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Home arrow Economics arrow Competing motives in the partisan mind : how loyalty and responsiveness shape party identification and democracy


Since the nation's founding, Americans have generally been skeptical of parties. James Madison famously addressed concern over factions (including parties) in Federalist No. 10 (Madison, 2003), and George Washington used his farewell address to warn against the danger of parties (which he witnessed developing within his own cabinet) (Washington, 1796/2008). Yet, in striking contrast, political scientists have developed an almost universal “commitment to the desirability, if not the absolute necessity of parties in a democratic system” (Epstein, 1986). In the famous words of E. E. Schattschneider (1942), democracy is “unthinkable save in terms of parties.” But why is this so?

Aldrich (1995) explains that parties solve three fundamental problems in democracy: They regulate competition between ambitious office seekers; they alleviate social choice problems in the legislature; and they mobilize citizens to take collective action. However, the preceding chapters have drawn attention to an important shortcoming of parties: They nurture affective attachments that undermine citizens' motivation to hold them accountable.

In the United States, at least in the current era, politics are candidate- centered. Parties provide labels for candidates to run under, but parties have little control over their brand (Aldrich, 1995; Epstein, 1986). In other words, while parties have official platforms, their candidates are not bound to them. Whichever candidate wins the party's primary gets to carry the party's label regardless of his or her issue positions. Therefore, although party labels provide some information about a candidate's stances, there remains a substantial amount of uncertainty. Moreover, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the federated structure of American government make it difficult to determine who is ultimately responsible for the passage or failure of legislation. Parties' lack of brand control coupled with this institutional complexity allows elected officials to point fingers when things go badly and claim credit when things go well. In short, the American system of government is characterized by a substantial amount of ambiguity.

This ambiguity poses a clear concern for citizens' ability to obtain the information necessary to hold officials accountable, and it is even more troubling if we take into account that partisans may actually be motivated to avoid holding their party accountable in the first place. For the motivated partisan, ignorance is bliss. We have seen that partisans rationalize away disagreements with their party via lesser of two evils identity justifications and issue reprioritization. However, such effortful defense may not even be necessary in many cases. There is little pressure to change one's party identity when it is unclear what parties actually stand for. In such a system, “false consensus effects” (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977) can run rampant as citizens assume that their party and its candidates favor the positions that they themselves favor. And, when confronted with hard evidence that a candidate of one's own party has taken a position with which one disagrees, one can simply assume the candidate is not representative of the party as a whole (Marques & Yzerbyt, 1988). Even when it comes to party performance evaluations, officeholders' denials of responsibility remain quite plausible (Fiorina, 1980)—especially when partisans are motivated to believe them.

Proponents of the “doctrine of responsible party government” view stronger parties as the cure to this problem (see Ranney, 1954). These scholars see separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism as antimajoritarian and argue that majority rule is the essence of democratic government. They propose a system in which government would be centered around at least (and preferably only) two unified and disciplined parties. Under such a system, they argue, a majority party would be directly accountable for all legislation passed while it was in power, and officials would be directly tied to the party. Thus, the system would be simple and unambiguous, allowing the public to hold officials responsible. To this end, they advocate reforms that would increase the discipline, influence, and centrality of parties in the American government (APSA Committee on Political Parties, 1950a, 1950b, 1950c).

Implicit in the doctrine of responsible party government is the notion that citizens are motivated to be responsive to parties' actions and not always loyal to their party. In other words, proponents of responsible parties take a very similar approach to those who write on the heuristic value of party identification, except that they focus on party institutions as opposed to voters. They view parties as a way to simplify voter decision-making. Such a system would also facilitate collective responsibility, making it somewhat more difficult for parties and candidates to deny responsibility when things go badly or claim credit when things go well (Fiorina, 1980). Moreover, by decreasing the ambiguity in politics, a responsible party system would likely increase the pressure to update one's identity in light of disagreements on issue positions. If it is clear where candidates and parties stand, it is more difficult to ignore inconsistencies between one's own issue positions and the stances of one's party.

