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Parties composed of issue activists and ideologues behave differently from the parties described in the political science literature of the mid-twentieth century. At that time each party appealed to a different swath of the American public, Democrats primarily to blue-collar workers and Republicans to middleclass professionals and managers. Because such large social groupings were far from homogeneous internally, the party platform had to tolerate internal heterogeneity in order to maintain itself and to compete across a reasonably broad portion of the country. Although both parties continue to have support in broad social groupings like blue-collar workers and white-collar 1i (Ij ~ 1 THE DISCONNECT: HOW UNUSUAL? HOW BAD? 157 professionals, their bases now consist of much more specifically defined groups. Democrats rely on public-sector unions, environmentalists, and pro-choice and other liberal cause groups. Republicans rely on evangelicals, small business organizations, and pro-life and other conservative cause groups. Rather than compromise on a single major issue, such as economics, a process that midcentury political scientists correctly saw as inherently moderating, parties can now compromise across issues by adding up constituency groups’ most preferred positions on a series of independent issues. Why should conservative today mean pro-life, low taxes, pro-capital punishment, and pre-emptive war and liberal mean just the opposite? What is the underlying principle that ties such disparate issues together? The underlying principle is political, of course, not logical or moral. Collections of positions like these happen to be the preferred positions of groups that now constitute important parts of the party bases. Although it is more speculative, I believe that unbiased information and policy effectiveness are additional casualties of the preceding developments. The APSA report asserts that II As a means of achieving responsibility, the clarification of party policy also tends to keep public debate on a more realistic level, restraining the inclination of party spokesmen to make unsubstantiated statements and charges.”46 Recent experience shows just the opposite. Policies are proposed and opposed relatively more on the basis of ideology and the demands of base groups and relatively less on the basis of their likelihood of solving problems. Disinformation and even outright lies become common as dissenting voices in each party leave or are silenced. A disturbing example came out of Congressional passage of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug add-on bill. Political superiors threatened to fire Medicare’s chief actuary if he informed Congress that the estimated cost of the add-on would be far more costly than the administration publicly claimed. The administration apparently was willing to lie to members of its own party to assure passage of a bill whose basis was mostly politicaJ.47 Justice Department lawyers concluded that Rep. Tom DeLay’s
(R-Tex.) mid-decade redistricting of Texas violated the Voting Right Act, but political superiors approved the plan anyway.48 On a more mundane level, President Bush introduced his campaign to add personal accounts to Social Security by claiming that Social Security was bankrupt and that personal accounts were a means of restoring the system to fiscal solvency. Although many experts see merit in the idea of personal accounts, most agreed that implementing them would increase Social Security’s fiscal deficits in the coming decades. Even greater agreement surrounded rejection of the claim that Social Security was bankrupt. Although politically difficult, straightforward programmatic changes in the retirement age, the tax base, or the method of indexing future benefits would make Social Security solvent for as long as actuaries can reasonably predict.49 Moreover, because parties today focus on their ability to mobilize the already committed, the importance of actual performance for voting declines in importance relative to ideology and political identity. It was telling that in 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry frequently was criticized for not having a plan to end the war in Iraq that was appreciably different from President Bush’s. This seems like a new requirement. In 1952 did Dwight Eisenhower have a specific plan to end the war in Korea that differed from President Truman’s? “I will go to Korea” is not exactly a plan. In 1968 did Richard Nixon have a specific plan to end the war in Vietnam that differed from President Johnson’s? A “secret plan” to end the war is not exactly a precise blueprint that voters could compare with the Johnson policy. Some decades ago voters apparently felt that an unpopular war was sufficient reason to punish an incumbent whether or not the challenger offered a persuasive “exit strategy.” A final consideration relates to the preceding ones. Because today’s parties are composed relatively more of issue activists than of broad demographic groupings, they are not as deeply rooted in the mass of the population as was the case for much of our history. The United States pioneered the mass party, but as Steven Schier has argued, in recent decades the parties have practiced a kind of exclusive politics.50 The mass mobilization campaigns that historically characterized American elections gave way to the high-tech media campaigns of the late-twentieth century. Voter mobilization by the political parties correspondingly fell.51 Late-century campaigns increasingly relied on TV ads, and there is some evidence that such ads demobilize the electorate. 