A Madisonian Party System
What type of party system best suits the American regime? What can we do to cultivate such a party system? Amid the current tumult and polarization of our politics, much of it the result of the degradation of our parties, it behooves us to seek answers to these questions.
We can gain a better purchase on them by revisiting the assessments of a cohort of political scientists from the mid-20th century. These scholars were conservatives in the small "c" sense of the word. They were critics of the "responsible" evolution of America's political parties that some progressive political scientists were then beginning to champion and cheer on. Recovering the collective insights of this conservative cohort will take some intellectual archeology. They have been supplanted over time by three generations of more wishful and superficial thinking about the American party system, which has materially contributed to our contemporary challenges.
The conservative cohort viewed the problem of union — how to maintain a modicum of national unity in James Madison's extended republic — as the persistent and fundamental challenge of American politics. They understood the country's decentralized and ungainly party system — really a system of party systems — to be intertwined with, and well suited for, our diverse society and constitutional arrangements. They were also prescient about the harmful consequences of moving toward the more expressly democratic and nationalized two-party system sought (initially) by progressive scholars and (subsequently) by ideologues in both parties.
Given what idealistic reformers and determined partisans have since wrought, we cannot return to the more traditional party system fathomed by the conservative cohort. Nor would we want to — it depended on the spoils system and accommodated Jim Crow. But perhaps we can regain some of the decentralized dynamics and subtle, consensus-building virtues of the previous era. Fostering factions, revitalizing local parties, enabling more parties in more places, and reconnecting politicians with their constituents could help restore the coalitional politics needed to solve the problem of union. The first and most important step, however, needs to occur in the realm of ideas. We need to understand the problem in its proper terms.
THE GREAT TASK OF AMERICAN POLITICS
The scholars in this cohort included Pendleton Herring (author of The Politics of Democracy, published in 1940), Austin Ranney and Willmoore Kendall (Democracy and the American Party System, 1956), Clinton Rossiter (Parties and Politics in America, 1960), Edward Banfield ("In Defense of the American Party System," 1961), and James Q. Wilson (The Amateur Democrat, 1962).
This was a distinguished group. Herring, Ranney, and Wilson would each serve terms as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA). As a Harvard professor, Herring helped found the precursor to the Kennedy School and advised the Truman administration on the landmark National Security Act. Herring subsequently led the Social Science Research Council for two influential decades and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for nearly three. Ranney was active in Democratic Party politics throughout his career, including as a member of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, and later chaired Berkeley's political-science department. Ranney's co-author, Kendall, taught at Yale, where one of his enterprising students was William F. Buckley, Jr., whom he helped to found National Review. Kendall went on to serve as the founding chair of the department of politics and economics at the University of Dallas. Rossiter won the Bancroft Prize and chaired the government department at Cornell, where he held the John L. Senior Professorship of American Institutions. Banfield started his career at the University of Chicago, where he befriended Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman, and later advised a series of American presidents after he moved to Harvard. Wilson, Banfield's student, went on to become perhaps the most accomplished and influential social scientist of the second half of the 20th century.
With the exception of Kendall, none of the scholars identified as conservative in the political or ideological sense as they wrote about political parties at mid-century (though Banfield and Wilson later would). But they all had a conservative cast of mind. They were realists who had reconciled themselves to humanity's crooked timber. Herring prefaced his book on political parties, for example, by acknowledging that he would be giving citizens a tour of "the rogues' gallery of American politics." He went on to point out that "the good and bad are inextricably mixed under democracy as they are under any other human institution." His realism obliged him to proceed knowing that "[s]pecial pleading and partisan zeal have been as much a part of government as has loyalty to broad principles of public welfare." The challenge for scholars and students of politics was to take all this behavior into account rather than wishing the less seemly parts away.
