Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Polarization and the Fight over Party Structure

Byron E. Shafer, Regina L. Wagner

Debates over party structure and party organization have been long-running throughout American political history. Starting with Andrew Jackson and his reforms of the party system, later joined by the Progressive movement and its battle against machine politics, there has been a persistent struggle, a war if you want, over party organization and the associated leverage of party insiders versus activists, a war that had been assumed to have been settled in the 1960s and early 1970s with the victory of issue activists over party “machines“.

However, the 2016 election and its aftermath centered the national political debate once again squarely around questions of party structure, putting them front and center in a way that had not been seen for years if not decades. Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the Republican primary (and subsequently the general election), Bernie Sanders’ (credible though unsuccessful) insurgent populist challenge to Hillary Clinton, as well as victories by insurgent candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley over incumbent “establishment“ figures like Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano along with the month-long internal debate about reforms to the Democratic nominating process for 2020 hyper-focused national attention on issues of party organization, insiders versus outsiders, insurgents, activists, and “party machines“. The surprise (probable[1]) victory of insurgent Tiffany Cabán[2] in the Democratic primary for district attorney of Queens reignited a (most likely premature) debate about the death of the “Queens Democratic machine“.

These discussions about party organization and party structure connect back to the older battles, and while political science had mostly shelved the topic since the 1980s, recent developments show that, contrary to so many previous assumptions, the practical outcome of this debate is far from settled. Internal battles over party organization and structure, an integral part of the fights over who should lead the respective parties, are the meat of  The Long War over Party Structure: Democratic Representation and Policy Responsiveness in American Politics.

We suggest that two party models live in the heads of politicians, party leaders, and political operatives alike. Model one posits that individuals enter politics after being based in one or more serious community organizations; they rise up through the party; and they sustain themselves by delivering programs. In the old days, ‘delivering programs’ meant fungible rewards; in the modern version, it means actual programs and legislation. Your local base matters a lot. This is the model of the organized party, the party establishment, the insiders and the “machines“. Model two on the other hand has aspiring politicians enter politics when the spirit moves them, ordinarily by way of a particularly intense issue concerns; they log-roll to create a party program with other equally intense persons with additional issue concerns; and their success is judged by the degree to which they do not compromise the program. Your local community is often in the way of all these people. This is the model of the activists, the outsiders, the purists, and the insurgents.

In The Long War Over Party Structure, we discover that model one discourages partisan polarization while model two encourages it. Volunteer parties are more polarized, their activists not only further from those of the other party but often further from their own base, than the active organized parties. Issue activists often actively drive polarization, forcing their base into alignment and staking out positions further from their counterparts and further from the national mean. In other words, battles over the internal structure of parties have ripple effects far beyond the party organizations themselves. As we show in The Long War, the results of these battles have deep and lasting implications for the broad contents and perimeters of  political debate. The rise of the issue-oriented and deeply ideological party activist and the retreat of the “political machines“ have gone hand in hand with a rise in polarization. The ongoing contests over party-internal structural and organizational matters and the increasingly purist demands by ideologically motivated activists point, if successful, to further polarization in the future. The long war over party structure appears far from over, and its effects will be far-reaching and persistent.

[1] As of this writing, the race has not been called. Cabán leads by about 1100 votes (a margin of 1.3%), with approximately 3400 paper ballots yet to be counted. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/15/nyregion/queens-da-recount-caban-katz.html

[2] Cabán does not have any ties to the local Democratic party and no prior experience in elected office, but she was endorsed by the New York Times, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and two presidential candidates (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) prior to her razor thin (almost certain) victory over Queens borough president Melinda Katz, who had the backing of the local party organization as well as New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

Latest Comments

Have your say!