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Nationalized parties brought down Boehner and Walker

American political parties have always been divided. What's changed is how they address internal conflict.

Everett Historical

Events of the past week have prompted reflection on the Republican Party — its future and directions, and the divisions between the establishment and the Tea Party "insurgent" types. At first glance, Scott Walker's exit from the race and John Boehner's resignation as speaker of the House (and from Congress!) seem connected by what they have to say about fractures within the party. But there are a couple of problems with this explanation. As Nate Silver points out, depending on what you look at, the House Republicans were highly unified during Boehner's speakership. More importantly, American political parties have never not been divided. What has changed is the mechanisms by which they address conflict.

Our parties still loosely resemble the ones that were created in the 19th century: the Democrats in the age of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, and the Republicans in the 1850s after the demise of the Whigs. The ideas of national nominating conventions, state delegations, and national party competition find their origins in this era. These were bottom-up organizations — state and local parties that came together to decide on presidential candidates and platforms. Starting around the 1890s, the parties started to nationalize — to become more centralized and more top-down. Over the course of the 20th century, the national party committees developed their own capacities, independent of state party organizations. And more recently, the parties became more ideologically uniform across different regions of the country. As I note here, congressional elections have become more focused on national issues.

Let's think about Walker's short presidential campaign for moment. All the talk earlier this year about him as the second choice of different party factions reminded me of James K. Polk. Walker is a loyal Reagan Republican; Polk was a loyal Jackson Democrat. The comparison here is imperfect in an illustrative way — while Walker's connection to Reagan is mostly symbolic, Polk actually served in the House of Representatives during Jackson's presidency and helped with some of his major agenda items, and Jackson lived just long enough to support Polk's campaign in 1844. Polk won the 1844 nomination as a second choice to Martin Van Buren's supporters when the former president's lack of support for annexing Texas proved fatal to his chances. Polk's victory resulted from a few institutional factors. One was the two-thirds rule that the Democrats upheld at this convention, which required nominees to win well over a majority of delegates and protected the veto power of the South. Another was the degree of cohesion among state delegations. This cohesion was not perfect — some states were split in their candidate preferences. But part of what got Polk over the two-thirds threshold was his political allies lobbying on his behalf with various state delegations, including the New York delegates, who settled for Polk when it was clear that favorite son Van Buren was out.

Walker appeared poised to follow a version of this path — to be an establishment alternative to Jeb Bush with stronger conservative movement credentials — but the selection process no longer favors that approach. We don't know exactly what the mechanism is that allows the party to decide, but it seems to favor national profile and presence (what the theory calls electability), which puts candidates like Walker at a disadvantage. Building coalitions in a localized party system is within reach for candidates with lower national profiles. Building a national profile on short notice is a much tougher task. This is also not completely separate from candidate qualities. The demands for what makes a national-level politician have changed, and that makes sense given the scope of the federal government and of our foreign policy commitments.

Let's turn to John Boehner and the speakership. Matthew Dickinson observes that speakers now have to lead both the chamber and their parties, and it can be hard to do both at once. But here I think the nature of the parties matters, as well. As with the presidency, this is an office of major national leadership, but without most of the top-down tools of party discipline associated with more centralized parties. By pretty much all accounts, Boehner was an excellent fundraiser, but as a mechanism for party discipline, even campaign funds may be too indirect.

Here's the thing about party nationalization: As the parties have become more nationalized, their most important rules have become more informal. Formal rules have tended to protect decentralization in parties, like the old two-thirds rule for presidential nominations. Matthew Green alludes to informal norms in his post about House speakers and party divisions. This point is broadly true about the influence of the offices that have become synonymous with national party leaders — the presidency, the House speaker. Much of their influence comes from norms rather than from the formal structure of the rules, and when those norms break down, there's little left to organize a coalition. We see this in the presidential race, too. Now that we don't have brokered conventions anymore, with multiple votes to select a nominee, the process is informal. The field is narrowed by the informal process known as the invisible primary, and by norms that suggest losing candidates should exit the race.

Political scientists often argue that the rules matter. The rules of the game shape strategies and give some candidates an edge over others. But when you combine nationalized political parties with a fragmented Madisonian system, the rules that matter most may be the ones that don't exist.