In the late evening of August 29, 1968, a balding fifty-seven-year-old wearing a black suit and a black tie took the stage at the International Amphitheatre, in Chicago, to accept his party’s nomination for the Presidency of the United States. Framed by a gray backdrop, Hubert Humphrey promised America a bright new day: “It is the special genius of the Democratic Party that it welcomes change, not as an enemy but as an ally; not as a force to be suppressed but as an instrument of progress to be encouraged.”
When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, some two decades earlier, Humphrey was hailed as a liberal hero for his outspoken support of civil rights. When he served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vice-President, he continued to champion progressive causes like equal-opportunity hiring and privately expressed misgivings about the military escalation in Vietnam. But, during the primaries, he did not publicly distance himself from Johnson even as the President became less and less popular, and activists gradually came to see Humphrey as the hapless face of a failing establishment. “Once a fiery liberal spirit,” the satirist Tom Lehrer lamented in song, “Ah, but now when he speaks he must clear it. / Second fiddle’s a hard part, I know, / When they don’t even give you a bow.”
If many liberals were skeptical of Humphrey’s views, they were livid about the manner of his elevation. There were only fourteen state primaries leading up to the Convention, and they were essentially contests between two candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom were staunchly opposed to the Vietnam War. After Kennedy was assassinated, in early June, antiwar Democrats pinned their hopes on McCarthy. Yet Humphrey, who did not stand in a single primary and had promised (albeit reluctantly) to stay the course in Vietnam, was now being anointed as the Party’s standard-bearer.
Feeling shut out by the Democratic Party, thousands of Americans took their anger to the streets of Chicago. Outside the convention hall, before Humphrey invoked the prospect of a more peaceful future, cops were staging what, according to a later report, could “only be called a police riot.” Making little distinction between the violent and the peaceful, or between youths who had come to protest the war and locals who just happened to be passing by, the police beat, kicked, and teargassed protesters in front of a huge television audience.
That fall, Richard Nixon won the Presidential election, and calls for a radical reform of the Democratic Party grew irresistible. And so a commission chaired by George McGovern, a well-liked senator from South Dakota, and Donald Fraser, a liberal congressman from Minnesota, set out to remake the Party from the ground up. The commission’s guiding principle: “Popular control of the Democratic Party is necessary for its survival.”
The consequences of their reforms were profound. The nominee of the Democratic Party would be chosen in primaries open to the general public rather than at conventions dominated by Party bosses. Quotas would insure that delegations to the National Convention contained women, African-Americans, and young people “in reasonable relation to their presence” in a state’s population. All in all, one scholar of the commission concluded, the reforms amounted to “the greatest systematically planned and centrally imposed shift in the institutions of delegate selection in all of American history.”
Grateful for the changes McGovern had spearheaded, newly empowered Party activists chose him as their candidate for the 1972 Presidential election. But though the antiwar senator was highly regarded by the Party faithful, he was also, amid the surrounding culture wars, highly unpopular with ordinary Americans. In one of the most lopsided elections in the country’s history, McGovern was trounced by Richard Nixon, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. “I opened the doors of the Democratic Party,” a dumbfounded McGovern admitted in the wake of his defeat, “and twenty million people walked out.”
According to two Yale political scientists, he shouldn’t have been so surprised. The most important ingredient of a functioning democracy, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro argue, in “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself” (Yale), is strong political parties that can keep their rank-and-file members in check. In a successful political system, the authors say, two big parties compete for popular support by developing and implementing a cohesive platform. Unlike individual candidates, who might stay in power for only a few years, such parties have a vested interest in maintaining a good reputation over the course of decades. And unlike political newcomers, who may have little sense of what governments can actually achieve, they have the experience and the financial resources to develop effective proposals for political reform. Thanks to “long-view horizons” and “incentives to invest in relevant information about the effects of policy choices,” strong parties are more likely to promote the interests of the general public.
