Politics and Partisanship
KeywordsPresidential Election Democratic Party American Politics Political Behavior Rational Choice Theory
The identification of an individual with a political party.
Partisanship is one of the most important aspects of American politics. It has been somewhat accurately called the “unmoved mover,” because it influences everything in the political world, while it itself changes slowly and rarely. This chapter describes the meaning of partisanship for American politics, beginning with the origin and function of parties in the US political system and ending with how partisanship affects political behavior. The chapter also includes some meaningful comparisons to partisanship in a comparative context.
Where Do Parties Come From?
The American Founders disliked parties. Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, James Madison warned of the “mischief of factions” in Federalist 10. In his Farewell Address, George Washington cautioned against their effects. So why did parties arise, if both the chief designer of the Constitution and influential first president disliked them?
The Constitution created a Congress without parties. However, legislatures without parties face a tremendous coordination issue. Coordination issues occur when a group of people all have similar preferences about a group of potential outcomes, but a mutually preferred outcome will not be achieved unless they are able to share information and bear the costs of organizing. Imagine being a legislator in the early American Congress who favors the creation of a national bank. You want to write a bill creating a bank but don’t know what other legislators favor one. You also don’t know who has expertise in finance and could help you write such a bill. In a legislature with almost 100 members, this creates a real challenge to your ability to pass a bill creating a national bank. Without parties, the coordination issue you face may prevent you from passing a bank bill. A similar coordination issue occurs in legislatures around the world.
Parties solve this problem. By mobilizing a group of legislators into a party, members of Congress could easily organize around particular policy positions and appoint administrative leaders to increase their ability and efficiency to pass legislation. By the end of Washington's second term, two parties had formed, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
The Origins and Development of Mass Partisanship in American Politics
Parties arise to satisfy the legislative need to pass policies. It’s not surprising, therefore, that American parties first organized themselves around differences in which policies should be passed. Policy preferences about the proper role of government in society, or ideology, are a common organizing principle of parties around the world. Personalist parties, or those organized around support of a particular politician or family, sometimes compete with ideological parties. In American politics, however, explicitly or effectively personalist (like Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party) parties are rare and short-lived.
Following George Washington’s retirement after two terms, the policy-oriented Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties faced the challenge of getting a new president elected who fit their policy preferences. They adapted to do so and exhibited the second purpose of parties in American politics. If the first purpose was to get preferred policies passed, the second purpose was to get candidates elected who would further ease the passage of preferred policies. To do this, they eventually had to create national, state, and local party organizations.
With the end of the Era of Good Feelings in 1824, the rise of the Whig Party to challenge the Democrats, and the gradual development of universal free manhood suffrage, the development of these party organizations adapted to mobilize and turn out massive coalitions of partisan voters. For much of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the parties encouraged turnout among their loyal voters with promises of patronage jobs and spoils from victory. The parties nevertheless mobilized their supporters around important political issues and appeals to group identity, and continue to do so today.
Why Are There Two Parties in American Politics?
Minor parties have existed throughout American history. Independent or minor party candidates occasionally even attract a significant percentage of the popular vote in presidential elections or win congressional office. Nonetheless, American politics is based on conflict between two major parties. This two-party system has existed in various forms throughout the history of the American republic. Today’s Republican and Democratic parties are merely its latest incarnation. This two-party form of partisan electoral conflict is unusual (though not unique; Costa Rica and some other countries also had or have because Costa Rica’s two-party system has declined recently) when compared to the politics of many other democratic countries across the world. Why is American politics based on conflict between two parties?
Winner-take-all elections are the chief reason. Duverger’s Law states that first-past-the-post or winner-take-all electoral systems cause political conflict to be centered around two-party competition. While exceptions exist (e.g., India, see Diwakar 2007), Duverger’s Law is generally true across the world. American congressional and state legislative elections feature single-member districts and states, instead of multimember districts in which parties receive a number of seats in the legislature proportional to their percentage of the popular vote. These kind of legislative elections give each party a very strong incentive to appeal to voters who might consider a minor party, such as the Constitution Party or Green Party, and co-opt them, because a small percentage of the popular vote can be the difference between winning a seat and getting nothing.
American presidential elections are more complex because of the Electoral College. Even so, almost all states effectively give all their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the statewide popular vote. This means the incentives of Duverger’s Law also apply to presidential elections. America is a two-party system because of its winner-take-all elections, and will presumably remain so, perhaps with brief interruptions, for the foreseeable future.
The Meaning of Partisanship in the American Public
Classic scholarship from the 1950s and 1960s (see Campbell et al. 1960) on the meaning of partisanship in the American public found that party identification was primarily about an American’s social groups and place in American society. For example, union members were more likely to be Democrats, while business people were more likely to be Republicans. Family allegiances to each party were also very influential. Most Americans did not know much about politics and saw the national Republican Party and national Democratic Party as relatively similar in goals and issue positions. American voters were not particularly ideological or issue oriented and did not see the two parties in those terms either.