Herring and other members of the cohort had been steeped in and appreciated the American political tradition and its inherited dispositions and institutions. But following Madison, they were not content to see "parchment barriers," and the legal notions they embodied, as fixed constraints on political behavior. Those were better understood as prompts for behavior. As grounded intellectual craftsmen, members of this cohort were wary of grand theories and saw the best as the enemy of the good. And they regarded political order as a good but precarious thing.
Indeed, these scholars focused on understanding the institutional and social underpinnings that gird democracy in America. They warned against naïve or rash changes to those foundations. In their eyes, the stability and unity of our system of government could not be taken for granted. Like the founders and Alexis de Tocqueville before them, they grappled with how to preserve a republican form of government cast on a continental scale that intentionally encompassed myriad divisions. They took careful measure of what Ranney and Kendall termed the high "civil-war potential" built into American society, a possibility that had not been stamped out by the Civil War itself. They contended that America's pluralistic parties, and the moderating dynamics of the party system produced by their recurring contest for power, had helped keep such a conflict from flaring up again.
Ranney and Kendall proposed that, "by sustaining and refreshing the consensus on which our society and governmental system are based," the American party system "makes possible our characteristic brand of pluralistic bargaining-compromising discussion of public issues, which is probably about as close to the model of creative democratic discussion in the nation-state as a community like the United States can hope to get."
PARTY AND REGIME
A critical aspect of the work of this cohort of political scientists was the regime-level perspective they brought to their assessments of party politics in the United States. They viewed parties as institutions embedded in, and shaped by, the foundational features of the American system of government. These included the separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, the Bill of Rights, and the republic's extended sphere. Our governing arrangements for separating, checking, balancing, and limiting power made Westminster-style parliamentary parties impractical — and required negotiation and compromise between and among politicians of all stripes. Federalism meant we had an aggregate party system composed of scores of different party systems in states and localities. Multifaceted variations along economic, regional, racial, and religious lines, combined with the need to cobble together a national majority across them, pushed parties to open their tents to all comers.
The pathways of American political development also factored in to the heady mix of materials these scholars sifted through. That the United States had democratized before it bureaucratized its government meant patronage had long fueled party politics. Scholars in this group didn't flinch from recognizing that party leaders — from postmasters general down to local bosses running teams of ward heelers — performed essential functions of political brokerage behind the scenes. And the richness of Americans' associational lives, in civil society and the economy alike, permeated parties and government, further diversifying coalitional politics.
Even as the parties bore the imprint of the American regime, these political scientists recognized how the parties had, in turn, come to reinforce and support its core purposes. The parties served as pragmatic enablers of the horse-trading, log-rolling, and skid-greasing needed to make our complex governing machinery work — without setting grandiose and unsustainable forces in motion. Because both of the major parties spanned rival factions, interests, regions, etc., they served to defuse and muffle conflict even as they aggregated it. In their quest for votes across the diversity of the country, the parties' decentralized competition was thus more apt to stay within constitutional bounds.
Indeed, these scholars saw America's political parties not simply as institutions produced by and inextricably enmeshed in the American regime, but ultimately as the glue that held it together. Rossiter opened his book on parties encapsulating this shared perspective: "No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation. So runs the string of assumptions on which hangs this exposition of the politics of American democracy." Acknowledging the counterintuitive nature of most of his logic, Rossiter went on to note that "[a]ll but the first of these are assumptions with which many Americans find it hard to live" — hence the unending push by reformers to clean up politics by purifying parties.
These conservative scholars recognized that the American party system could be messy and homely — especially compared to the ideal of Westminster-style party systems that had animated reformers from Woodrow Wilson's day to their own. But they also knew that surface appearances and ungrounded trans-Atlantic comparisons missed an underlying reality: The traditional American parties they studied and defended had developed in ways that were fit for the purposes of the American regime. As a result, the country continued to enjoy the modicum of consensus and unity it needed to prosper. That, they knew, was no small thing.
