trump symposium ii: the organizational basis of today’s crazy politics – a guest post by josh pacewicz

This guest post on Trump’s run for president is written by Josh Pacewicz, a political sociologist at Brown University. 


In case you haven’t noticed, this has been a crazy election cycle. On both the Democratic and Republican side, a candidate who is more extreme than the typical serious presidential contender went all the way to the convention. Trump, who espouses some positions that are not recognizably Republican, is arguably even more the anomaly than Sanders. But both fared well, which suggests that the contours of America’s 20th Century party system are strained, if not cracked. How did this happen?

2016 makes sense only in the historical context of the gradual polarization of American political parties, or the tendency of politicians from the two parties to vote differently on every issue. Party polarization is distinct from other trends like a rightward drift among both Republicans and Democrats and is visible in, for instance, analyses of congressional voting, which show no Republican with a voting record left of any Democrat. A political status quo based in complete disagreement is a necessary precondition of this election, because only then do political observers expect politicians to treat their opponents as unredeemable out-there radicals, a state of affairs that creates opportunities for candidates who truly are outside the political mainstream. Because partisan polarization is a decades-long trend, explanations of 2016 that focus on factors like the recession or racial resentment over Obama’s presidency seem incomplete. Since the 1980s, party polarization has increased in good economic times and bad, during periods of war and peace, and under Democratic and Republican administrations.

I find VO Key’s classic distinction between the party in the electorate, the party in legislature, and the party as organization useful for thinking through the causes of party polarization: politicians might be polarized because voters—the party in the electorate—expect it, because legislative leaders demand it, or due to a change in parties’ organizational structure.

Many accounts of party polarization assume that politicians are simply responding to voter’s tastes, but historical evidence suggests the opposite. Party polarization began in the 1980s, but opinion surveys have historically found little change in voters’ tendency to hold consistently Republican and Democratic views. Social scientists found evidence of better partisan sorting—the tendency of voters with consistently Democratic or Republican views to support the right party—but this is likely because partisan conflict helps voters tell the parties apart. Recent surveys do show a decline of  voters with ambivalent views, but this is likely because voters’ preferences are finally catching up to politicians’.

Changes within legislative parties are also an unlikely cause of polarization, because there is no evidence that congressional leaders have grown more adept at using committee assignments, promised earmarks, or other maneuvers to discipline their peers. On the Republican side especially, one hears instead about the leadership’s inability to control congressional freshmen. And anyway, congressional leaders supported the establishment during recent primaries, pulling hard for candidates other than Sanders and Trump.

This leaves only organizational changes within both parties as a viable explanation of polarization. By party organizations, one might mean one of two things: formal party organizations (The DNC and RNC, partisan PACs) and informal party organizations, or the local leaders and activists who act as the organizational core of both parties at the grassroots.

Of these two types of organizations, I think that formal party organs matter less in the polarization of American politics. It is true that party organs and PACs have swelled with political donations, but these are really national organizations in name only; they’re more like glorified advertising agencies that can flood airwaves with negative ads immediately before the general election (and potentially influence it), but wield little influence over the hardcore activists who typically decide primaries. We saw proof of this last year, when the GOP spending machine backed establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, who fizzled pathetically.

So we’re left with informal party organizations: local party leaders and activists who, although formally unaffiliated with national party organs, represent the party at the grassroots and are especially influential in low-turnout primaries. In a forthcoming book, I argue that these grassroots institutions have changed racially in recent decades: whereas they were once dominated by leaders who simultaneously took positions of community leadership, they are now populated by activists who are purely focused on national politics.

Consider first mid-20th Century informal party organizations. Urban economies were dominated by large industries and other locally owned employers, which empowered both a business class consisting of owners, their families, and their firm’s senior managers and a working class movement rooted in unions. Mid-20th century federalism also allocated federal resources to locally controlled boards and commissions—think, for instance, urban renewal—thus creating a system wherein locals could realize goals by winning control of these local bodies. The result was a local public sphere wherein business and working class leaders clashed over workplace relations, civic initiatives, and local politics. During elections, community leaders simply imported their conflicts into partisan politics, with the Chamber becoming de facto GOP headquarters as union leaders took the reins of the Democratic party.

