The eighth edition of the State of the Parties just came out! It’s a great book with contributions from many of the leading political science researchers in American politics. As with previous editions, there are sections on public opinion, campaign finance and an expanded focus on the nature of the current party system in America and what changes it may be undergoing.
As with previous editions, I have a chapter on state party platforms. What is different about my chapter this edition is the use of automated techniques to evaluate platform ideology. I used Wordscores to measure state party ideology instead of manual coding. In a future, I will show how the results vary based on the method used for coding.
The main finding in my chapter is that state parties remain highly polarized. I did not find, however, much evidence of a divide within the parties. A lot has been made of the division between Establishment and Trump Republicans and between Establishment and Progressive Democrats. The state party platforms, however, do not reveal much evidence of this divide. It could be that state party platforms just aren’t a good measure of intra-party divisions (although my previous research does capture some meaningful diversity of agenda attention). Dan Hopkins recent book shows that parties are nationalizing and the state party platforms over the last century show greater homogeneity within each party. I wonder, though, if this nationalization could also show when the parties are becoming internally divided. In other words, if the divisions are being fought at the national level, then factional struggles at the state level should reflect this (as seen in several recent primaries as well as control over state party organizations).
I didn’t find evidence that states won by Clinton or Sanders were ideologically different; ditto for Trump versus states won by Establishment GOP candidates (there were some differences using sentiment analysis). Again, it could be the fact that platforms, because they aren’t written in every state and revised every year, won’t capture these divisions. Still, one of my conclusion was that newly engaged party activists have not sought to institutionalize their ideals into formal party documents as they have in the past. I wonder, however, as the Democratic Party moves away from caucuses, that this indicates past processes of party agenda formation are anachronistic. In an age of social media and online fundraising, the party organization is large and cumbersome mechanism to move when other smaller organizational tools and vehicles are available. As political scientists, we devote a lot of our research to understanding how parties as organizations reflect the goals of politicians, social movements, and activists. I just wonder if, as with many other institutions, parties will become less important in the coming years. Sure, it’s a big leap from a single year of state party platforms to this conclusion. Still, I think its worth thinking about how parties formalize their agendas and what this means about party organizational strength.
4 thoughts on “New State of the Parties Edition!”
Interesting analysis, Dr. Coffey. As I read this, I recalled reading a piece written some time ago now by Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman titled “The Broken Engine of Progressive Politics.” Although It’s not obvious at first glance, your piece shares several insights that Ackerman also touches on – especially regarding the institutional role our two major political parties play. I wonder what your thoughts are on the diminished state of those institutions – largely a result of the Supreme Court, which has become overtly hostile to many laws which aim to limit political spending. Although the article was published in 1998, Ackerman clearly sensed the trajectory we were on which tangentialized further and further away from the strong institutional parties which characterized much of the 20th century. Accordingly, he believes this is a major reason why today’s progressives have enjoyed frustratingly few policy victories compared to their generational peers from an earlier era.
If you’re ever curious, here’s the link to it:
As well as an updated look at the conclusions the original article draws:
I’d love to get your thoughts on it sometime! Take care.
Hi Adam – thanks for reading the blog and taking time to comment! I am familiar with Akerman’s argument. I am not sure if you have seen their chapter in the latest edition of State of the Parties, , but Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld make a similar argument in their “Party Blobs and Partisan Visions: Making Sense of Our Hollow Parties.” They similarly conclude that while parties appear strong, since they are ideologically polarized and have lots of cash, they really don’t connect with citizens in meaningful ways. The conference version is available here: https://www.uakron.edu/bliss/state-of-the-parties/papers/Schlozman+rosenfeld.pdf
Anyway, I think it will be really interesting how the newly energized left reshapes the Democratic Party. I think you are right what matters to some extent is how the party is reshaped institutionally or organizationally. Movements tend to leave their mark. Parties have always adapted and they may just adjust as they always have. But, importantly, parties are no longer the intermediary in terms of communication between the candidate and the voter. That was a crucial resource parties always had that made them relevant/central to elections. But this isn’t really true anymore. Also, a valid criticism of Obama is that he did little to build the Democratic Party. His was a movement, but too presidential. So, now, there is a movement, but it lacks a candidate (Sanders or Warren maybe) to focus the energy. But still, the concern is whether parties can be forces to articulate and justify large policy changes. Can parties get their members to agree to compromises? Or to prioritize one issue over other issues that activists care about? Many scholars argue that successful presidents need the parties to marshal and discipline supporters to allow the president to enact the policies of the movement.
