Strong Partisanship, Weak Parties
by Julia Azari
May 13, 2020
Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, and author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.” This interview was conducted and condensed by franknews.
frank | America today is thought of as extremely partisan, has it always been this way?
No it hasn’t always been the case. In fact, there was this period, from about the 1950s through the 1980s, in American politics and party scholarship, where parties were regarded as weak and highly varied internally. The thinking was that parties were decentralized organizationally, weak nationally and strong at the state and local level. In the middle of the 20th century, the American Political Science Association came out with this report that said, the American political parties don't have clearly differentiated platforms. Even up to the 1970s and 1980s, people were predicting the end of partisanship and a rise in independent candidates.
Then, in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the thinking quickly shifts to, “okay the end of partisanship doesn't seem to be happening anymore.” Because as it turns out, we are extremely partisan. Parties are actually quite well differentiated and national in their ideological scope. If you were to talk to a Republican in Maine and then to talk to a Republican in Oklahoma, there would be a lot of similarity – and the same thing goes for Democrats.
Party scholarship shifted from "American parties are weak and poorly differentiated and not ideological" to "American parties are very ideological and partisan divide is very stark." But that actually leaves a lot of questions open about parties as entities and organizations, which is where my research comes in.
Right, so how do parties fare in a partisan environment? Because one line of thought is – the more partisan a country, the stronger people’s ties are to their party – therefore the party itself is strong. But that doesn’t hold.
Yes exactly, and that is what a lot of my research is around at present.
The biggest part of my research is what I call the ambient societal conversation around political parties. Which basically asks, "What is it the people think political parties are, and why do people feel so skeptical and ambivalent about them, even as we're so deeply partisan?"
One thing I have found to be quite interesting while looking at public opinion polls, are the differences in opinion by gender and race within a party. For example, overall, men tend to rate their own party less favorably. Within the Democrats specifically, there is a large difference in favorability towards the party between white men and everyone else. We know that race and gender are hugely important in polarization between parties, but it seems that they have also driven some division within parties.
That is so interesting. How does a party’s strength influence its ability to govern?
I wrote a piece for Mischief of Faction in 2017 about Republicans titled, The Party That Couldn't Coordinate in the Primary, Can't Coordinate to Govern.
In Congress, there's a lot of what political scientists call veto points – there's a lot of places where political change goes to die. So to deal with that and actually get things done, you have to build a coalition. With the amount of partisanship that we see today, doing that over party lines becomes near impossible. So instead, you have to have a very unified caucus.
What we saw with Republicans in 2017 was, even though they controlled the whole federal government, they couldn’t really get anything done. We saw a similar dynamic with Democrats in the summer of 2018 in regards to the way different factions within the party were talking about Abolish ICE. A lot of Democrats can agree broadly on where they stand on immigration. But then when it turns into actually making that into a policy, you need some kind of process to define your priorities and get everybody on the same page. Things break down very quickly when you go from a very broad position, like we don't like the Affordable Care Act or, we want to open up our policy toward immigration, to the actual details of a policy.
Legislation doesn’t happen just because people share broad principles.
So that's kind of where party weakness comes in for me.
What do you think the 2020 nomination process so far has shown us about the strength of the Democratic party?
I think that Democrats have a stronger party but a harder job.
Meaning that while the Republican party can have a coordination failure, like with the nomination of Trump in 2016, they can then go on to coordinate a minimum coalition around their messaging and then win in the electoral college.
The Democratic coalition does not work like that. There's a lot of complexity in bringing all the different groups that make up the party together. We saw this in the 2016 election. In the case of the 2020 election, you've had a lot of candidates and a lot of discourse about other approaches that Biden doesn't seem like he's very interested in pursuing.
Bringing that whole coalition together is difficult. There are a lot of moving parts to the Democratic coalition. Democrats have historically been a party of process, and our system does not afford parties a good process.
What is a good process?
I think a good process would do a better job of aggregating different interests within political parties. It sounds weird to say, but I think it would actually do better if they had a more organized factions within the parties.
For example, having clear leaders that represent your geographic interest, demographic interests, ideological interests, who can come together and bargain. That happens to some degree at a convention, but not a lot. Will Sander’s people, for example, have serious influence over who Biden’s VP is? Probably not. The party is all about the nominee and once someone becomes a presumptive nominee, it's their party and it’s their convention. That may have some advantages. I'm pretty skeptical of it, because it doesn't leave a lot of room for considering the factions and the ideas of the candidates who did not win the nomination, but nevertheless make up the party.
And that's frustrating. I think parties need to bring back the representative nature of their internal democracy and improve it. But that does entail some delegation of power from voters to accountable party leaders, which people are very suspicious of right now. I don't have a lot of hope for that solution being viable, but thinking of the parties more as representative and less as direct democracies, would, I think, actually help more people's interests and values be better expressed.
