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Polsby: The consequencies of party reform

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.

Polsby. 1983. The consequencies of party reform.

In Brief

Main Point: Polsby wants to trace the consequences of two key party reforms (the IVs) passed during the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These reforms had wide-ranging consequences (the DVs) for political parties, the conduct of presidents while in office, political intermediation, mobilization and accountability.

Methodology: Polsby relies mainly on historical/journalistic accounts to prove his points. Because he tends to use random historical facts rather than consistent explication of single cases, I hesitate to call them case studies (except for his discussion of the Carter presidency).

The Reforms

Two Major Reforms

Campaign finance reform: the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (we've talked about these before). In brief: limits on personal and partisan contributions to campaigns, transparency and record-keeping requirements, federal matching funds for presidential candidates in primary and general elections, and so on.

Changes in each party's presidential nomination procedures: took control of presidential nominations away from local political bosses and gave them to primary elections. These changes resulted from the recommendations of the McGovern-Fraser Commission of the Democratic Party. How did one party's reform lead to primary-centered nominations for both parties? State party leaders had five incentives to change state election laws governing party primaries in line with the recommendations of the McGovern-Fraser commission.

Consequences for Parties

He finds that both reforms had wide ranging impacts: State party bosses lost power, candidates and national party functionaries have gained power.

A nomination process dominated by primaries forces an early definitive choice on the party. Caucuses allowed state party leaders to gain bargaining leverage by keeping their delegates uncommitted until the national conventions. Because primaries are now dominant, the pressure on state party leaders (even in states that still have caucuses) from candidates effectively kills this option.

Candidate-centered campaigns: candidates must build their own personal organizations in every state because state party organizations can no longer deliver delegates.

Campaign finance reforms have destroyed the grass roots of each party. The onerous reporting requirements of the reforms have forced campaigns to discourage independent grass roots efforts, lest they lead to violations of contribution and spending limits.

An increase in the barriers to third parties: federal matching funds require third parties to obtain a set number of votes in the previous election. Also, congress routinely suspends equal time requirements of FCC broadcast licenses in order to exclude minor candidates from televised debates.

Republicans have benefited enormously from these reforms. A nomination process that encourages factionalism poses less of a problem for the more cohesive Republican party than it does for the divided democratic party.

Consequences for Governing Presidents

Primaries force candidates to focus on mobilizing factions rather than building coalitions, this has important consequences for how presidents govern.

Wider Consequences: Political Intermediation, Mobilization and Accountability

Political Intermediation: Parties are now masses of individual voters who pick among candidates in primaries, rather than a coalition of interest groups.

The rise of the media as political intermediaries has five possible consequences:

The decline in partisanship and electoral turnout among voters result from the changes in the party system caused by the reforms.

Accountability: the jury is still out on this one, but Polsby argues that the accountability of political leaders to the new interest groups are tenuous because they rely on the mass media for their influence. Thus politicians are really accountable to news media managers.

Political Reform and Democratic values

A candidate selection process heavily reliant on primary elections fails to meet a number of tests.

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Polsby, Nelson (author)American PoliticsPartiesParty Development and Organization

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