This kind of mass partisanship was presumably in part a response to the unusual circumstances of party conflict during the early Cold War. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Republican members of Congress were slightly more conservative than Democratic ones, but not by much (Cox and Poole 2002). There was considerable ideological overlap between the two parties. Both the Democratic Party’s politicians and the Republican Party’s politicians, on average, accepted the New Deal welfare state, the favorability of the nuclear family and traditional social stratification and norms, and the necessity to fight communism and the Soviet Union at home and abroad. While there was considerable regional variation, with Northeastern Republicans more liberal and Southern Democrats more conservative, there were many conservatives, moderates, and liberals in each party’s congressional delegation.
In response to a variety of political and cultural phenomena in the mid and late 1960s, elites in both parties began to take increasingly different positions on economic, social, and foreign policy issues. The upheavals of the sexual revolution, civil rights movement, Vietnam conflict, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, popular drug use, and (a few years later) Watergate caused the Republican Party to start moving to the right (favoring a smaller government overall and especially in the economy, traditional Judeo-Christian morality on social issues, and a hawkish, assertive American foreign policy) and the Democratic Party to start moving to the left (favoring a larger government role in the economy, acceptance or promotion of nontraditional morality on social issues, and a dovish, multilateral American foreign policy focused on diplomacy). Over the course of the next two decades, Democratic Party elites became predominantly liberal and Republican Party elites became predominantly conservative. By the early 1990s, congressional scholars (Cox and McCubbins 1993; Aldrich and Rohde 1997) were analyzing two parties who advocated for markedly different policies and behaved in a very partisan fashion.
Politically active Americans outside of government received the message that the Republican Party was for conservatives and the Democratic Party was for liberals, and responded accordingly. By the mid-to-late 1990s, there were significant issue differences among Democratic and Republican partisans in the mass public (Abramowitz and Saunders 1998). This phenomenon was caused by two important processes. Moderate mass Democrats and Republicans slowly converted their issue positions to the more liberal and conservative ones of their national party. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats realized they were no longer welcome in their parties and switched their partisan identifications. Older, more moderate Republicans and Democrats passed away, and they were generationally replaced by younger partisans attracted to the conservative and liberal messages they received from their respective party elites.
Today, the Democratic Party in government is almost entirely comprised of liberals. It is mirrored by Democratic partisans in the public who also favor a more expansive welfare state, promotion and acceptance of nontraditional morality and lifestyles, and a more dovish, multilateral approach to foreign policy abroad that relies primarily on diplomacy to solve problems. The modern Republican Party in government is overwhelmingly conservative. Contemporary mass Republican partisans also favor lower taxes, a smaller and cheaper government with fewer programs, promotion and acceptance of Judeo-Christian morality and lifestyles, and a foreign policy that emphasizes American power and interests and relies on the threat of the use of force to solve problems. There are virtually no moderates among Democratic and Republican Party elites, and far fewer among mass Democrats and Republicans than there used to be.
Partisanship in the modern American public is based on ideology and issue positions. The public, especially the political active public, is far more aware of politics than it used to be and generally understands the basic differences between the two parties. This means that partisanship in the American public today is much more meaningful and significant than it was in the middle of the twentieth century.
Specifically, American mass partisanship now fits well with the rational choice theory of partisanship. The rational choice approach to social science emphasizes the importance of individuals being able to rank their preferences over outcomes and act to achieve their maximum value from them. The rational choice theory of partisanship argues that individuals identify with the party that is closest to their ideology and issue positions. If they are even a little left of center, individuals identify with the Democratic Party; those even slightly right-wing identify with the Republican Party. While this theory does not perfectly capture the dynamics of American partisanship (there are far more independents, and ideological ones, than the theory would expect), it correctly describes the primary meaning of American partisanship today. Party identification in America is now usually synonymous with conservatism and liberalism.
While partisanship is now an ideology, this does not mean there are no other aspects to it. The rise of party identification as a set of programmatic issue positions did not replace partisanship as a group identity, but added onto it. How individuals see themselves and their place in society continues to form a basis of partisanship, just as it did in the 1950s. Each party’s social group coalition, however, has changed.
The Republican Party’s primary social group coalition includes Christians, people who are religiously observant and devout, Americans who identify as white, those who are married, men, older Americans, wealthier people in states that are competitive and favor Republicans, and Southerners. The Democratic Party is favored by Jewish and agnostic/atheist Americans, those who rarely attend religious services and whose religion is not an important part of their everyday life, Americans who identify as black and Asian, non-Southern Americans who identify as Hispanic, those who are single, women, young Americans, lower-income people, those with postgraduate degrees or without a high-school diploma, and those who live in the Northeast or West Coast. These partisan demographic differences have generally grown over the last two decades.