The kind of reform encouraged by the McGovern-Fraser Commission, and copied by the Republican Party, undercuts both of these functions. The activists who are now in charge, Rosenbluth and Shapiro contend, simply don’t have the expertise to construct a coherent policy program. Because they don’t have a stake in the long-term future of the Party, they are more liable to make irresponsible promises. And, since primaries and caucuses are much more likely to recruit from the political extremes, their elevation has actually made parties less responsive to the views of ordinary citizens. All in all, Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue, the efforts to increase voters’ direct control over political parties “turn out to be the political equivalent of bloodletting. Either they have no impact on the malady they are meant to address or—more often—they make it worse. Rebuilding well-functioning democracies means reversing this trend.”
When Donald Trump first announced that he would seek the Republican nomination, many journalists dismissed his Presidential bid as a publicity stunt. The Huffington Post said that it planned to cover the candidate in its entertainment section. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” readers were told. “We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
Journalists weren’t the only ones who failed to see what was happening; until a few years ago, many scholars of American politics held that the reforms of the nineteen-sixties and seventies did little to shift the balance of power away from political élites. Although the wider use of primaries radically changed the process by which candidates were selected, the Party’s establishment retained tremendous influence through its ability to grant or withhold endorsements and access to donors. The most influential book on the topic was “The Party Decides” (2008), and its title was its thesis: that a party’s “invisible primary” picks the front-runners before the voters start to pay attention.
As a result, political scientists were even less likely than journalists to take Trump seriously. Since he did not have visible support from Republican Party élites, they could not fathom the idea that he might have a chance. And yet Trump quickly took a commanding lead in the polls, and rode his fervent support all the way to the White House. In 2016, the Republican Party did not decide; it was conquered in a cruel blitzkrieg, then rapidly remade in the image of its captor.
Other political parties across the Western world have, in the past few years, experienced hostile takeovers of their own. In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, Doug Ford managed to take control of the Progressive Conservatives despite the doubts of the Party’s establishment. In Great Britain, Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party despite opposition from the vast majority of the Party’s sitting M.P.s, and Boris Johnson could soon inflict a similar fate on the Tories.
“Responsible Parties” is one of the first books to give serious attention to the political effects of this transformation. Its emphasis on how unrepresentative most political activists are helps explain why the Tea Party gained so much influence over congressional Republicans. And its focus on the dangers posed by weak parties helps explain why Theresa May, facing the constant threat of being deposed by her own backbenchers, has failed to develop a coherent plan for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
Still, the book’s analysis ultimately obscures as many facets of the current crisis as it reveals. According to Rosenbluth and Shapiro, Congress’s dysfunction has its roots in the independence of elected officials from safe districts. Because extreme groups like the Freedom Caucus know that the Republican Party’s leadership needs their votes, and has little power to remove them from office if they don’t play ball, they are able to push the Party ever further to the right.
But it would be just as plausible to draw the opposite conclusion from the same set of facts. The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader have a lot of power over how business is done in Congress. The informal Hastert Rule, for example, encourages Speakers to keep bills from reaching the floor when they might pass, thanks to bipartisan support, but aren’t favored by most members of the majority party. Rosenbluth and Shapiro want to give party leaders the power to punish independent-minded members of their coalition, yet there’s a simpler and more democratic way to curtail the outsized sway of the Freedom Caucus: giving ordinary legislators the ability to bring bipartisan bills up for debate.
Nor is more party discipline likely to solve many of the nation’s problems. The most remarkable development of the past two years has been the ease with which Trump secured the unwavering loyalty of congressional Republicans, including those who clearly have profound reservations about his Administration. Why not conclude that parties would display greater responsibility if their leaders had less power to bully ordinary legislators into submission? To fully understand Rosenbluth and Shapiro’s analysis—its power and its limitations—it helps to situate it in the context not just of politics but also of political science.
The historical center of Mount Kisco, New York, is composed of two imposing buildings in the neo-Colonial style: a large town hall, guarded by six proud Ionic columns and topped by a domed clock tower, and a more modest public library, made of the same red brick. The prominent role that civic buildings play in the layout of Mount Kisco and of so many other historic towns and cities across the Northeast would not have escaped the notice of the small group of scholars who assembled there in February of 1982. Their ambition was nothing less than to change how social scientists see the world by putting institutions at the very heart of their discipline.
