Andrew Sullivan took aim  last week at the notion that there’s any “Republican establishment” out there to stand up to Newt Gingrich:

I’m not sure what this phrase means or represents any more – the Chamber of Commerce? John Boehner? The Bush family? But the concept of a responsible, sane, pragmatic party leadership able to corral or coax or manage a party’s base is, it seems to me, a preposterous fiction on its face, as we are seeing. The Republican Establishment is Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin.

Andrew Sprung called this “a crowbar to the political scientists’ notion of a Republican ‘party establishment.’” I should take a minute to explain where I stand on this.

I try very hard not to use the word “establishment,” precisely because I have no idea what it means. Nor do I think that “insider” vs. “outsider” is usually a useful category. In normal politics, people use those labels as part of the rhetoric of intraparty (and interparty for that matter) competition, which is interesting in terms of political culture and public opinion but tells us little about influence within parties. What I talk about are party actors, and (less often and more problematically) party leaders. I can’t speak for all political scientists on this one, but that’s who we should be talking about, in my view. These party actors include a lot of people: politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists, formal party officials and staff, leaders of party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan press.

Some of those may be in the working majority of the party; some may not be. There’s no theoretical reason to believe that everyone within any category will agree on anything, nor that people will agree across categories. That is, a party may have a situation in which the activists lean one way and the Washington-based politicians and others lean the other, but it’s equally possible that activists will be split, or campaign professionals will be split, etc. Nor is there any theoretical expectation, in my view — and here I differ from others who think about parties, I believe — that one or another of these groups will be the most influential. In other words, I don’t think that parties are “really” their politicians, or “really” the interest group which align with them, or “really” their formal organizations. Instead, I believe that any of those are possible, and that it’s an empirical question which portion of the party is most influential in any particular time and place.

With me so far? What I’m saying is that influence within political parties is at least potentially contested, and nominations — especially for the highest office — are where those fights, fights which define what the party is, take place. Of course, sometimes there’s no fight because everyone, or most everyone, agrees. When that’s the case, it’s very hard for us to see who is actually more influential. At other times, there are fights, and then we can get a better sense of who wields influence, but it can be extremely hard to study this stuff, because it’s not a simple matter of casting votes or other easily counted indicators. Some party actors give money. Others make public endorsements. But some exert their influence in less visible ways, such as by spreading overall impressions of candidates within the party network. That’s the kind of thing that’s hard to get at without a lot of careful work. Remember, even the people involved may have inaccurate perceptions of who has the most influence.

Now, back to “Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their mainfold products, from Hannity to Levin.” Are they the most powerful players in the Republican Party? We don’t know! We certainly know that if the GOP-aligned partisan press is united against a candidate in a nomination fight, that candidate will lose; after all, most GOP primary voters get most of their information from the partisan press, and believe what they hear. But that’s not enough to tell us that Rush and Ailes are the critical players here. We don’t know how much autonomy any individual talk show host, or even the head of Fox News, has, and it’s very difficult at best to figure it out. I’m certain that they’re not all-powerful, that there are at powerful constraints preventing them from just choosing on their own. After all, there’s a death sentence that the party can pronounce on any of them: Not Conservative. RINO. But of course that’s begging the question: who gets to declare someone else Not Conservative? Who can do it and have it stick?

So: certainly, Rush and Fox News are highly visible actors within the GOP, and certainly, they do a lot to originate or spread the ways that Republicans talk about things. Who exactly has the most influence within the party, however, is a much more complicated question. It’s not best answered, in my view, by focusing only on the most visible actors, nor by positing that there’s an “establishment/insurgent” split — the latter just doesn’t seem to fit very well.

When it comes to claims from me and others that (as Cohen et al. put it) The Party Decides, what we’re saying — at least what I’m saying — is not that a party establishment trumps other party actors. It’s that party actors are more important than the other players in the process: the (neutral) press; rank-and-file voters; and the candidates themselves, at least thought of as individual actors outside of the party (one way that the party controls things is through the transformation of self-interested candidates into party-oriented candidacies). That wasn’t especially true for a variety of reasons, in my view, in the immediate post-reform era, at least on the Democratic side (that is, in the 1972 and 1976 cycles), which among other things reminds us that it doesn’t always have to work that way. But by the 1984 cycle and going forward, it seems to be the case. It just isn’t plausible these days for a candidate who is opposed by a sufficient number of sufficiently important party actors, whether individuals or groups, to get a nomination, no matter how able that candidate is at appealing to voters. The party, collectively, just controls too many resources that are needed to win nominations, whether it’s money, or positive publicity, or personnel.

Again, that doesn’t preclude intraparty fights, or predict who will in those fights. And it doesn’t mean that the views of rank-and-file voters are irrelevant: those voters are often the constituents of party actors, who therefore care what they want (they also are used by party actors as clues to a candidate’s electibility, for better or worse). Recall, too, that parties are permeable; it’s generally very easy for rank-and-file voters to become party actors, although of course how influential they’ll be depends on lots of things.  But when we try to figure out what’s up in these contests, the place to start is by thinking about where the party is. Not the mythical “establishment,” whatever that is, but all of the party — that is, all party actors. That’s going to get us a lot farther down the road than any other form of analysis.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.