I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the recent Thunderdome-esque smackdown between two colleagues over just what a party is. Rather than jump in the middle of these two seasoned gladiators, I thought I’d weigh in to say what a party is not. This one’s easy: a party is not what Jennifer Rubin thinks it is.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Rubin joined in the chorus of political observers saying that the Republican party needs to change what it stands for in order to become more electorally competitive. This isn’t an objectionable statement; the problem is that she suggests this is an easy thing to accomplish:

The idea that a party can remain static in its component parts and belief is daft. If the country is evolving and changing in demographic, economic and cultural ways, how can a national political party remain fixed in a set of policy prescriptions and in its component parts? Huge shifts are the norm, not the exception. Recall that the Democratic Party went from being the pro-Jim Crow party to one embracing 90 percent or more of African Americans. [Emphasis added]

Huge shifts are the norm? On the contrary — they’re incredibly rare! The Democrats’ shift from being the party of white supremacy to the party of civil rights was pretty much a singular act in American political history. Parties rarely pull off a major shift on a hot-button issue (that’s what killed the Whigs in the 1850s), and indeed it was a very costly shift for the Democrats, breaking their electoral lock on the southern states and ultimately ending their four-decade run of controlling the House of Representatives. To be sure, parties do evolve slowly on some issues, but the parties are much better defined by consistency than change. This is one of the major findings from John Gerring’s wonderful book Party Ideologies in America. As an example, note this quote:

[The President] has lost faith in the American people. Just look at the men surrounding him. They are cynics who scoff at our simple virtues. They think that the people are too dumb to understand democracy. Their idea is that they, the intelligentsia, can govern us with catch phrases and sleight-of-hand…. Give our country back to us. We want it. We love it.

That is classic modern Republican rhetoric. But it wasn’t uttered by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, or Sarah Palin. It came from Wendell Willkie, running against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Indeed, Republican rhetoric and party platforms have been strikingly resilient to change since the 1920s.

Why is there so little party change? (This is where this plays into the debate.) Because parties are dominated by the major issue activists and donors who get involved in party nomination contests. They won’t tolerate candidates who don’t care about the issues important to them, and they’ll find themselves a candidate who does.

Here’s more Rubin:

So what does the GOP do to remain a national party based on a core belief in liberty? One approach would be to become the reform party on entitlements, education, health care, employee unions and even the Pentagon while being agnostic on social issues.

Or the party could go fully libertarian leaving hawks and social conservatives adrift but gaining urban and suburban professionals and social liberals.

Another formula would be to embrace pro-life, pro-immigration, strong-on-defense conservatives with a Tory welfare state that loses business conservatives but takes on working class and minority voters. […]

The combinations are endless.

No, they’re really not. The party really can’t just nominate candidates who are, for example, “agnostic on social issues.” Anti-abortion activists, gun rights activists, evangelical Christians, etc., care deeply about the sorts of candidates the GOP nominates, and a candidate who shows no interest in their priorities will not get very far in Republican politics without their money, labor, and time. Sure, you can try to talk to the leaders of some of those groups and explain to them that they should just play ball so the party can win, but, as Hans notes, winning is not their only priority. In some cases, they’d rather see their party lose than win by betraying everything they care about.

Yes, there are exceptions. Colorado Democrats nominated the pro-life Bill Ritter for governor in 2006, calculating that a more typical Democrat wouldn’t win. California Republicans accepted a pretty moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor in 2003, figuring that they were unlikely to control a branch of the state government with anyone else. But these exceptions are very rare and really not business as usual, particularly when a party is seen as competitive. (Remember that, despite the talk of Republicans being unelectable today, they still control the U.S. House, and they held the White House just five years ago).

Part of what made George W. Bush a successful candidate in 2000 was that he portrayed a moderate demeanor and had a record of bipartisan achievement in Texas, but also knew how to communicate in subtle ways to business groups, foreign policy hawks, and social activists that he shared their priorities. That’s a difficult balance to achieve, and parties prize candidates who can pull that off. Try to upset that balance in the name of electability, and the party will usually reject you in favor of someone else.

[h/t South of the 49th]

[Originally posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.