For much of the postwar era, political scientists had barely thought about political institutions. One set of scholars assumed that larger social and economic trends, such as the literacy rate or the extent of urbanization, determined whether a country became a democracy or a dictatorship. Another set of scholars was more interested in studying the behavior of particular political actors, looking to data sources like the demographic makeup of specific districts to forecast which representatives were likely to vote for or against a pending bill. But the Mount Kisco conferees—including both young academic upstarts like Theda Skocpol and revered luminaries like Albert Hirschman—believed that both of these traditions neglected the ways in which political outcomes might be shaped by a country’s institutions.
Seemingly minor variations in the institutional setup of democracies, one conference paper argued, determined the radically different ways in which places like Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States responded to the Great Depression. Supposedly “primordial” factors, such as ethnicity, could not predict which countries might experience civil strife, another paper argued, because specific political institutions either exacerbate or attenuate how dangerous such social divisions become.
By the time I pursued a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard in the late two-thousands, the Mount Kisco set had triumphed. The edited volume that came out of the conference had been cited thousands of times. The young upstarts who had conceived of the forum had long since turned into revered luminaries in their own right.
Like any first-year graduate student who is simultaneously eager to please and determined to find somebody to look down on, I proudly took on the mantle of being an “institutionalist,” and even learned to showcase the requisite disdain for anyone who failed to see the wisdom of the movement. But the truth is that I sorely lacked for enemies. I never once encountered a fellow graduate student, or was taught by a professor, who was hostile to the institutionalist tradition. As “The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism” put it, where scholars had, a generation earlier, still “debated whether institutions mattered in shaping politics,” the discipline had come to be “defined by multiple approaches to determining how and when institutions shape political developments.”
The explanatory firepower of this academic tradition is demonstrated by the careful attention that Rosenbluth and Shapiro devote to the way that ostensibly small changes in party rules can have huge consequences, like the election of Donald Trump. The political stability of Costa Rica, they show, is in part due to the fact that the country has “closed” party lists, which insure that legislators get reëlected only if they stay close to the Party’s platform. Many other Latin American countries, by contrast, have “open” party lists, which allow legislators to take their case directly to the voters—thus giving them an incentive to command media coverage, or to demand local pork in return for supporting the government. Similarly, the polarization of American politics has at least as much to do with the design of congressional districts as it does with the views of voters. Because so many districts are heavily blue or heavily red, most candidates worry more about avoiding a primary challenge than they do about expressing the stance of average citizens. One of the best ways to foster compromise and coöperation, Rosenbluth and Shapiro therefore suggest, would be to make each congressional district more representative of America as a whole.
But their near-exclusive focus on such rules leaves out a lot. For example, the authors extoll the virtues of two-party systems that make no special accommodations for disadvantaged minorities. Because the “Westminster system” gives each party a reason to compete for the votes of disadvantaged groups, Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue, it is more likely to cater to their interests. To illustrate the case, they contrast the experience of African-Americans with that of women. African-Americans, they note, overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, have gained greater representation in Congress thanks to the deliberate creation of majority-minority districts—and have barely gained any legislative victories. Women, by contrast, vote for both Democrats and Republicans in significant numbers, don’t profit from special political accommodations—and have won huge legislative improvements in the past half century.
This comparison is interesting as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Why, for example, have women proved so successful at gaining greater rights in virtually every developed democracy—whatever its institutional organization? And is it really plausible to think that African-Americans fared worse simply because of institutional factors like majority-minority districts while ignoring, say, the fact that (unlike women) they suffer from ongoing residential and educational segregation? To answer such questions, political scientists need to look to the kinds of deeper cultural and economic forces they emphasized before Mount Kisco changed the face of the discipline.
Mark Sanford’s first departure from the political scene took the form of farce. When Sanford, as the governor of South Carolina, disappeared in the early summer of 2009—it later emerged that he had flown to Argentina to meet his mistress—his panicked staff issued an explanation that has entered the lexicon of sexual innuendo: he was, his spokesman claimed, hiking the Appalachian Trail “to kind of clear his head.”
