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Aldrich: Why parties

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Aldrich. 1995. Why parties? The origin and transformation of party politics in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In Brief

In short: parties are an endogenous institution. Although much recent literature has focused on the decline of parties, and on the resulting loss of a "major historical vehicle for aggregating the interests of this diverse republic," parties have always been no more than a tool of the politicians, the ambitious office seekers, and the officeholders. They have maintained or abused the party system "when doing so has furthered their goals and ambitions." Politicians "do not have partisan goals per se. Rather, they have more fundamental goals, and the party is only the instrument for achieving them." The goals are varied, but the basic goal is "to have a long and successful career in political office," in addition to policy and power goals. "These goals are to be sought in government, not in parties, but they are goals that at times have best been realized through the parties." (4)

Thus, three major forces shape political parties:

  1. "Collective action," the usual argument about party's purposes for individual voters--organize them, aggregate interests, etc.
  2. "Collective choice": Is the party a useful tool in solving social choice problems (in interactions between electoral, legislative, and executive institutions) that cannot be solved more easily in other ways?
  3. Historical setting. Technological setting: Computers, TV, air travel make parties less necessary for organizing a campaign. Normative setting: the appropriate (perceived) role of the government.

The Theory


  • Political parties are created, shaped and transformed by political actors, which are either officeholders, office seekers or benefit seekers.
  • Voters are not part of the political party, nonetheless they are critical as targets of party activities.
  • Rational, elective office seekers and holders use the party to achieve their ends. These actors may have values, principles and preferences over policies and means for reaching policy goals. "They also care about office, both for its own sake and for the opportunities to achieve ends that election and reelection made possible", therefore they are concerned with winning. Just as winning elections is a means to other ends for politicians (whether career or policy ends), so too is the political party as a means to these other ends". (21)

The General Argument

A political party is an endogenous institution shaped by ambitious political actors (office seeker and officeholder). Political parties are the main instruments that "help" politicians to accomplish their goals (long and successful career in political office, achievement of policy ends and power and prestige within the government).

The form in which political parties can "help" ambitious politicians depends on three variables: the polity (electorate), the institutional setting (for example, a republican form of government,) and the historical context (ideas, values, technological conditions and also path of development). The first two variables create collective action and collective choice problems. The historical context determines whether parties are the most efficient means of solving these two problems.

In sum, "parties are designed as attempts to solve problems that current institutional arrangements do not solve and that politicians have come to believe they cannot solve." (22). These problems are related to collective action and collective choice.

Place in the Literature

According to Aldrich, the literature has used three major approaches to understanding parties.

Parties as Diverse Coalitions

Parties are interest aggregators. The two parties are similar because both seek to appeal to a majority of the public; they are just umbrella organizations for various interests.

The theoretical problem with this approach: there really are distinct ideological differences between the parties. For example, the parties differ considerably on civil rights and on the scope of government intervention in society and the economy. They have not converged on the median. Though, granted, each party is a coalition of diverse groups.

The practical problem solved by approach: Madison argued that a strong federation would prevent tyranny by a majority, due to diversity. But the opposite problem can also occur: diversity makes forming a majority difficult. Thus, gridlock. This approach solves this problem by seeing "parties [as] intermediaries that connect the public and the government" (9).

This approach's chief concern is the supposed decline of parties.

The Responsible Party Thesis

Less a theory than a normative doctrine, this is an ideal statement of what makes a good party--a bit outdated today,, but typical of political science in its earlier years (e.g. APSA 1950). Four characteristics of a good party:

  1. make policy commitments to electorate
  2. carry them out in office
  3. when out of office, come up with alternatives to current policies
  4. be sufficiently different to offer voters a real choice

Problems with this approach:

  1. assumes only two-party rule is good
  2. alternation of parties in office can result in wildly erratic policy
  3. parties don't actually live up to these ideals very well--they focus on candidates, not policy, and often fail to present a real choice between policy proposals.

Parties as Electoral Aids

Competition for office is the "singular, defining characteristic of the major American political party" (12). The goal of politicians is office--the party is a team used to get office. It's there for coordination to get the victory. Thus, healthier systems have more competition. People in this school argue against the "decline of parties" thesis--because both parties are still able to compete quite well.

This is an economic (Downsian/Schumpeterian) view of democracy--parties present competing policies in order to get reelection, so an "invisible hand" leads to good government.

Empirical Question: Are Parties Declining?

The case for the importance of political parties

  • Partisanship has remained "as stable and enduring for most adults after dealignment as it did before it" (15)
  • Party organizations are stronger, better financed, and more professional
  • Party provides candidates more electoral support than any other group
  • Officeholders remain loyal to parties in Congress
  • Relationships among branches in government are heavily partisan

The case for weak and weakening parties

  • Elections make incumbents responsible to district, but not for what their party does in Congress
  • Congress has become more fragmented, making it hard for president to deliver policy
  • Divided government has become common
  • "The proportions and strength of party attachments in the electorate declined in the mid-1960s. There was a resurgence in affiliation twenty years later, but to a lower level than before 1966" (17).
  • Incumbents, being less dependent on the party, vote along party lines less frequently (to respond to constituents)

Is the debate genuine?

Schlesinger: calls the decline-of-parties thesis a myth: "Thanks to increasing levels of competition between the parties, then, American political parties are stronger than before" (17)

Empirical analysis

In the first part of his empirical study, Aldrich analyzes political party development between 1790 and 1860. He studies the formation of the Federalist and Republicans parties, the construction of the mass party during Jacksonian years, as well as the characteristics of Democrats, Whigs and Republicans. Aldrich shows how political parties of the first party system were institutional arrangements that helped to solve the social choice problem caused by "the great principle", which refers to the discussion about the extension and scope of the federal government. The mass party that characterized the second party system was an institutional outcome that politicians employed to resolve the collective action problem of social mobilization.

In the second part of the book, Aldrich analyses party politics since 1960. He argues that political parties have been moving since 1960 from the mass political parties to the candidate-centered parties. He sustains that this movement do not represent a political party declination, but just a political party transformation. Following V.O. Key's differentiation, he sustains that contemporary political parties have declined as parties-in- the electorate, but at the same time they have become stronger as parties-as-organization and as parties-in-government.

These changes are due to the lost of parties' control over campaigns. Now, due to technological improvements, changes in politicians and electorate priorities (policy preponderance), etc., candidates are able to provide the "information goods' that political parties used to supply. Although, this "new" situation means that politics are now candidate-centered, political parties are still important institutions for ambitious politicians; since political parties are now "parties-in-service" to candidates.

If parties have declined, this decline has not occurred in their formal organizations, but in their capacity to attract the electorate. Political parties are still important in terms of legislative behavior and in terms of the relations between branches of government.