However, this type of party system may well pose as many problems as solutions. When political debate is divided along a single, well-defined cleavage, it facilitates partisans' ability to avoid taking positions different from those of their party in the first place. Studies show that the influence of party identification is pervasive—even effecting assessments of the economy (Bartels, 2002; Duch, Palmer, & Anderson, 2000; Gerber & Huber, 2010). Moreover, partisan predispositions are particularly influential among those who are most informed about where their party stands on the issues (Converse, 1966; Zaller,

  • 1992) . More conclusive yet are experiments showing that ideology informs political evaluations unless party cues are available (Cohen, 2003; Rahn,
  • 1993) .[1] Once party cues are present, partisans disregard ideology and follow their party. In short, despite their apparent shortcomings, citizens do appear able to make use of information when it is available, but they tend to disregard that information when it conflicts with their party identity.

Recent research has shown that, in democratic systems with fewer and more disciplined parties, the propensity to identify with parties is greater— particularly among individuals with lower levels of education (Huber, Kernell, & Leoni, 2005). The question remains, however, whether higher rates of identification produce legislative outcomes that are more in line with citizens' “true” interests or less in line with them. This book's findings suggest that it may well be the latter. Although party identification may help those with less education to understand politics, it may also bias the judgments of those who are otherwise best equipped to hold parties accountable.

Contemporary American politics seems to bear out this concern. Research suggests that, in addition to allowing partisans to avoid ever disagreeing with their party, recurring confrontations along a single, well-defined cleavage should intensify intergroup conflict, polarization, and partisan bias (Sherif, 1956).

Such theoretical predictions conform all too well to our recent political experiences. Parties have become more unified and disciplined, as proponents of responsible party government advocate, yet many would argue that we are all the worse for it (Rae, 2007). Rather than these developments' facilitating citizens' ability to hold parties accountable for their platforms, voters, as Levendusky (2009) shows, are adjusting their ideology to fit that of their party—precisely the pattern uncovered in the experiments cited (Cohen, 2003; Rahn, 1993). Levendusky sees this as a positive development because it helps voters to constrain their belief systems. However, increased constraint is of little value in and of itself. Scholars have traditionally worried that without constrained belief systems, citizens have a difficult time holding government accountable (Converse, 1964). But, if constraint results from citizens' motivation to blindly follow their party wherever it leads them, it can hardly be said that accountability is better served.

How then might we decrease the ambiguity in American politics without exacerbating partisan biases? If responsible parties are not the answer, what is? Perhaps it is worth taking a second look at the role of interest groups in American politics. Pluralist theories of democracy (see, for example, Truman, 1993) lost favor in the mid-20th century as scholars came to realize that smaller and better-funded interests were advantaged relative to larger public interest groups (Lowi, 1979; Olson, 1971, 1982; Schattschnieder, 1975). Responsible parties came to be seen as a superior vehicle by which to aggregate citizens' interests, because they would be forced to vie to represent a true majority and not merely a coalition of narrow interests (Schattschneider, 1942). From the standpoint of the responsible parties thesis, the challenge was how to implement reforms that would transform American parties into responsible parties.

In contrast to the literature on responsible party government, some see “indigenous” American parties in a more favorable light. Epstein (1986) argues that parties have evolved to fit the circumstances of American government (also see Aldrich, 1995). He focuses on what he refers to as their “institutionalized porousness.” By allowing entrance by individuals and groups who want to make use of their label rather than strict adherence to a particular platform, indigenous American parties bring together various interests in an effort to build winning coalitions. This is seen as a good thing because it forces adjustment and compromise between interests rather than ideological rigidity (Herring, 1940). Of course, the notion of adjustment and compromise between coalitions of interest groups does little to assuage the concerns of those who desire stronger parties precisely because they wish to stem the influence of special interests (see Schattschneider, 1975).

Nonetheless, some solace may be taken in the notion that interest groups are probably more diverse than their critics imply. Despite the inherent advantage of small groups, many larger, publicly oriented groups flourish. In his well-known interest group survey, Walker (1991) found that 56.4% of groups were either nonprofit (32.5%) or citizen groups (23.9%), whereas only 37.8% were profit sector groups, and 5.8% were mixed sector. He also found that different types of groups attempted to influence politics by different means. Profit sector groups engaged mostly in inside lobbying—directly petitioning legislators and bureaucrats, whereas citizen groups mostly engaged in outside lobbying—attempting to affect legislation via the public. Therefore, if our primary concern is with the relative advantage enjoyed by profit sector groups, we might consider how to bring lobbying out of the shadows (i.e., inside lobbying) and into the light (i.e., outside lobbying). This would allow groups to continue to check parties while making their actions transparent to the public. Such an arrangement is advantageous for several reasons.

