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Fiorina: Parties, participation, and representation in America

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.

Fiorina. 2002. Parties, participation, and representation in America: Old theories face new realities. In Political Science: State of the Discipline, eds. Katznelson and Milner, pp. 511-541.

In Brief

American democracy is sick; three negative trends demonstrate this (rising mistrust, declining turnout, falling social capital). Political scientists have advanced two main arguments about how to fix American democracy (strenghtening parties and increasing opportunities for participation), but they are "inconsistent with the judgments of the people who actually live under it" (pg 13): In other words, Americans don't seem to like the results of these two arguments (which have been implemented).

"My contention is not that party and participatory theorists had it wrong from the beginning, but rather that important implicit assumptions underlying both theories have been undermined by the evolution of American democracy. The consequence is that both theories are inaccurate now, whatever their merits fifty years ago." (pg 14)

Material vs Ideological Goals: Polarization

Hypothesis: Politicians now have fewer opportunities for 'material' rewards than 50 years ago, increasing the importance of 'ideological' rewards. Thus, those who participate in politics have grown more extremist, causing increasing numbers of Americans to tune out.


Political science theories about parties and participation are outdated; they are based on conditions that existed from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, but do not exist today. Declining trust in government, declining voter turnout and participation, and declining civic engagement and social capital have changed the fundamental realities of American political life. "...[O]rdinary Americans are correct: empirical developments have left us teaching theories whose fit with reality has diminished" (pg 2).

Background: America is Different Now than 50 Years Ago

  1. Declining Trust and Rising Cynicism (Figure 1)
  2. Declining Voter Turnout and Participation (Figure 2)
  3. Declining Social Capital

Background: Two Major (but Outdated) Arguments about How to Improve American Democracy

"Some of the best political science minds of the 1930s and 1940s proposed a plan to improve American democracy. ... [M]uch of the plan has been implemented. But the result is not what the committee might have anticipated. Current generations of Americans who are blessed with [the results of these reforms] trust their government much less and participate less in politics than their predecessors who [did not enjoy the benefits of these reforms]." (pg 13)

  1. Open Up American Democracy
    • Many argue that "fixing" American democracy requires opening up government more. Proponents of this view overlook that the three negative trends discussed above correlate strongly with major movements toward government openness over the past 50 years: Open presidential primaries, open Congressional activity, increased direct democracy, etc (see Table 1). Ironically, Fiorina suggests that greater openness may have led to greater mistrust. As Bismarck said, "Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made."
    • Participatory theories assumed that increasing possibilities for participation would increase actual participation. Instead, only those with extreme views have the motivation to actually participate. Thus, many modern Americans "do not like government or want to participate ... because who populate the political arena are not like them" (pg 20).
  2. Strengthen Parties
    • Others--especially political scientists--argued that the problem lay not in openness, but in citizen control. The solution, they thought, was strong parties. Over the past fifty years, however, many of APSA's suggestions from "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System" have actually been implemented (see Table 2).
    • Political scientists still assume that parties look like they did in the 1950s (and only in the 1950s): Downsian seat-maximizing parties. In the 1960s, however, principles and policies re-emerged. Today, many candidates come into Congress strongly committed to a set of policies--largely because interest groups and social movements help drive them into office. The trouble is, however, that most Americans are moderates; they like centrist parties. Thus, partisan polarization leads to less popularity. Thus, a second irony:

Puzzle, Hypothesis, and Theory


Why do today's politicians and activists "weigh policy concerns more heavily vis-a-vis electoral considerations than their counterparts of earlier generations" (pg 20)?


The personal material rewards of political participation have diminished (pg 20). And as these incentives declined, "ideological incentives took up most of the slack"; they became relatively more important as motivating factors for particiation (pg 24). "People who went to meetings or worked in campaigns because their jobs depended on it [in the 1950s] were different from people who now do so out of ideological zeal" (pg 24).


Why "personal material rewards" have diminished:


  1. "If participants hold more extreme positions, ... and have little to lose materially by ... prolonging controversy, then conflict will be more common" (pg 25).
  2. Politics has become more symbolic. Though most of us don't care whether students said a prayer before a high school football game, activists will shout loudly. If my side is "right," then the other must be illegitimate. (Plus, you can't bargain for a compromise over purposive goals as easily as you can bargain over material goals).
  3. Politics becomes less relevant to ordinary Americans. For example, Democratic candidates pay so much attention to symbolic issues (abortion, gun control, etc) that they neglect issues of greater concern to their electoral masses: improved education, medical care, and working conditions.


  1. Elites abandon politics. They turn away from majoritarian decision-making to other means: the courts (e.g. "Develop a legal strategy that results in unelected judges imposing an outcome that elected officials would not"), unilateral presidential action, "stealth riders," etc.
  2. Masses abandon politics. They just start to ignore it.

Comments and Criticism

The 2004 presidential election was exceptionally polarized (as Fiorina would predict) but had an increased turnout (against Fiorina's predictions)

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Fiorina, Morris (author)American PoliticsPartiesParticipationPublic OpinionIdeologyDownsian ModelResponsiveness

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