Party “Civil Wars?” Rules, Not Factions, Are the Problem

According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, only Hillary Clinton stands between the Democratic Party and “dissolution.” Other commentators have not so subtly wondered if the Republican Party can continue to be a big enough tent for evangelicals, libertarians and neocons.

So, our two major parties are so fractured and internally diverse that they are on the verge of disintegration. Right? Wrong. The parties have become more ideologically cohesive, not less. At a moment when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats represent extinct categories, rather than real factions, why do we see so much attention to intra-party disputes?

The problem is not that the parties have too many factions, but that they lack adequate processes to resolve disagreements.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, parties were diverse in terms of ideology, issue positions, and geographic interests. Delegates at the 1844 Democratic convention struggled to find an acceptable nominee, given the diverse views in the party on slavery and westward expansion. (They found one in James K. Polk). Despite these disagreements, it took another decade for the party to really fall apart.

Similarly, around the turn of the twentieth century, both parties were divided over economic policy. Each party had Progressives and conservatives who disagreed about regulation, tariffs, and other economic questions. For the Democrats, deep disagreement about the gold standard also informed the fights over presidential nominees and platform language.

These divisions played a role in the evolution of party coalitions and in the ebb and flow of party dominance, but only in rare instances (namely, the Whigs, whose decision to agree to disagree over slavery proved fatal in the 1850s) did they actually destroy the parties. The smoke-filled rooms and machine brokering of the convention era lacked transparency and excluded average citizens from the nomination process. The Democrats, with their rule that nominees had to receive two-thirds of the convention votes, didn’t even follow the principle of majority rule. The reforms of the Progressive era and the late 1960s occurred in part because the processes were deeply flawed and fell short of democratic (small-d) ideals like transparency and inclusion. The problem is that they were replaced by decision-making processes that in many ways are incomplete and unstable. The result is a party system that feels like it’s in perpetual crisis – even if it probably isn’t.

Through the twentieth century, the old institutions have been dismantled, but rarely replaced with new mechanisms for making decisions. One problem is improvisation and instability. After the Democrats ditched the two-thirds rule in the 1930s and allowed candidates to be nominated with a simple majority, some members of the Southern faction, unable to block nominees they didn’t like, started to defect by doing things like creating a third-party ticket in 1948 and supporting Eisenhower in 1952. In order to bring the Southerners back in, the leaders of the national party organization resorted to a number of improvisational measures in the 1950s, trying to find balance among different factions. (This is the subject of my current research.)

In the “post-reform” period, some of my co-bloggers and their co-authors find that an “invisible primary” process has emerged to choose presidential nominees. The invisible primary allows party elites to use donations and endorsements to converge on an acceptable nominee, all before a single primary vote is cast. From a normative perspective, this process is shadowy and ad hoc, without formal rules to adjudicate disputes among party factions (other than, obviously, a competitive primary).

Jenny Smith and I built on the research of Cohen, Karol, Noel and Zaller to argue that the presidential nomination process is institutionally incoherent, with three distinct systems operating at once. States vie for influence over the process, party elites try to select a nominee quickly and with minimal dissent, and the origin purpose of the primary reforms was to allow for greater input from parties’ rank-and-file. All three goals cannot simultaneously be fulfilled, and no formal rules exist for adjudicating among the three systems. For example, presidential contests in which front-runners are “coronated” quickly by donors and party elites are good for party leaders, but exclude primary voters, thus defying the purpose of holding primaries.

What about Congressional primaries? Compared to the presidential nomination process, these contests suffer from fewer issues with transparency and incoherence. Nevertheless, since 2010, primaries seem to have had a destabilizing effect on the Republican Party – arguable the most ideologically unified party in American history. Seniority lingers as a declining but still powerful norm in Congressional politics, and this might explain some of the backlash against primary contests that hand defeats to longstanding incumbents. In light of this clash between seniority and democracy, it perhaps is not surprising that ideas about process divide Republicans.

It’s neither realistic nor desirable to hope for two large parties without serious internal disagreements. We are a large, diverse country with a tradition of diverse, localized parties. Disputes over ideas, policy, and access to resources are all but inevitable. What makes a party function is not the elimination of disagreement. Rather, it’s the rules that coordinate among different groups and produce legitimate victories. If either party is vulnerable to “civil war,” it’s because of the absence of stable, widely-accepted rules, not the presence of factions.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.