Community leaders cared about a few issues, but were ambivalent about others, which gave politicians an incentive to engage in a strategy of conflict displacement: they rallied their base by focusing on one big issue at a time—the New Deal, for instance—but avoided across-the-board conflict. As seasoned public figures, community leaders also interjected a certain decorum into party politics, disciplining firebrand activists—particularly on the Republican side.

Things changed quickly in the late 1970s, as industries struggled and failed. Many were purchased by faraway corporations during the 20th Century’s largest merger movement, which liquidated local firms or operated them as subsidiaries, slashing workforce and hobbling unions. Most cities lost their traditional business and working class leaders. Cutbacks in federal funding and policy-makers’ preference for competitive grants simultaneously turned place-marketing into community leaders’ overriding imperative. Remaining community leaders adopted a public style predicated on creating broad-based economic development partnerships, which clashed with overt partisan displays and led community leaders to withdrawal from grassroots parties.

Today’s crazy politics is largely the product of this grassroots trend. Contemporary party activists enter politics purely for ideological reasons, accommodate others’ extreme views and, lacking a clear pecking order, distinguish themselves through complete embrace of the party platform and the purity of their convictions. This is an organizational trend that will continue, absent a revival of local business communities, organized labor, or other force that is simultaneously rooted in community governance and party politics. Those surprised by the 2016 election cycle should buckle in for more of the same.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 31, 2016 at 12:39 am

3 Responses

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  1. Josh, fascinating stuff – looking forward to reading the book. You’ll get this question a hundred times, and I’m sure this is not the first time, but where do the Koch Brothers and other ideologically-motivated oligarchs fit into your account? Are they just exacerbating a process set into motion by numerous other factors? The mechanism in their case seems clear – they back House and Senate candidates who run against folks who don’t share their views; the latter either become more extreme or lose. The other simple mechanism is gerrymandering, as documented by David Daley’s recent book “Ratfucked”. Another elegant explanation: parties create districts that cannot be lost, so legislators have little incentive to compromise. Again, how large is this piece of the puzzle? Or is yours – and you hint at this – a radically different explanation?


    Abbey Lane

    August 31, 2016 at 5:53 am

  2. this is really interesting. it dovetails with a lot of my interests in community, political economy of place, and so on. i look forward to reading your book.



    August 31, 2016 at 3:58 pm

  3. Thanks for engaging with this abbey. The argument about Koch brothers and other big donors would be the same as about PACs, I think: their money fuels a lot of the negative ads that we see before the general election, but they wield less influence over primaries, which is where party polarization takes place. The idea is that primaries often get tiny turnout and are really decided by hardcore activists and whatever friends/family activists bring to the polls, and those people are unlikely to be swayed by TV ads, which is mostly what political money gets you. A great example is Jeb Bush in this primary. There’s also a timing issue; if I’m not mistaken, the Koch’s and other huge money donors really ramp up in the 2000s, whereas party polarization starts in the late 1980s for congress. This line of argument about primaries appears also in political science– see Masket’s No Middle Ground, for instance.

    Gerrymandering definitely matters, because–as you says– it makes party primaries the only election that counts. But it only contributes disproportionately to party polarization if the party activists who are decisive in primaries are way more consistent and extreme in their partisan positions than the average partisan voter in their district, which is true now, but was not true in the mid-20th Century. Back then, grassroots GOP party leaders held the same issue positions as the median Republican voter in their district (same for Democrats). So the argument is about why that divergence between grassroots party leaders and voters took place– not a radical different explanation that subsumes all others, but an important piece of the puzzle.



    August 31, 2016 at 6:18 pm

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