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Polsby: The consequencies of party reform

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Polsby. 1983. The consequencies of party reform.

In Brief

Main Point: Polsby wants to trace the consequences of two key party reforms (the IVs) passed during the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These reforms had wide-ranging consequences (the DVs) for political parties, the conduct of presidents while in office, political intermediation, mobilization and accountability.

Methodology: Polsby relies mainly on historical/journalistic accounts to prove his points. Because he tends to use random historical facts rather than consistent explication of single cases, I hesitate to call them case studies (except for his discussion of the Carter presidency).

The Reforms

Two Major Reforms

Campaign finance reform: the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (we've talked about these before). In brief: limits on personal and partisan contributions to campaigns, transparency and record-keeping requirements, federal matching funds for presidential candidates in primary and general elections, and so on.

Changes in each party's presidential nomination procedures: took control of presidential nominations away from local political bosses and gave them to primary elections. These changes resulted from the recommendations of the McGovern-Fraser Commission of the Democratic Party. How did one party's reform lead to primary-centered nominations for both parties? State party leaders had five incentives to change state election laws governing party primaries in line with the recommendations of the McGovern-Fraser commission.

  • Centralization of control over the certification of delegates in the hands of national party officials, arising from the uncertainties created by the new reforms.
  • Federal subsidies for candidates to contest primaries, interacting with the mass media and with the public commitment of delegates to candidates so as to push critical decisions earlier and earlier on the calendar.
  • Restriction of sources of money other than subsidy
  • Changes in primary election rules promoting ease of candidate entry
  • Separation of state conventions from delegate selection procedures owing to the risks of contamination of state conventions by candidate enthusiasts.

Consequences for Parties

He finds that both reforms had wide ranging impacts: State party bosses lost power, candidates and national party functionaries have gained power.

A nomination process dominated by primaries forces an early definitive choice on the party. Caucuses allowed state party leaders to gain bargaining leverage by keeping their delegates uncommitted until the national conventions. Because primaries are now dominant, the pressure on state party leaders (even in states that still have caucuses) from candidates effectively kills this option.

  • With all delegates committed, national nominating conventions now simply rubber stamp the choices made in state primaries. They are still important for the general election because they are big media events, but they've lost their power to give dark horse (or even second place) candidates a chance at the nomination (James K. Polk would be disappointed if he ran today).

Candidate-centered campaigns: candidates must build their own personal organizations in every state because state party organizations can no longer deliver delegates.

  • Candidates competing in primaries have to rely on mobilizing factions to win primaries rather than building coalitions to win party caucuses (or uncommitted delegates at national conventions). They have to do this because:
  • Victory in primaries rests on a candidate's ability to differentiate herself from her rivals in a crowded field, and mobilize her supporters to turnout in primary elections where very small percentages make big differences.
  • The transparency provisions of the nomination reforms allowed greater media coverage. This turned the "smoke filled rooms" of the Iowa Caucuses into a major media event. Candidates need to focus on promoting their own name-recognition in the face of greater media attention.

Campaign finance reforms have destroyed the grass roots of each party. The onerous reporting requirements of the reforms have forced campaigns to discourage independent grass roots efforts, lest they lead to violations of contribution and spending limits.

An increase in the barriers to third parties: federal matching funds require third parties to obtain a set number of votes in the previous election. Also, congress routinely suspends equal time requirements of FCC broadcast licenses in order to exclude minor candidates from televised debates.

Republicans have benefited enormously from these reforms. A nomination process that encourages factionalism poses less of a problem for the more cohesive Republican party than it does for the divided democratic party.

Consequences for Governing Presidents

Primaries force candidates to focus on mobilizing factions rather than building coalitions, this has important consequences for how presidents govern.

  • This chapter is a case study of the problems the Carter administration faced. The main point is that the nominating process didn't force Carter to learn to build coalitions, and to come to terms with his own party. I don't really understand how much these problems were caused by the change in the nominating process or Carter's personal failings.
  • Presidents no longer appoint cabinet members on the basis of their ties to interest groups, instead cabinet appointees are now chosen for their symbolic qualities (race, gender), their personal relationship with the president, or their policy expertise.
  • Presidents find it much more difficult to deal with congress, because congressmen no longer participate in nominating conventions, and thus presidents no longer forge as many close links with them during the elections

Wider Consequences: Political Intermediation, Mobilization and Accountability

Political Intermediation: Parties are now masses of individual voters who pick among candidates in primaries, rather than a coalition of interest groups.

  • New groups like Ralph Nader's organizations, NOW, and black and Hispanic groups have displaced more traditional groups like local party organizations, labor unions, farmer's groups, and business associations. Most of these new groups rely on the media: it is their ability to command news coverage that sustains their political influence.
  • This means that political intermediation is now heavily reliant on the mass media rather than party organizations. This has caused media blunders to have serious political consequences (see Popkin's discussion of tamale shucking).

The rise of the media as political intermediaries has five possible consequences:

  • Crazes or manias: An increase in the intensity of short-term opinion trends.
  • Fads or social contagion: opportunities will arise for the geographic spread of sentiments, both real and imputed, from areas where they exist to areas where they do not.
  • The resuscitation of ideology: ideology here means doctrines elites invoke to capture the attention and induce the compliance of mass publics.
  • Elites still remain important but they are less accountable to one another and more constrained by popular fashion.
  • Heroes and bums: a intermediation system based on the mass media runs on name recognition, celebrity, and typecasting.

The decline in partisanship and electoral turnout among voters result from the changes in the party system caused by the reforms.

  • Reliance on faction mobilization rather than coalition building makes voters feel ignored and unwanted.
  • The replacement of face-to-face and geographically proximate interest groups with distant and symbolic mediation mechanisms cause voters to be less engaged in politics.

Accountability: the jury is still out on this one, but Polsby argues that the accountability of political leaders to the new interest groups are tenuous because they rely on the mass media for their influence. Thus politicians are really accountable to news media managers.

Political Reform and Democratic values

A candidate selection process heavily reliant on primary elections fails to meet a number of tests.

  • It cannot be relied upon to produce a Condorcet winner (a candidate who would beat all her rivals in pairwise comparisons), because pairwise comparisons are not what primaries do.
  • Winners of primaries may be less effective in winning a general election than another candidate. The ability to win primaries with small pluralities means that if a party has a hotly contested primary, it will most likely lose the general election.
  • Primaries do not register second choices, intensities of feeling, or anathemas, all important information that can forestall premature consensus on the wrong candidate.
  • If primaries succeed in reflecting the choices of any population, it is not a population fully or accurately reflective of the party or general electorate.