the party’s name on the ballot) is low. Mostly it is filling out a form and paying a modest fee. There is not a test of party loyalty or knowledge. There is no vetting by party members. There is sign on the dotted line and fork over some cash.
All of this reminds me of the discussion of US parties in my 2014 book with Matthew Shugart, Arend Lijpart, and Bernie Grofman:
Primaries affect parties internally, by making them nonhierarchical. What primaries do is to deprive parties, as organized entities, of their vital role in nominating candidates, and by extension, weaken the disciplining authority of party leaders. Furthermore, primaries require candidates in the same party to compete with each other for the voters’ support and encourage these candidates to stress their differences.Page 187, A Different Democracy.
Primaries mean that the ability of party leadership to shape a party in a particular direction in terms of philosophy or party choice is quite limited. Rather, the process is one of self-selection by candidates, who choose to adopt a party label and run in the primary, which is then validated or rejected by voters on primary day. Candidates are therefore far more free agents than in systems with more hierarchically structured parties.Page 316
So, Donald J. Trump is able to descend the escalator and join the GOP fray in 2016. Bernie Sanders, a lifelong independent, signed up in 2016 for the Democratic contest and is back for more in 2020. Mike Bloomberg, one-time Republican mayor of NYC, has parachuted in for a shot as being the Democratic leader well.
Our parties, as institutions, are weak. There is no singular leader, or even a clearly delineable collective one, who “decides” the nomination.
And yes, to Grossman’s point, money, social media, and other factors have made it easier, it seems, for the nominee to be less what existing party elites might want. Still, the lack of control is not new. And it may be that various manipulations of the rules (such as the GOP’s increase in the significance of plurality winners and the Dem’s front-loading) have made such outcomes more likely, especially in multi-candidate contests.
One more quote from the book, because the issue of polarization has become even more significant since we wrote it:
The nonhierarchical, or bottom-up, nature of the parties means that the degree to which the parties are polarized or not is a function of the members themselves, not party elites or centrally enforced policy platforms. For example, before the partisan realignment that came about with the 1994 congressional elections, the parties were more ideologically amorphous, as noted earlier, because the result of the bottom-up nature of the parties meant that many conservative southern Democrats influenced the behavior of that party. Once those conservative southern Democrats switched to being conservative southern Republicans, this changed the nature of both parties. Such dynamics mean that factionalism within the parties can lead to changes on policy positions (bubbling from the bottom up), for example, the influence of evangelical candidates within the Republican Party in the 1980s and 1990s and, more clearly, the emergence of the Tea Party faction within the Republican Party in the 2010 election. Faction influence of this nature can be seen in the 2011 fight in the Congress over raising the federal debt limit. In that debate, Republican Party leader Speaker of the House John Boehner appeared willing to compromise with the Senate and the Obama administration on the legislation, but was initially blocked by the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives. The nonhierarchical nature of the party system was illustrated by the fact that Speaker Boehner had to negotiate with the Tea Party caucus and could not simply assert control over them, as is the case in more hierarchical party systems (as we typically see in European cases). The ability of Tea Party candidates to win primary elections allowed them to, from the bottom up, influence public policy outcomes.P. 189
So, for example, if Bernie were to get the nomination, it would contribute to the further polarization of our party system and not because the DNC wanted to go in a more leftward direction, but because the primary process (a bottom-up process) did.
*”Precandidate” is a common term in Colombia, which I think actually better captures where we are in the race for the presidency at the moment. I realize that Bernie, et al., are candidates for the nomination, but none of them are candidates for office yet, hence I would love for “precandidate” to catch on in these discussions.