In keeping with this conviction, the conservative scholars made a point of contesting what they regarded as naïve reform proposals to remake the American party system. They saw the push to convert the pragmatic, decentralized, ramshackle parties native to American soil into principled, nationalized, coherent parties as a grave mistake. It was impractical given the constitutional constraints on parliamentary government in the United States, such as the separation of powers and bicameral legislature. Moreover, they believed efforts to sharpen political conflict threatened the country's political and social fabric. They would raise the stakes of the problem of union, and not in a good way.
Being conservative, the scholars also appreciated how attempts to "fix" one component of a complex web of political and governing arrangements risked unanticipated and confounding consequences. Edward Banfield in particular emphasized this pitfall, reminding his readers "how difficult is the problem of planning social change. Social relationships constitute systems: they are mutually related in such a manner that a change in one tends to produce changes in all of the others." He went on to contend that, in contrast to the "tunnel vision" of the reformers, "those who are concerned with the welfare of society as a whole must take the widest perspective possible. They must try to identify all of the consequences that will follow from a reform — the unintended ones no less than the intended, the remote, contingent, and imponderable no less than the immediate, certain, the specifiable." In sum, the scholars comprising the conservative cohort did not believe the party reformers had done their homework.
Even as they warned against misguided reform, however, these scholars had to reckon with developments that were then eroding core elements of the traditional party system they defended. The ongoing expansion in the role and size of government, especially at the national level, had heightened debates between the parties and oriented them toward policy matters in Washington. The corresponding growth of the administrative state, and the demands for greater professionalism and expertise in its ranks, furthered calls for civil-service reform. As sources of patronage dried up, party machines started to decline. As government agencies formally took on the social-welfare functions that had long been fulfilled by local parties, albeit informally and imperfectly, party loyalty eroded. And as more Americans became better educated, they were less willing to leave politics to the professionals.
At the same time, a blind spot in the traditional party system began to unsettle it: the longstanding but now precarious accommodation of racial segregation, exclusion, and violence in the South. Jim Crow relied on decentralized and pragmatic party politics to sustain itself. The Democratic Party, and the American party system writ large, had obliged since the compromise of 1877. This enabled what Ranney and Kendall accurately described as "the basic strategy of the southern whites...excluding Negroes from any effective participation in politics at home, and maintaining a solid front in national politics against any intervention by the national government in southern race relations." To the emerging civil-rights movement and its allies in Congress, however, the constraints of this compromise were increasingly unacceptable. It is no accident that the Democratic lawmakers who were early civil-rights advocates led the push to make their party more responsible.
Against this backdrop, a direct and telling attack on the conservative cohort's political science came in the realm of ideas. It was led by E. E. Schattschneider of Wesleyan University, an accomplished and influential scholar in his own right, who would also serve a term as president of the APSA. Schattschneider's Party Government (published in 1942) fired the opening salvo in the renewed battle. He later became the intellectual and organizational leader of the APSA's Committee on Political Parties. The committee's landmark 1950 report, "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System," transformed the debate about party politics in America.
For all of their differences, it is striking how much Schattschneider and his fellow APSA committee members agreed with the conservative cohort on the particulars of the American party system. Both groups' diagnoses highlighted the same facts: Pragmatic and undisciplined parties in government operated in haphazard and fleeting coalitions, often in league with their opponents. Unofficial and incorrigible bosses dominated party organizations focused on getting and keeping power, not wielding it for systematic purposes. Party voters remained largely uninterested in politics unless and until they were riled up by emotional appeals at election time.
But while the conservatives appreciated the parties and all they had managed to accomplish, the reformers, generally of a more progressive and unforgiving bent, found fault with what they were not doing. The different perspectives lent themselves to benevolent or harsh judgments, respectively. When it came to party bosses, for example, Herring praised the necessary albeit "peculiar contributions" made by "the specialist in human relations," while Schattschneider denounced them as "parasites" and "racketeers."