Appreciate the reply, Dr. Coffey! I’ve not seen their chapter in SotP but it does sound quite similar to Akerman’s argument. Of course, from my understanding of it, his (and I assume their) argument applies to national parties and not as much to state parties; at least to the extent that they takes their cues from the national party.
Which brings me to an interesting question that goes to your point on parties losing their role as intermediaries. Since you do a lot of work on state parties, I’d like to ask – do you actually think they’re just miniature versions of the national party or do they, in significant ways, reflect a more local or regional ‘flavor’ that is distinct in some ways from the national party? There’s been quite a bit of academic analysis done on the decline of state parties. Part of this seems to stem from a lack of resources – changes in the campaign finance landscape have meant that the cash that used to go to state parties is now used to shape public opinion more directly via 501(c)(4) social welfare (or dark money, depending on your outlook) groups, directly to candidates or their PACs, etc. This, in addition to some of the other changes that took place in the late 1970’s (primaries taking the place of caucuses, superdelegates, etc.), perhaps inadvertently took a lot of the functionality out of state parties to where they now have to act as miniature national parties in order to remain relevant? I’m not sure. If you agree, what do you think their role is nowadays? Just to act as GOTV infrastructure for the national party during election years? Of course, none of this precludes a state party still being able to have a distinct state ‘flavor’ and function quite independently from the national party. But maybe these changes make it that much harder to have a vibrant state party? Perhaps this would help in solving the connection gap you reference between citizens and parties?
Agree with you 100% on Obama. He was an exceptional candidate, but his team willfully disregarded or completely neglected the role of the institutional Democratic Party and instead built a platform largely around the man himself. To be fair, he did preside over one of the most radically changed campaign finance landscapes in a long time (since the Supreme Court took nearly all of the teeth out of the McCain-Feingold law in Citizens United v. FEC) and thus maybe his second campaign could be said to have just operated within that new legal landscape which, I think, advantages a candidate-centric instead of a platform-centric candidacy. On the other hand, I think that even during his first campaign, Obama made full use of his celebrity-like status that he had developed within the Democratic Party and his team took it and ran with it. Ultimately, I agree that Obama did little to build the Democratic Party though. It’s neglected state during those years has left it with depleted ranks, almost no significant policy victories, and a retreating from rural areas into mostly urban cores.
But from my understanding of history, this isn’t exactly new territory for the Democratic Party. I’ve read that it looked like this during the first Gilded Age and probably up until the New Deal when it finally found a candidate which did lead the movement that had been building for years prior (FDR). In my mind, Sanders probably comes closest to that leader today but because of the historic tension between socialism and liberalism (for an excellent overview, check this article out: http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/5/14/18528722/socialist-manifesto-bhaskar-sunkara-liberalism), I’m not sure that I think he’ll ever fully command it. Warren, on the other hand, is a policy guru and is, without a doubt, the intellectual hub of Democratic policy right now. While I think she’ll continue in this role and will definitely have a hand in crafting policy the next time Democrats have power in Washington, she is more an intellectual than a politician. As such, her ability to connect with people is somewhat limited and I am doubtful of her ability to really lead this new energy (she is also a woman and although I believe this is an unfair critique based on outdated stereotypes, it is also something that, sadly, still matters).
Thanks again for your comments!
Again, Adam, thanks for the reply and great comments! So, not to punt, but I think one of the best answers (recently) to your question about whether state parties are just miniature versions of the national parties is by Daniel Hopkins. His recent book, The Increasingly United States, shows how state parties, politics and civic life are becoming more nationalized (see: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/I/bo27596045.html). It’s a great study of how nature of politics has changed over the last century. I still think there is a lot of diversity left for state parties, mainly due to the structure of the parties, their openness to capture by interest groups and the volunteer nature of American local politics.