52 In a kind of “back to the future” development, the three most recent presidential elections have seen renewed party effort to get out the vote, with a significant impact.53 But modem computing capabilities and rich databases enable the parties to practice a kind of targeted mobilization based on specific issues that was more difficult to do in earlier periods. It is not clear that such activities make the parties more like those of yesteryear, or whether they only reinforce the trends I have previously discussed. One-third of the voting-age population continues to eschew a party identification, a figure that has not appreciably changed in three decades.54 And party registration figures in states that tabulate them show the parties losing ground relative to independent and “decline to state” voters.55 SUMMARY: IS TO DAY’S SORTED, POLARIZED POLITICAL CLASS BAD? The parties today are far closer to the responsible-party model than those of the 1970s, a development that some political scientists wished for some decades ago. But many scholars today are not happy with this development. In truth, most of the unhappiness probably reflects disapproval with the process of politics today-more contentious and less civil. In recent years retiring politicians have complained about the deterioration in the quality of political life, and long-time observers of our politics agree with them.56 Skeptics retort that we should not be greatly concerned about whether our elected officials find their lives satisfying. The important question is whether they are meeting the challenges of our times with the appropriate public policies. Process is mere window-dressing. I am reluctant to dismiss the importance of process. For one thing the uncivil style of modem politics may affect the electorate in a variety of negative ways, making many voters even less willing to take a more active role in politics, for example. There is also some evidence that the polarization of the political class makes voters less likely to trust government. 57 Research on these matters is ongoing, and we will probably know considerably more about such questions in the not-too-distant future. But does the polarization of the political class have a significant negative impact on the policies that our governments adopt? A definitive answer to that question lies in the more distant future. In the 1990S scholars carried on a lengthy debate about whether divided government resulted in poorer legislative outcomes than unified government.58 More than a decade later there is still considerable disagreement on the effects of unified versus divided control on the amount of important legislation, let alone its quality and effectiveness. Some scholars suspect the same will be true of polarized versus centrist politics.59 If so, judgments about the consequences of polarized politics will remain matters of judgment and impression for some time. While conceding the lack of conclusive evidence that the party system of today is any worse at solving societal problems than the system of a generation ago,60 I think it would be very hard to argue that today’s party system is better at solving problems than the disorganized decentralized party system that it replaced. Rather than seek power on the basis of coherent programs, the parties at times throw fundamental principles to the wind when electoral considerations dictate, just as the decentralized parties of the mid-twentieth century did. At other times they hold fast to divisive positions that have only symbolic importance–President Bush reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in his 2005 State of the Union Address while evidently not intending to do anything to achieve it. On issues like Social Security and the war in Iraq, facts are distorted and subordinated to ideology, and party members hesitate to raise a dissenting voice. Mandates for major policy changes are claimed on the basis of narrow electoral victories. And problems continue to fester even when there is general agreement on the outlines of the legislation needed to address them. Again and again immigration reform dies in Congress. To be sure, I have painted with broad brush, and my interpretations of recent political history may prove as partial and inaccurate as some of those advanced in the 1970s. Furthermore, I recognize the possibility that unified Democratic government under present conditions might be significantly different from the unified Republican government we have experiencedGilman argued that the features of responsible parties discussed above are really Republican features. 61 But even if true, this implies that an earlier generation of political scientists failed to appreciate that Republican and Democratic responsible-party government would be significantly different, let alone identify the empirical bases for such differences. In sum, my belief is that the political process today not only is less representative than it was a generation ago and less supported by the citizenry, but the outcomes of that process are at a minimum no better. The present disconnect is cause for concern and not something that can be discounted as either normal or unimportant
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