That would be a return to how conventions used to work, right?
Old conventions were problematic in all sorts of ways, but I think there should be more robust representative relationships between people’s local delegates. There's local delegates from each congressional district. Even if you could write or call that delegate and explain things that were important to you, like healthcare, and encourage that it is part of the discussion. Primaries afford some of that, but I don't know they're the best intro instrument because they become so centered around a candidate.
It seems complicated to change – maybe not structurally, but in terms of getting public support, it seems really complicated. You wrote recently, “before we let in nostalgia for compromise go too far, we might consider that finding common ground politically has sometimes made things worse.” Could you talk about this idea of compromise and bipartisanship historically?
I think specifically what I was writing about in this instance was the ways in which bipartisanship and compromise have actually been harmful to discussions of race and immigration.
Bipartisanship has thrown African Americans under the bus repeatedly. Certainly until the passage of civil rights in the 60s, but generally a lot of the time. Highlighting the needs and concerns of African American citizens has been the last priority because it turns out it's fairly easy to build a coalition that doesn't address those needs or even a coalition that is outright oppressive.
The same thing with immigration. I was looking into some immigration bills in the late 19th century when a lot of really racist and restrictive things came out. Democrats and Republicans often disagreed about European immigrants, but there was bipartisan consensus that we should exclude people of Asian heritage and specifically, but not exclusively, people of Chinese heritage. And that's just really shitty.
It really illustrates how bipartisanship is not an end in itself.
Do you view the Coronavirus bill as bipartisan?
I wouldn't place that in the same category as some of the covertly racist issues that I was speaking about earlier. I think this another animal, the sort of clunky legislation that comes as a result of living in a big and complicated country. Because there have to be compromises, it doesn't go as far as it could.
People always speak about the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s idea, the idea that after 9/11 there was great unity. You started to see this poke through in the discourse in the last couple of weeks after the Coronavirus crisis. It’s great for people to feel part of something larger and for that sentiment to be part of the crisis response, but that usually does have some exclusion and that exclusion is often racial.
After 9/11, we may have felt more unity, but we saw hate crimes and discrimination against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage sky-rocket at that time too. Often in these moments of unity, there is a target, and that is a concern for me.
I wouldn’t say the Coronavirus response legislation is dangerous in the way that the immigration and race compromises were, but as we think about bringing the nation together around this crisis, I would be concerned about ensuring that we are doing that in a way that's inclusive and not racist, and doesn't scapegoat or target people.
I keep hearing about Coronavirus as a great equalizer but I feel like it’s highlighting inequities not hiding them. And that again, seems to be missing from legislation.
Yeah. I think that's exactly right.
We say, "oh, this is a great equalizer." There's a truth to the idea that money can't buy your way out of a virus, but it can buy you a lot of nice things that can help you weather a pandemic.
In terms of legislation that could address that, I think there could always be more and it could be more systemic.
I do want to note that where I was talking about bringing people together and not scapegoating, I have seen from left leaning people on social media, essentially, arguing that the exception to that would be directing the blame and punishment toward corporations, and the wrath towards the people who have powered this highly inequitable economic situation.
I'm not really sure what the right solution is as far as targeting or punishing those interests. This was a conversation after the financial crash as well. And the answer was pretty much like, we're going to veer away from any serious kind of populist ideology driving these decisions and anything that's truly punitive. Instead, we will prop up these major economic interests and try to give everybody else a little bit as well. The conversation now, in part because of that response, has changed a lot. I have an intrinsic dislike of blame politics, and scapegoat politics, and skepticism about populism, yet I think objectively it is very hard to deny that the economy is extremely unequal and extremely unfair. And that didn't just happen.
I think where we go from here very much remains to be seen. I was having a conversation about this with some of my colleagues, with a very wide range of political perspectives, yesterday. And some of us were trying to make the point that this situation really does highlight structural economic issues, and other people were saying, look, this is a crisis, and people are going to want to return to normalcy, not restructure the economy. And I just don't know.
It’s interesting to frame the conversation about what people want. Of course we all want to go back to normal. But should we? And, by the way, this might be our new normal, not abnormal, as things like this will continue to happen.
Andrew Yang was talking about UBI six weeks ago and maybe you could suspend your belief system and say, okay, yeah, I see how that would work, but that will never happen. Now, out of necessity, it is happening. Our capacity to imagine new things happening, politically, seems to have been cracked open somewhat.
That's a really interesting point. I think you are exactly right – imagination is very hard to get your head around in politics.
I guess the depressing addendum I have to that though, is that the thing you need to follow imagination up with is a process. And a process where the people with the ideas can envision a way in which they can manipulate those procedures that is simultaneously innovative and legitimate to build coalitions.
That's where I see our very online, very message oriented, very ideological political system not being adequate to that task.
The weight of partisanship makes politics very stagnant and makes it very hard to reform things.