Importantly, these social group coalitions often align with the two parties’ ideologies as well. Nevertheless, this partisan phenomenon fits well with a different theory of political behavior: The social identity theory of partisanship. The social identity theory of partisanship argues that Americans identify with a party on the basis of its social group coalition and whether they fit into it. Effectively, this means that Americans ask themselves “which party has people like me?” and identify accordingly. Social identity theory also includes identification with a party on the basis of familial ties (which party individuals were socialized into by their parents) and which party is popular among one’s generational cohort as one becomes politically active and aware. This understanding of partisanship is powerful and deepens understanding of the process of party identification. However, social identity theory has difficulty explaining why Americans who don’t match a party’s social group coalition would identify with it (such as why a single, lower-income female who identifies as black would be a Republican) and has no role for ideology and issue positions. It also has difficulty describing why individuals who fit a party’s demographic base well would identify as independent.
Contemporary research shows that the rational choice theory of partisanship generally outperforms social identity theory in explaining partisanship (Abramowitz and Saunders 2006). However, for some large and politically important groups of Americans, such as people who identify as black, social identity theory describes the meaning of partisanship much better. The rational choice and social identity theories of partisanship are the two most prominent and competing theories that explain the meaning of party identification in the American public. Both theories have long and valuable lines of historical research corroborating them. However, they are not necessarily in conflict. For many Americans, both rational choice and social identity theory describe why they identify with a party well.
The rational choice and social identity theories are not the only explanations of partisanship. Recent research (Gerber et al. 2012) has revealed another facet of partisanship: Personality. The personality theory of partisanship shows that an American’s score on the “Big Five” personality traits also explains why he or she identifies with a party. The Big Five personality traits, known also by the acronym OCEAN, are increasingly prominent in social science research on political behavior. This is partly due to the ease of measuring them on surveys (with as few as 10 questions) and partly due to their explanatory power. The OCEAN traits are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or emotional stability). Those high in openness are creative and enjoy trying new things; those high in conscientiousness are punctual, reliable, and care about duty; extraverts are outgoing and talkative; agreeable people are kind and warm; and those high in neuroticism experience more emotional ups and downs and anxiety.
Even accounting for other factors, those high in openness to experience and neuroticism are more likely to be Democrats. Those who are more agreeable are slightly more likely to be Democrats. The conscientious are more likely to be Republicans, and extraverts are weakly more Republican as well. While this personality theory of partisanship is still emerging, it adds considerably to the understanding of party identification in the American public. However, both the rational choice and social identity theories considerably outperform the Big Five traits in predicting an American’s partisanship. Therefore, the personality theory of partisanship is best considered as a way of adding depth to the understanding of party identification, rather than replacing other theories.
The personality theory of partisanship is additionally valuable because it underscores how far-reaching partisanship is in contemporary American society. If something as immutable (at least after someone’s mid-twenties) as personality is now related to whether an American is a Democrat or a Republican, then truly party conflict in American politics will be long-lasting and profound. Political scientists see some additional evidence of this in lifestyle choice as well; consumer preferences like food, drink, and entertainment choices often are correlated with partisanship today.
How Partisanship Affects Political Behavior
Given the profound meaning of partisanship in the contemporary American public, it is not surprising that it drives almost every aspect of political behavior. Party identification determines voter turnout. Democrats and Republicans are considerably more likely to vote regularly than Independents, especially those who don’t lean toward either party. Individuals who identify with a party are also more likely to be politically informed, volunteer for a candidate, participate in unconventional political activities like protests or boycotts, talk to a friend about politics, and give money to a candidate.
Once an American enters the voting booth, party identification explains most of his or her candidate choices. Split-ticket voting (the practice of voting for candidates of different parties for different offices) was common in the 1970s and 1980s; it is rare today. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans commonly practice straight-ticket voting and vote for all the Democrats or all the Republicans on the ballot.
This practice has important consequences for campaigns and elections. In presidential elections, 85–95 % of partisans will vote for their party’s candidate for president. This percentage is almost as high when Republicans and Democrats are voting for candidates for the US House and Senate. In recent years, straight-ticket voting has started to characterize how Republicans and Democrats vote in gubernatorial and state legislative elections as well. This means that elections for state government offices are now often determined by national party considerations! Partisans see almost everything through the lens of party identification.
Partisanship is the most important factor affecting American political behavior today. The Democratic Party and Republican Party are entrenched and far-reaching institutions in American politics, among both officeholders and individuals. The structure of American elections and government is the primary reason for the two-party nature of American politics. Despite initial opposition from the American Founders, parties arose for practical reasons and have persisted ever since. Perhaps because there are only two major parties in American politics, the meaning of party identification in the American public is deep and far-reaching today. Being a Democrat or Republican today not only encompasses one’s views on government policies and purpose but also how one sees one’s place in society and personality. These factors have created an increasingly partisan political culture that determines contemporary election outcomes and political participation and that will continue for the foreseeable future.