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Political parties are divided over process, but we've seen this before

Theodore Roosevelt stamp
Theodore Roosevelt stamp
cat walker/ Shutterstock.com

The ongoing House speaker negotiations have brought attention to debates over process. Here at Mischiefs of Faction, Hans Noel pointed out last week that the fights among House Republicans are somewhat puzzling for those who conceptualize party ideology in spatial terms. The caucus is more unified around conservative policy positions that perhaps ever before — so why is it so divided? I've also written before about how the divisions in the Republican Party come down to process rather than policy substance. In other words, Republican elites who align with the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus are pretty much on the same wavelength with other Republicans on issues like taxes and abortion; where they differ is on questions about compromise and ideological purity.

There are two important pieces of context that I think can help us understand what's going on with the Republicans and what it means. First, a process divide is emerging in the Democratic Party, too. Second, we've seen this before. About 100 years ago, the reform impulses of the progressive movement divided both parties. While the parallels are imperfect, it does illustrate a few things of interest to political observers.

In the Democratic Party, there's been a struggle over debates, for example, between Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other Democrats — including some other DNC officers — over the number of debates held this season. Some of Bernie Sanders's differences with Hillary Clinton have a process component, too. Alongside substantive economic issues, Sanders emphasizes changing campaign finance (with a whole separate bullet point for Citizens United) and opens his speeches with the grassroots nature of his campaign.

The tenor of the Democrats' clash over debates reminded me somewhat of Sidney Milkis's account of the Republican party's struggle over the 1912 primaries. Theodore Roosevelt — who was using the newly adopted primaries to try to wrestle the nomination from incumbent president (and Roosevelt's own hand-picked successor) William Howard Taft — stressed the importance of the "will of the people" in pursuing his insurgent candidacy, and accused the Republican Party elites of defending a nomination that pushed voters to "the bleachers."

In the Woodrow Wilson presidency that resulted from the Republicans' 1912 split, we can find some divisions that look like what's going on with the current House Republicans. You think the Democrats are divided now? When Wilson took office in 1913, they were split on temperance, on isolationism, and on reforming the patronage system.

Wilson, like Roosevelt, identified with the reform wing of his party. This had policy implications — the kind that led Glenn Beck to cast Wilson as an enemy of the Constitution during the early days of the Tea Party. Wilson supported more expansive regulation of the economy by the federal government (and supported strong workforce regulations at the state level when he was governor of New Jersey). But Beck's followers would perhaps be surprised that Wilson's approach to reform politics shared some process preferences with contemporary Tea Party and Freedom Caucus types. Wilson emphasized the importance of parties as vehicles of cohesive governing visions (see my earlier post on this) — of promises to the people that elected officials should work to keep. Wilson was strongly driven by ideals, was motivated to take his case directly to the people, and had a reputation for resisting compromise. Sound familiar?

While the parallels are not perfect, the politics of the progressive era reveal another example of a time when both parties were divided by process preferences. The fact that the progressives in the two parties shared broad policy and process ideas is a major difference. But we do see some parallels in the way reform-oriented process politics can manifest in either a focus on ideology and mandate politics or in a push for plebiscitary democracy within parties. So what can we learn from this? I see two lessons and a big question.

As in many policy positions, the two parties appear to have "switched places" in terms of their divergent approaches to process reform. What is particularly interesting about this is that Democrat Wilson, insurgent Republican Roosevelt, and establishment Republican Taft were not that far apart on key policy positions, namely economic regulation. This presents a challenge to some of our common assumptions about the relationship between substance and process. Consider, for example, Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins's work on party asymmetry: One possible explanation for the fact that they find Republicans more principle-oriented is that conservative ideology lends itself to such an approach. But the Wilson example suggests this is not necessarily an inherent connection. (Although Wilson's views on substantive issues, particularly race, are not ones we would associate with contemporary liberalism, either.)

The grievances of party reform movements also shed light on the unintended consequences of the old rules. The convention system was created in response to the problems of coordinating nominations in a decentralized and expansive country. The system served that purpose, but its corruption, opacity of the convention system — in addition to emphasis on party rules over policy substance as the glue holding national parties together — inspired the progressive approach to reform. The progressives (and the reformers in the 1960s and 1970s who continued their work) laid the groundwork for our current system. We have direct primaries, which may or may not matter — but they do create additional fundraising needs for candidates. Our campaign finance system, created by the reforms of the 1970s and subsequent laws in the same vein, is complex and awash with money. Our politics — residential and congressional — draws heavily on the mandate ideal. But while our system reflects the process goals of the progressives, it's still vulnerable to the same problems the movement protested: corruption, opacity, unresponsiveness, oligarchy.

The question that remains is: Why do process divisions emerge when they do? Are they driven by people like Theodore Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders, who have the stage presence to inspire movements? Or are they perhaps related to income inequality, suggesting that when the stakes of politics rise, debates about the rules become fair game? The conditions that allow and catalysts that propel reform movements within parties can help us understand how the rules change.

I tend to be skeptical of reform movements, which seek to "clean up" or maximize democratic participation without thinking about long-term consequences. The combination of inequality and dynamic political personalities seems like an especially consequential one here. This would imply that reforms happen because politicians like Sanders and Roosevelt convince people that process changes will end economic injustice. These stories usually sound good but aren't always fully considered, which makes unintended consequences all the more likely. Reform, in other words, is probably too important to be left to the reformers.