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The Decline of American Parties 1952-1988.

The Decline of American Parties 1952-1988.

Martin P. Wattenberg. Delbert Latta is an Ohio Republican who served in the House from 1958-1988, best known for the Gramm-Latta budget and reconciliation bills. He tells a story about the first time he and Mrs. Latta were invited to the White House. Lyndon Johnson proffered the invitation. The Lattas had a marvelous time. They met with dignitaries, they ate a fine supper, they danced and, at one point, the president himself cut in. When the Lattas returned home and checked in on the kids, Del was so excited, he woke his young son just to tell him the news: "Your mother danced with the President of the United States." "But Dad," the boy shot back, "the president is a Democrat."

If you had any doubts, Martin P. Wattenberg's book shows that partisanship like that is now largely out of fashion. It is the intensity of party identification that Wattenberg focuses on; he notices that, while people change their party identity only rarely, the significance of that affiliation waxes and wanes over time.

From data collected in the National Election Studies (NES), which were inaugurated in 1952 and have been conducted in each presidential campaign since, Wattenberg devised a measure of indifference or neutrality toward the political parties. Among other questions, NES respondents are asked what they like and dislike about each party. Some people have nothing to say, good or ill, about either party. In 1952, only 10 percent were in that group, and most of them were apolitical--they knew little about the candidates and very few voted. In the 1980s, about 33 percent of the respondents had nothing to say about the parties, even though this group identified differences between them, had likes and dislikes about the candidates, and voted about as frequently as other respondents. By contrast, when similar like/dislike questions were asked about the candidates during the same period, the percentage of nothing-to-say hardly varied.

Wattenberg devised a broader measure of indifference toward the parties to ascertain an overall positive, neutral, or negative attitude. He discovered that from 1952 through 1980, there was a steady increase in the percentage of respondents who were truly neutral, all at the expense of the true partisan category. There has been a small shift back to partisanship in the eighties, but the basic trend toward indifference is well entrenched.

What explains these changes? We might be tempted to round up the usual suspects: broad demographic changes, the parties' failure to differentiate themselves, and a growing, general distrust of government. Further specific examples might include a better-educated electorate, which might be expected to make its political choices without the help of party cues; and the natural course of generational replacement that produces new voters coming to the political world too long after realigning events, like the Depression and the New Deal, which gave meaning and strength to their parents' and grandparents' political identification, but not theirs.

But according to Wattenberg, it turns out these are not the culprits. Strikingly, while the level of formal education has grown dramatically during the same period, the trend toward neutrality in party evaluation is the same at all education levels. Plus, all age cohorts have moved toward neutral evaluations, suggesting that while older generations don't tend to change their party affiliations, the labels used to have more meaning for them than they do now.

Wattenberg argues that the public has no difficulty finding differences between the parties; paradoxically, the trend here moves opposite the trend toward neutrality. What has changed, he says, is the perception that one party will do better than the other at handling what people see as the most significant problems of the day. In part this reflects a changing perception of the problems--drugs and moral decay are social problems that the federal government is not likely to solve overnight. But it is more than insuperable problems that explain changes in this perception. Budget deficits, which had long been thought a problem that Republicans were best suited to solve, are still on the list of problems, but no longer is one party seen as better equipped than the other to handle them.

No, it's not so much the national issues but the changes in our political structure--the rise of entrepreneurial candidates for president and for Congress facilitated by changes in media coverage and new forms of campaign financing--that best explain why the electorate now links issues with candidates, not parties. Wattenberg discusses some of these changes. One fascinating detail is the rise in neutrality of print media, associated with the disappearance of competing papers and best shown in the percentage of newspapers that endorse presidential candidates. In the 1930s, about 95 percent of newspapers made such endorsements; in the 1960s, about 77 percent did; but in 1988, less than 45 percent endorsed a candidate.

Wattenberg is certainly correct when he concludes that we now vote for the person, not for the party. But what makes Wattenberg's book important? After all, analysis of the fall of American political parties has been a growth industry for scholars and journalists at least since the early seventies.

Wattenberg's news is that what's afoot is not hostility but indifference--a subtle but important distinction, especially for understanding our most recent elections. In most theories of affect, love and hate are closer to each other than to indifference. So where there is hostile rejection of one or both parties, there is still hope of realignment, of significant switches toward one party, in effect revitalizing both. But if Wattenberg is right and the significance of party affiliation has been drained away, changes in party identity mean little--Wattenberg describes them as "hollow realignment." I believe his view best explains how, for instance, Bush could win in an electoral landslide while losing seats in the Senate and House, earning him the weakest base of party support in Congress of any president in history. It also may explain why disillusionment persists about the Democratic party, even though Democrats won six of eight recent congressional special elections and did better than expected in the two they lost. And most important, Wattenberg's idea explains why presidential support is so broad and yet so shallow--why it can't be translated into a mandate.

Much that is wrong with contemporary politics can be blamed on party indifference. Weakened parties help explain declining participation in federal elections--barely 50 percent of the eligible citizens voted in the last presidential election, the lowest percentage in 64 years. They can also explain the excesses of negative campaigns, since a personalized politics requires harsh negative attacks to distinguish the candidates. When party identity is a powerful influence on choice, there is less incentive for mudslinging, because strong partisans already see their own candidate in a good light and the opponent in a bad one.

A politics dominated by candidates' personalities ignores the future. Parties, much more so than candidates, have an incentive to look beyond the next election, to take risks for the long run. And strong partisans form hearty, stable attachments resistant to the influences of the moment. As Walter Dean Burnham once wrote, "Pure candidate-domination of elections is a recipe for irresponsible, unaccountable performance in office." The trend away from party and towards personality is a return to a very old tradition in American politics. There is no doubt that indifference, and even anti-party sentiment, describes our earliest days; the election of George Washington was plainly a triumph of personal image over any of the issues that came to be associated with the Federalist party. But we are probably now ill-served by this 18th century view; Wattenberg has shown that we need a new vision of politics, a new form of partisanship, that recognizes the candidate as the center of the universe but also takes the best from American political parties--their stability and orientation to the future.
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Author:Pomerantz, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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