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Burnham: Party systems and the political process

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Burnham. 1975. Party systems and the political process. In The American Party Systems, eds. Chambers and Burnham.

Some Background: Four Party Functions

Fully developed democratic parties perform at least four broad functions.

  1. The "constituent" function: Drawing diverse groups and interests into a coalition with a prioritized set of preferences.
  2. Office-filling function: Parties have primaries, caucuses, and other means of recruiting potential elected and appointed officials.
  3. Political education/socialization: Produce a coherent frame of political reference among the party's base, perhaps using party-controlled education and media.
  4. Policy-making function: Not only getting in office, but using government to achieve programmatic goals.


A Puzzle

Although the US had the first parties, American parties have mostly confined themselves to the first two of the above four functions. Strangely, each push toward further democratization (see below) seems to have actually led to a "dispersion rather than a concentration" of political power--thus, modern "American parties may actually be anti-parties."

A Solution: Hartz, American Culture, and Three Major (Horizontal) Cleavages

As Louis Hartz argued, American culture is characterized by a massive commitment to individualist liberalism and minimal government involvement in our lives. Even when we appear to argue for government intervention in the economy (e.g. New Deal), we frame it terms of what "minimal government involvement" means. This culture has limited the development of vertical (i.e. class-based) cleavages. As a result, parties were never used as a "collectively based vehicle of mass political mobilization" (unlike in Europe, where socialist movements drove partisan development). Instead, American parties have been defined by horizontal (non-class) cleavages. Among these, three have been major forces in US history:

  1. The clash of sectional subcultures: In the years preceding the Civil War, "the more Americans of New England and Southern subcultures came to learn about each others' social values and political goals, the more pronounced their hostility toward each other grew." The South's "deviant subculture" continues to affect US politics.
  2. The clash between "community" (localism) and "society" (cosmopolitanism). The tension between those favoring local and national control can lead to hostility toward (national) parties. There is tension between those favoring local control (especially in the West and South) and those favoring nationally directed social change (with the direction coming from the northeast).
  3. The clash of ethno-cultural groups: Many of the groups that might have been targeted by socialist organizers were fragmented along ethnic lines. Thus, rather forming class-based coalitions, American parties tended instead toward providing non-programmatic patronage machines rather than ideological European parties. Thus, there can be tension between the "constituent" functions and the policy-making functions.

Empirical Analysis: Five Periods in American Party Development

The periods are separated by critical realignments--the American version of civil war.

  1. The experimental system, 1789-1820: Two opposing coalitions organized from the center, each viewing the other as "disloyal" opposition. A struggle between uncompromising (Federalists) and moderate (D-Rs) elitism, followed by D-R dominance.
  2. The democratizing system, 1828-1854: Intense partisan organization in the 1820s, followed by mobilization (by Jackson) against "insiders" (thus, parties democratize--e.g. modern convention system arises).
  3. The Civil War system, 1860-1893: Because the Jackson-era parties were national, they had trouble accommodating sectional differences. This led to the major alignment of 1860 along sectional lines--the "inevitable" result of which was civil war. Strangely, the postwar re-entry of the South preserved this sectional cleavage for several years, giving "maximum political latitude to the industrial elites and their partisan assistants to develop the economy on their own terms," since sectional parties cannot easily prevent such behavior.
  4. The industrialist system, 1894-1932: The post-war years neglected two major disadvantaged groups: farmers and the urban proletariat. Populist uprisings led Northeastern elites to fear a political coalition of both disadvantaged groups. However, the political immaturity of these groups and their internal (ethno-cultural) conflicts prevented a coalition from emerging. Instead, the party system began to develop in a way that makes it different from parties in other industrial societies: "it was structured not around competition between the parties, but around the elimination of such competition both on the national level and in a large majority of the states." Thus, elites insulated themselves from attacks by victims of industrialization.
  5. The New Deal system, 1932-?: For the first time, substantial class cleavages enter the party system. Parties become truly national (not sectional) organizations. Since 1950 (Burnham is writing in 1975), the class cleavage seems to have diminished, so that "the classic New Deal alignment seems to have evaporated without being replaced by an equally structured ordering of politics." Thus, ticket-splitting has increased, and short-term influences on voting have grown more powerful.

Reasons that Parties are Atrophying

  1. Other agencies perform what used to be party functions. (e.g. parties used to provide patronage, but now agencies provide similar goods.)
  2. Public policy has grown more complex and technical. Parties are strong when society is divided around a few broad issues. But when it comes to finding technical solutions to complex problems, "there is no Democratic or Republican way to" do so.
  3. The US has become an empire. However, foreign policy is made by a bipartisan-industrial elite; there is little partisan competition about it. Thus, "most of the present-day activities of the federal government lie quite outside areas in which parties can make any positive contributions to the political system.

Comments and Criticism

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Burnham, Walter (author)American PoliticsPartiesVotingPartisan RealignmentParty Development and Organization

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