Beneath these divergent judgments lay two fundamental points of disagreement. First, Schattschneider and his allies, like their progressive forebear Woodrow Wilson, believed that new policy challenges confronting the United States both required and would enable responsible party government. By this they meant a system in which parties stood for clear, distinct, and starkly opposed platforms that they promised to implement, so that the public faced a substantive choice of direction at election time. The conservative cohort disagreed. To them, the New Deal and World War II demonstrated that American democracy could rise, in its own inimitable ways, to the most severe occasions. And the constitutional obstacles to British-style party responsibility remained fixed in place. But Schattschneider and his colleagues drew inspiration from the post-war track record of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, not least the establishment of the National Health Service. It convinced them of the need to bring that type of policymaking engine to America, and that the main barriers were, as Schattschneider insisted, "intellectual, not legal."
Second, Schattschneider and his fellow APSA committee members discounted and ultimately dismissed the problem of union that was central to the political science of the conservative cohort. They took for granted the social cohesion that, in the eyes of conservatives, was a direct consequence of the dynamics of the traditional party system the reformers sought to overturn. The progressives believed that a more responsible two-party system would clarify and sharpen political debate, but only up to a reasonable point. "There is no real ideological division in the American electorate," the committee asserted. "[H]ence programs of action presented by responsible parties for the voter's support could hardly be expected to reflect or strive toward such division."
James Q. Wilson, writing a decade later and observing how issue-driven party activists were challenging and making real inroads against the authority of traditional party organizations, disagreed. "The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one's party from the opposition along policy lines," Wilson predicted, "will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party's ability to produce agreement by trading issue free resources will be reduced."
THE CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF POLARIZATION
In retrospect Wilson, and the conservative cohort whose warnings he crystallized, turned out to be correct. But the advocates of a more responsible party system carried the day. As Sam Rosenfeld has demonstrated in his 2017 book, The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era, party activists successfully put the theory propounded by Schattschneider and the APSA committee into practice. Reform-minded Democrats explicitly applied its recommendations as they sought to remake their party into a national organ taking responsibility for advancing liberal causes. The GOP faction contesting Dwight Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism in the name of conservative principles also made use of the theory in their quest to offer voters "a choice, not an echo."
In the decades that followed, the push for long overdue civil-rights legislation and the political realignment resulting from it played into the polarizers' hands. So, too, did the expansion of the federal government's policy role in the 1960s and '70s, prompting the fight that our increasingly sorted and entrenched parties have waged ever since.
Looking back across three generations, the steady progression set in motion by the polarizers — first in the realm of ideas, then in political practice — is readily discernible. Thanks in large part to their efforts, we now have a party system that, from a certain vantage point, resembles what Schattschneider and the APSA committee called for. The organizational infrastructure of our major parties has been nationalized (with their state and local organs left to play vestigial roles). The parties have drawn and divided along distinct lines of policy that their officeholders feel unstinting pressure to toe. Congress, the redoubt of so much parochialism and irresponsibility in the eyes of reformers, has more and more found itself subordinated to the national leadership of the presidency. Politics and policy in Washington now loom much larger in the lives of many Americans who have been politically activated by the clash between the parties. Schattschneider's claim that there was no legal or formal constitutional barrier to these developments in America has, in this sense at least, turned out to be correct.
But taking in the full picture, the project of a more responsible two-party system has gone badly awry. The constitutional impediments to parliamentary-style responsibility have continued to frustrate the plans and policy agendas of even our periodic unified governments in Washington. Moreover, in polarized federalism, Republican states now actively resist the agendas of Democratic policymakers when they control the federal branches, and vice versa when power in D.C. changes hands. Policymaking in America continues to be, as it always has been, about muddling through to more or less coherent governing. But the partisan charge produced by polarization has increased the odds of gridlock and made muddling through more difficult and less satisfying.
