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Weak parties and strong partisanship are a bad combination

Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, attends the vice presidential debate between Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia.
Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, attends the vice presidential debate between Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence at Longwood University on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

No matter who wins next week, we should expect lots of talk about how many of the norms of democracy broke down during the campaign. One of the clearest losers was legitimate opposition. This has taken many forms, from chants of "lock her up" at the Republican National Convention to Donald Trump's suggestion that he might not concede the election to the many violations of the "Goldwater rule" to question the sanity of the Republican nominee and his supporters.

As we head into the election itself, we should think about what it means to lose a sense of legitimate opposition, why this has happened, and what might happen after Election Day.

I want to start by noting the distinct and unique state of political parties right now, and how that's contributed to several of the problems our political system seems to be facing.  This post is an adaptation of some remarks I gave at Cornell University earlier this week.

After observing what's gone on this cycle, I've come to this conclusion: The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong. What we've known about party organizations has long indicated that they are weak, with little to hold over candidates or officeholders.

Theories of parties that move away from the formal structures of the RNC and DNC, emphasizing networks of policy demanders instead, seemed to give parties as organizations a reprieve. But 2016 showed the weakness of the networks approach. This idea suggests that officeholders and the various interest groups that constitute parties — labor, environmentalists, the National Rifle Association, etc. — coordinate to narrow the field to a few choices.

In 2016, we learned the weaknesses of the network method of controlling party politics: Voters do not have to listen to elite signals. Elites do not have to listen to each other's signals. Parties have been stripped (in part by their own actions) of their ability to coordinate and bargain. As I noted back in May, bargaining breaks down when no one has anything that anyone else wants.

The Democratic process went more like we expected — but not entirely. Bernie Sanders's candidacy and its success showed that the coordination process is weak there too. There was nothing particularly wrong with what happened this year — the contest was largely substantive, and Sanders was an unexpected but in many ways conventional candidate. But what happens when there's not a potential candidate like Clinton — famous and powerful? A crowded, uncoordinated field could easily open things up to an inexperienced, unvetted, or extreme candidate.

But while parties as organizations are weak, parties as ideas —partisanship — is strong. This is what studies of Congress — which document the increasing gap between Republican and Democratic votes — are telling us. This is what obstructionist politics tells us. Polarized presidential approval, the Republicans lining up behind Trump — all of this is telling us that party identification matters to people. A lot. And much of these partisan feelings manifest in a negative way, with distrust and dislike for the other side.

This combination is fairly unique in American politics; the only other time it was obtained was in the early republic, when the different sides were clearly opposed and the modern party system had yet to form. And, I submit, it is a particularly dangerous combination — parties can't control whom they nominate. But their adherents — elites and ordinary voters alike — are prepared to support them.

Strong partisanship with weak parties makes for a couple of fairly serious problems for a democracy. The destabilization of institutions, for one. It's hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments — to have legitimacy when partisan motives are constantly suspect. This is also true for other kinds of institutions, like courts and, as we've seen most recently, law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Citizens view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.

Suspicion of institutions doesn't just undermine courts or Congress — it also undermines party politics as a whole. Party politics is really important for democracy; most political scientists still share E.E. Schattschneider's observation that democracy is "unthinkable" without parties to do the work of campaigning, to organize stable coalitions, and to help citizens make sense of political choices.

But the mass public seems less sold on them as a concept. Perceptions that partisanship creates division and animosity, and distracts public officials from serving the nation, whether fair or not, send the message that strong parties are bad. And the work that parties do remains invisible. The social and organizational benefits are perhaps even nonexistent in this context. When so many citizens are convinced that parties have a negative impact on politics, it's hard for us to think about revitalizing them, or even reconceiving what strong parties might mean in the 21st century.

Second, while party organizations are concrete, partisanship as an idea is abstract. Partisan identity tells us who shares our beliefs, and it helps to make political meaning, conveying important truths about the world through symbols. It is in these cracks of abstraction that truly pathological politics grows.

In a severe example, Lee Atwater described this when he compared "coded" racial appeals to the more overt ones of decades past, noting that when you talk about busing or states' rights, it becomes more abstract. The more abstract party identification is, the more resentment can fester against people whom you do not know or encounter, whose lives you have not considered, but who seem like useful targets for your frustration.

Abstractions allow citizens to ignore the full implications of their views — and to neglect to consider other citizens. This makes it a lot easier to ascribe bad intent to them, or to blame them for your problems.

These problems have the potential to seriously damage the concept of legitimate opposition. Partisanship as a way of expressing both team loyalty and policy beliefs can be very useful. But it needs to be balanced with a sense of the party as an organization — a team in a more concrete, social sense. Team-spiritedness also needs to be balanced out by organizations that have an interest in the next fight: robust party organizations that want to win next time, and believe that they can.

In other words, the norms that we depend on to keep democracy functioning aren't just there or not. They are enforced by political actors, and parties play an important role in this enforcement.

In a forthcoming post, I will take up legitimate opposition in more depth and historical context.

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