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Once upon a time – and for a very long time – party structure was a central concern of those who followed American politics, both theoretically and practically. The internal structure of political parties was taken to shape what they did in a major way, and what they did was understood to be integral to American democracy. James Bryce in The American Commonwealth saw what we have called organized parties as the distinguishing feature of politics in the United States and viewed it as a kind of pathology. Henry Jones Ford in The Rise and Growth of American Politics saw the same parties as instead a saving grace, the single feature of politics in America that rescued it from an unworkable Constitution and continuing policy frustration.
The long war over party structure in American politics, rooted in the 1820s and joined in the 1880s, was still alive and well when postwar political science returned to its fortunes in the 1960s. Yet an array of systematic indicators of these fortunes, beginning in the 1950s and running through the 2010s, suggests that this war did indeed have a major turning point around 1970. Impelled afresh by a lesser but parallel conflict over the proper institutional forms for presidential selection, the old model of organized parties, built around a hierarchy of long-serving party officeholders, was decisively defeated by a newer model of volunteer parties, built instead around participatory networks of issue activists. That much of the existing study of this long war was mainly just confirmed by systematic contemporary measures.
Social welfare is almost universally taken to be the spine of the New Deal party system. So if scholars argue about its role in modern times, this is usually just an argument over the degree to which it still plays that role or, alternatively, the degree to which the role is in decline. While the consensus is not as neat on the main policy competitor in this successor world, the leading alternative is ordinarily some variant of cultural values. Accordingly, we open Chapter 3 by giving cultural values the same compare-and-contrast treatment given to social welfare and civil rights in Chapter 2. In the process, cultural values serves simultaneously as the leading example of the way in which a major policy domain can lack any partisan alignment and as a testimonial to the power of differential party structures when the domain finally comes to share an alignment common to other major realms.
The more comprehensive but also more dispersed and more gradual triumph of the participatory model that was evident in state party politics along with the more focused triumph of the same thrust in the politics of presidential selection were inevitably intertwined. Established volunteer parties were much easier to reform at the presidential level. Successful reforms for presidential selection often spilled over into general reform efforts within organized parties. But in the end, the old world summarized in the overviews of Elazar and Mayhew, as reflected in the more systematic scale of structural indicators developed here, did indeed undergo the upheaval perceived by Mayhew and Ware around the pivotal year of 1970. Table 1.4 summarizes the distribution of party types that resulted.
At an abstract level, it is easy to make an argument for the virtue of an effort to isolate and examine the impact of party structure. Political parties are the great intermediary institutions of democratic politics. Yet they inevitably transform and not just transmit public wishes. It is hard to imagine how their internal structure would not be central to that transformation. So the effort to unpack these influences should be inherently virtuous, that is, intrinsically connected to question of policy responsiveness and democratic representation. Yet the moment this effort shifts to the operational level, embedding a theoretical argument in the practical details of American politics, problems surface, likewise inherently.
A long-standing debate in American politics is about the proper structure for political parties and the relative power that should be afforded to party professionals versus issue activists. In this book, Byron E. Shafer and Regina L. Wagner draw systematically on new data and indexes to evaluate the extent to which party structure changed from the 1950s on, and what the consequences have been for policy responsiveness, democratic representation, and party alignment across different issue domains. They argue that the reputed triumph of volunteer parties since the 1970s has been less comprehensive than the orthodox narrative assumes, but that the balance of power did shift, with unintended and sometimes perverse consequences. In the process of evaluating its central questions, this book gives an account of how partisan alignments evolved with newly empowered issue activists and major post-war developments from the civil rights movement to the culture wars.
How much of politics is specific to its actors and how much is the reflection of an established structure is a perennial concern of political analysts, one that becomes especially intense with the candidacy and then the presidency of Donald Trump. In order to have a template for assigning the outcomes of politics to structure rather than idiosyncrasy, we begin with party balance, ideological polarization, substantive content, and a resulting process of policy-making drawn from the immediate postwar period. The analysis then jumps forward with that same template to the modern world, dropping first the Trump candidacy and then the Trump presidency into this framework. What emerges is a modern electoral world with increased prospects for what might be called off-diagonal candidacies and a policy-making process that gathers Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump together as the modern presidents.