The biggest cost of the failed attempt to make our party system more responsible has been the vociferous tribalism it has instilled in our politics. The problem of union — of our "civil-war potential" — is once again rearing up. Unlike Schattschneider and his fellow APSA committee members, however, the current generation of political scientists does not have the luxury of ignoring it. Indeed, the problem is much more pressing today than when the conservative scholars, writing more than 60 years ago, helped Americans understand how their party system had been mitigating it.
TOWARD A MORE PLURALISTIC PARTY SYSTEM
Recounting this evolution points to several fundamental questions: Can we adjust our parties and party system so that they might once again help us resolve, rather than exacerbate, the problem of union? If so, how? What would it take to foster more pluralism and pragmatism across our party system? How can parties better reflect and help reconcile the diverse and competing values, interests, beliefs, and agendas that abound in our extended republic? How can we restore the legitimacy of political opposition that democracy requires? There are no easy answers to these questions, but we can note and encourage some promising political developments.
One such development could be the emergence of more robust factions within the two major parties. As Steven Teles, Robert Saldin, and Daniel DiSalvo have suggested in this journal in recent years, by intensifying conflict within the parties, we can reduce the negative effects of polarization between them. While the clash of disparate and competing factions inside the parties runs counter to ideals of responsible partisanship, it creates more leeway for creative coalition building and policymaking. Without squinting, we can see factions beginning to challenge the dominant wing of each party, though they will need ideas, organizations, and funding to press their case.
Having a solid geographic base of support helps factions gain traction. Thus a related and similarly positive development may come through the revitalization of local and state party organizations. This is already happening in some locales through new patterns of year-round, relational organizing that reorients these entities toward local needs and viewpoints. Scholars including Tabatha Abu El-Haj, Didi Kuo, Hahrie Han, Lara Putnam, Theda Skocpol, Caroline Tervo, and Vanessa Williamson have written about why and how this is occurring. There are examples of it in both parties, which is in itself an encouraging sign. We don't know yet how widely this pattern can spread or if it will foster intraparty pluralism, but it appears promising.
A development that could help seed new state and local parties, revitalize existing ones, and reinforce pluralism is expanding the use of fusion voting outside New York, Connecticut, and Oregon. Enabling minor parties to develop their own agendas and support candidates of major parties when warranted gives people more reasons and ways to engage in local and state politics. By equipping factions with their own ballot lines and the power that comes with it, fusion voting also elevates the importance of coalition building and negotiations within and between parties. In contrast to voter-centric election reforms (like ranked-choice voting and open primaries) favored by the democracy-reform community, fusion voting is a party-centric reform. It assumes, correctly, that parties are key building blocks of democracy and seeks to empower them to play constructive roles within it.
Another reform could also help decentralize party politics in constructive ways. In 2020, New York enacted a law for public financing of campaigns for state offices that matches contributions candidates receive from small donors within their prospective constituencies. The matching ratio is generous — 12:1 for the first $50 contributed to state legislative candidates, for example. Combined with lower campaign-contribution limits, the new law will shift the incentives for political candidates for state office, encouraging them to cultivate connections with those they seek to represent. Because matching would not be offered to national networks of online donors, one can readily envision local party organizations being resuscitated to enlist and guide small donors on behalf of party candidates in particular locales. As Michael Malbin, a political scientist who helped shape the New York reform, puts it, this is a "neo-Madisonian" approach: It acknowledges (as Madison eventually felt obliged to) the roles that parties inevitably play in American politics. The reform is operative for the first time in the current election cycle, but it holds promise. If it pans out, it could be adopted elsewhere.
These four green shoots — factionalism, reviving local and state party organizations, fusion voting, and constituency-based campaign-finance reform — may or may not come to fruition. No doubt other seedlings are needed. But first, a critical development has to occur in the realm of ideas.
We cannot go back to the traditional party system, but we can and should endeavor to follow in the conservative cohort's footsteps. We need to once again see the problem of union as the fundamental challenge of the American regime. We must also endeavor, as they did, to fathom the workings of and support an appropriately American party system to help us cope with, if not solve, the problem.