First, parties exist not necessarily to promote issues but to help office seekers win power (Aldrich, 1995; Schumpeter, 1942); in contrast, interest groups exist specifically to promote polices. Sartori (1976) claimed that a party is “part of a whole attempting to serve the purposes of the whole, whereas a faction is only a part for itself.” But the very nature of the system ensures that parties serve the purpose of the whole only if serving the whole constitutes a winning strategy. Individual politicians may be sincere in their desire to serve the public good, but they will never gain office unless serving the public good proves to be a winning strategy. In short, parties only serve the public good if the public demands that they do so. Because individual citizens have more incentive to enjoy the psychological benefits of loyal party identification than to make demands of parties, interest groups play an important role in filling the void.

Second, when interest groups force parties and candidates to take clear issue positions and then hold them accountable for those positions, democracy benefits from a reduction in ambiguity. Downs (1957) explained that, because parties have electoral goals whereas citizens have policy goals, it is irrational for citizens to trust parties for information. When it comes to parties, talk is cheap, because they have an incentive to tell citizens whatever they want to hear in order to get their vote (see Lupia & McCubbins, 1998; Sobel, 1985). On the other hand, because interest groups have clear policy goals, interest group cues convey much more reliable information. For example, when the insurance industry, the California Trial Lawyers Association, and a Ralph Nader-led consumer group all endorsed competing insurance reform initiatives in California, less informed citizens used endorsement cues to emulate the voting behavior of better-informed citizens (Lupia, 1994). Groenendyk and Valentino (2002) also show that citizens listen to interest groups. In their experiment, participants took notice when the Sierra Club criticized George W. Bush's environmental record. However, when Al Gore criticized Bush's environmental record in an identical appeal, the message fell on deaf ears.

The third reason interest groups serve as an effective check on parties is that interest group identification is not detrimental to democratic accountability. As previously stated, parties exist to win elections, but interest groups exist to promote policy agendas. Therefore, while parties have an incentive to take advantage of voters' loyalty as they constantly endeavor to build and maintain winning coalitions, interest groups have no such incentive. Because interest groups share the policy goals of their supporters, interest group identification does not undermine the heuristic value of interest group cues. Thus, voting one's interest group identity means voting one's policy interests.

I f people come to identify with interest groups, these identities crosspressure their party identity, thereby checking partisan biases (Campbell et al., 1960). Take, for instance, a circumstance in which the Democratic Party criticizes the Republican Party. Not only does such communication constitute “cheap talk,” but partisan motivation will drive Republicans to counter-argue against such criticisms even if they do find them credible. On the other hand, if the United States Chamber of Commerce criticizes the Republican Party or its candidates, it is likely to carry much greater weight with Republican voters.

Schattschneider (1942) argues that parties are like businesses in that laws are no more needed to make parties serve people than they are to make businesses serve consumers. The problem with this analogy is that in business, consumers demand high-quality goods, so producers must supply quality products if they hope to compete. In politics, voters' brand loyalties are so strong that they will often “buy” whatever policy package their party offers. Moreover, individual citizens have little incentive to demand that parties accommodate their interests, because they know that their individual vote has very little effect on policy outcomes. Instead, they engage in politics in large part because they develop “team” loyalties and enjoy watching the competition unfold. Interest groups are therefore needed to act as a check on parties and ensure that they are held accountable.

Just as well-regulated markets harness the self-interest of individuals to promote the public interest, a well-regulated democratic government can benefit by harnessing the self-interest of interests groups. The key is in effective regulation. If interest group influence can be channeled through the public (i.e., outside lobbying as opposed to inside lobbying), interest groups may help to perform a vital service to democracy by informing the public about issues and mobilizing them to action. The tentative conclusion, then, is that we should not be so quick to extol parties and condemn interest groups. Although democracy might be “unthinkable” (Schattschneider, 1942) or at least “unworkable” (Aldrich, 1995) save parties, short-run party accountability may just be unattainable save interest groups.

  • [1] Bullock (2011) argues that these effects are overstated. In an experiment, he foundthat party cues had an effect but policy considerations were more influential.
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