Sanford’s second departure from the political scene took the form of tragedy. A member of Congress since May, 2013, he became one of Donald Trump’s few steadfast Republican critics. But Sanford quickly learned that the Party establishment whose long-held views he was voicing had done a vanishing act of its own. Virtually all Republican representatives recognized that good standing in the conservative tribe now depended on staunch support for Trump. Some who were unwilling to pledge their unconditional allegiance preëmptively retired. But Sanford tried to get reëlected as a traditional conservative. This June, he was defeated by a primary challenger.
When Sanford neglected his duties as governor, he nevertheless served a full term, and went on to make a successful bid for the House. When he refused to back Donald Trump, however, conservative media outlets turned on him with a vengeance. During Sanford’s primary battle, they hammered him again and again; the President himself sent a last-minute tweet endorsing his opponent. (“MIA and nothing but trouble,” Trump wrote. “He is better off in Argentina.”)
Given the immense pressure that activists and donors can bring to bear on anyone who shows the slightest inclination to stray from the tribe, legislators have become more and more pliant. Representatives have to stay in constant touch with their constituents through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. To raise the substantial sums they need to win reëlection, they attend dozens of fund-raisers every year and spend hundreds of hours cold-calling donors for cash. On the increasingly rare occasions that they dare to voice an opinion of their own, they not only face the anger of their conference but also get hounded on social media, denounced on cable news, and shouted at in their place of work.
Some political systems suffer because they are moated from popular sentiment. Many autocrats, for example, suppress the mechanisms that would allow them to find out the true thoughts and concerns of their citizens. The malady that has befallen the United States is the opposite—what Rosenbluth and Shapiro term a “lack of unresponsiveness.”
It is, then, understandable that the authors seek to mend America’s broken institutions by making it easier for legislators to shut the people out—at least a little bit, from time to time. Making it harder for activists to launch primary challenges against incumbents in safe districts, for instance, really would make it easier for Congress to fulfill its constitutional duty of checking an errant executive. There is even a principled case for questioning just how democratic primaries and caucuses actually are. Only around a quarter of eligible voters participated in the heated 2016 Presidential primaries, with only about an eighth supporting either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Many primaries for less important offices draw even fewer voters. Is a system in which public servants are selected by a highly unrepresentative fraction of the over-all population especially democratic?
And yet turning the clock back to the smoke-filled rooms that selected Hubert Humphrey is a poor solution to the deep problems that Rosenbluth and Shapiro identify. It is unlikely to happen, and their book dwells on one source of the difficulty (radical activists) while mostly ignoring equally important ones (donors, mass media, the Internet). Finally, it seems unlikely that, even if adopted, the sorts of reforms they favor, such as changing the composition of the average electoral district, will help to solve a problem as entrenched as the country’s increasingly nasty partisan divide.
Across the world, party systems that seemed frozen a few decades ago have rapidly thawed, then boiled. Populist insurgents have celebrated unprecedented victories by promising to drain the swamp and send the political caste packing. In many democracies that political scientists once considered stable and secure, elected strongmen are putting immense pressure on the judiciary, restricting the freedom of the press, and curtailing the rights of the opposition.
These countries have vastly different institutions: some have the kinds of parliamentary systems favored by Rosenbluth and Shapiro, others the system of proportional representation that the two disdain. Yet populists have been able to gain ground in all of them. The reason, it seems, lies less in the institutional arrangements that divide these countries than in the larger cultural and economic trends that they have in common—trends like migration, economic discontent, and the rise of digital technology.
Just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, so, too, every imperfect democracy has institutional shortcomings all its own. Since America’s political system is particularly dysfunctional at the moment, it would appear to be in particularly urgent need of reform. Gerrymandering is a scandal. Primaries are less democratic than they seem to be. And, yes, both major political parties are too weak to deliver on the crucial tasks.
Even so, Rosenbluth and Shapiro have drawn the wrong conclusion about the democratizing reforms introduced by the McGovern-Fraser Commission nearly half a century ago. The lesson is not that we have to roll back these changes so that we can fix our country’s institutions. It is that deep popular discontent has its roots in such large social forces that institutional reforms can, at best, delay a fateful reckoning. ♦
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