On Thursday, 5 July 1945, the British electorate appeared to draw a line under the prewar political world. This electorate turned the wartime government, led by the Conservative party, out of office. Moreover, it dismissed the Conservatives in favor of a party that still harbored doubts about its proper governing role, namely, British Labour. The scale of this reversal was additionally unprecedented. Labour had only ever formed minority, shortlived governments before; its last such venture, in 1929, had seen the party take power just in time to acquire responsibility for the Great Depression. The Tories had thus returned to effective leadership in 1931, such that Tory electoral and governmental dominance was still the context for the 1945 election. Now, however, Labour had returned with not just an absolute but an enormous majority in Parliament: it gained more seats than the Tories were left holding. And this over a party that had arguably weathered the Great Depression and saved the nation in a world war.
Were there alternative grand policy domains that ought to have been inserted into this analysis along the way? Our reading of postwar political history was that the four domains ultimately selected were in fact the major recurrent realms for policy conflict; we think the voting analysis vindicates that judgment. Yet, in pursuit of the internal structure of four great policy domains on the way to creation of the basic voting model, it was intermittently necessary to remove an item that did not belong to any of these four but that did have policy implications. In effect, these items constitute the hunting ground for any additional domain. They thus raise the analytic questions appropriate to an afterword. Can any number of these items, too, be formed into coherent policy dimensions? If so, do any of these dimensions have sufficient impact on the presidential vote to justify inclusion in the voting model?
The most theoretically promising of these putative alternative domains is probably environmentalism; that is, governmental intervention to protect or enhance the natural environment (Hays 1987; Dunlap 1991; Dunlap and Scarce 1991). This is a keystone element in what is sometimes treated as an even larger alternative realm under the heading of “postmaterialism” (Inglehart 1977, 1990). Regardless, its substantive core remains sufficient to distinguish items that belong centrally to the putative domain, that do not belong to it at all, or that blend environmentalism with some other realm.
What is the real nature of substantive conflict in American politics during the postwar years? And more precisely, how is it reflected in the American public mind? Is it even possible to talk about an “issue structure,” about ongoing policy conflict with continuing policy alignments, at the mass and not just the elite level? If so, what is the ongoing structure of issue conflict characterizing the mass politics of our time? How do policy issues cluster, and nest, within this substantive environment for mass politics? How does the resulting issue structure relate to, and shape, electoral conflict? Has this relationship remained essentially constant over the last half-century, the period for which public opinion data are most widely available? Or are there major breakpoints, and, if so, when did they occur?
Those are the questions that motivate this book. Despite more than fifty years of survey data about public preferences, work on issue evolution – on the changing identity of those policy issues that actually shape political behavior within the general public – is still in its early days. This is surely not for lack of great events apparently requiring some public response during all the postwar years. There is war and peace, boom and recession, plus social change nearly everywhere one looks. Likewise, there is no shortage of grand policy conflicts following on from these events: conflicts over social welfare, international relations, civil rights, and cultural values.
This book began with a set of arguably fundamental questions, fundamental to an understanding of the place of public opinion in American politics, of course, but ultimately fundamental to the health of a mass democracy in the United States. What was the nature of substantive conflict in the American public mind during the postwar years? Can the answer reasonably be described as contributing an “issue context” having recognizable connections among its composite elements along with temporal stability in these connections? If so, how do policy issues cluster, and nest, within this substantive environment for mass politics? How does such a structure – and positive answers to those questions do indeed constitute the “structure” of public preferences – relate to the keystone activity of democratic politics, namely voting? And what do these voting patterns, if any, reveal about “the big picture” of American politics over the past half-century?
From 1948 through 2004 and counting, the American National Election Study has asked national samples of the American public about their preferences on major policy conflicts and about the political behavior that follows (or does not) from them. These are the data for an empirical answer to those fundamental questions, an empirical answer with normative implications. Fortunately, the picture that emerges from asking them is both structured and stable. The public does offer a differentiated set of policy dimensions to its opinions within the major realms of postwar political conflict.