The 1950 Report of the APSA Committee on Political Parties, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” is relevant today to current problems of public policy and party reform and to the efforts of political scientists, as political scientists, to contribute to the resolution of these problems. This essay examines the Report from a policy science perspective.
The Report was explicitly therapeutic in aim. It defined health, diagnosed ills, and prescribed remedies for the American party system; through the remedies prescribed, the whole American political system was to be restored to health. The healthy democratic system was asserted to be one in which the two national parties were cohesive, disciplined, programmatic, and responsible; internally responsible to their members through primaries, caucuses and conventions, and externally responsible to the whole electorate for carrying out their programs. The programs of the two parties were to be clearly differentiated so as to provide the electorate a real choice. The ills of the Ameican system were said to be due to the failure of parties to have these characteristics. The prescription was recommendation for comprehensive reform.
Despite the special expertise of political scientists on such “constitutional” questions and the work of such distinguished predecessors as Wilson, Goodnow, Lowell, Ford, and Herring, the Report was both normatively and empirically deficient. Little attempt was made to clarify or justify norms or goals. Repeatedly, instrumental propositions linking proposed reforms to goals were based on inadequate evidence or no evidence at all. Even in 1950, evidence (not mentioned in the Report) was available that cast doubt on the Committee's description of the political world. Subsequent research has produced a rich body of literature making clear that much of the substance of the Report is simply mistaken.
The errors of the Report do not vitiate its goals; democratic potential is not revealed by democratic practices. But the errors drastically affect the utility of the Report as policy science. The failure of the Report as policy science is due, in part, to failures of the discipline to clarify the roles of political scientist as policy scientist, to explore adequately the problems of relating knowledge to goals, to pay appropriate attention to the development of political theory, and to develop intellectual tools more specifically suited to the tasks of policy science. The last half of the essay is devoted to an examination of these problems, concluding that the political scientist will succeed in being effective in the policy field just to the extent he succeeds at his own distinctive tasks, in sharpening his own tools, and in thoughtfully applying his special knowledge and skills.