The language and imagery of sports abounds in American politics. From the start of the “race to the White House” to the “passing of the baton” from one president to the next, each campaign is a match in the ongoing competition between America's two parties. Along the way, fans cheer, wave signs, and even paint their faces, while, in an awesome barrage of mixed sports metaphors, candidates “throw their hat into the ring,” “compete in the horse race,” “score points with voters,” and occasionally “play hardball.” Each side even has a mascot (elephants versus donkeys) and a team color (red versus blue). Like box scores, the latest tracking polls appear in the morning paper, and political pundits, like ESPN personalities, spend each day on cable television and talk radio endlessly debating which team will come out on top when the campaign season concludes. In the end, politics becomes sport, and this seems to be just the way we like it. After all, government and media are obliged to give the fans what they want.
But why is it that we get so caught up in the game? The answer is simple: At its heart, politics is a competition, and political parties are essentially teams. Therefore, in politics, as in sports, citizens get swept up in the competition, rallying behind the Red Elephants or the Blue Donkeys just as they rally behind the Red Sox or the Blue Jays. While this political fandom may seem innocuous enough, it has vital consequences for democratic accountability.
In stark contrast to the notion of politics as a sporting arena, scholars often draw analogies between politics and the marketplace. Just as firms supply products to fulfill consumer demands, parties supply policies to fulfill voter demands. Like consumers, voters are assumed to be selective, so parties are forced to compete for vote share. This competition not only ensures that parties respond to voters' demands but also encourages policy innovation as each party attempts to gain an electoral advantage. In short, these theories suggest that we are able to achieve democratic accountability because voters demand quality from parties and respond to changes in their policy offerings. However, the implications change dramatically when voters act more like sports fans than consumers. If party loyalty gets in the way of citizens' willingness to
Xi respond to changes in parties' policy offerings, then accountability is clearly lacking.
Although brand loyalties are common in the marketplace, they differ markedly from the party loyalties we see in politics. For example, many consumers buy iPhones, iPods, and iPads because they associate the Apple brand with quality. Hence, the brand serves as a helpful shortcut for consumers as they make purchasing decisions. Consumers can be reasonably confident that they are getting a good product when they see the Apple logo, so they need not spend hours reading product reviews. Of course, if Apple were to start producing defective products, this brand loyalty would quickly erode. This would occur because consumers feel the consequences of their purchasing decisions. The same is not true in politics. As Caplan (2007) explains:
Democracy is a commons, not a market. Individual voters do not "buy" policies with votes. Rather they toss their vote into a big common pool. The social outcome depends on the pool's average content (p. 206).
In other words, each citizen has only one vote to cast. Therefore, unlike a purchasing decision, an individual's voting decision has very little impact on the product she actually receives. Regardless of whether she supports the Republican or the Democrat, she knows that her vote is extremely unlikely to affect the outcome of the election. Therefore, unlike consumers with brand loyalties, voters have relatively little incentive to change their party loyalties to reflect variation in the desirability of the products parties offer. In fact, the more the Republican and Democratic parties seem like rival teams, the more likely partisans will be to cling to their allegiances regardless of what the parties offer. Thus, while brand loyalties help consumers make efficient decisions, party loyalties may actually lead voters astray.
With party elites more polarized than they have been in decades (see McCarty, Poole, & Rosenthal, 2006; Theriault 2008), the line dividing the parties is clearer than ever and the rivalry more heated. Although many of America's foremost political scholars once advocated stronger and more internally cohesive parties as a remedy for democracy's ills, many contemporary observers have come to question this wisdom. Proponents of the "responsible parties thesis" reasoned that, if parties could maintain greater discipline over their members, voters would see a greater distinction between parties and have an easier time holding them accountable for their policies (see Ranney 1954). However, now that the parties have achieved greater internal cohesion, it appears that proponents of the responsible parties thesis overlooked the "partisan rancor," "political polarization," and "policy stasis" inherent in such a system (Rae, 2007). In short, they failed to recognize that a clearer delineation between choices also means a clearer distinction between teams. The challenge for contemporary scholars is to determine how party competition plays out in the mind of the voter, because our assumptions about the mind of the voter shape our understanding of democracy.
This book develops a theory of party identification in which individuals have potentially competing motives. On one hand, they feel duty-bound to hold parties accountable, but they are also driven to maintain their party allegiances. Whether parties help guide citizens to sound decisions or undermine democratic accountability depends on which motive wins out.