Book Reviews

Party People

Many recoil at the thought of stronger political parties. But revitalized parties could be exactly what our ailing democracy needs.

By John Sides

Tagged Democratspolitical partiesRepublicans

The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics by Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld • Princeton University Press • 2024 • 448 pages • $35

Pity the poor political party. It is an essential institution in every modern democracy. And still it is unloved. In the United States especially, there are mainly complaints about the alleged pathologies of party—polarization, tribalism, gridlock, and so on.

As a result, there is little positive vision of what parties can or should do. Political commentators talk about parties all the time but mostly to debate their tactics. Reformers write white papers about fixing democracy but treat parties as an afterthought at best or an obstacle at worst. Politicians are happy to sing partisan karaoke but couldn’t care much about writing the songbook themselves. As the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider put it more than 80 years ago: “The beneficiaries of the revolution in government wrought by the parties have not generally been grateful. Tories, reactionaries, royalists, and fascists ought to hate parties, but fantastically the parties are treated with contempt by the champions of democratic government.”

That quote appears in the penultimate paragraph of The Hollow Parties. In this insightful book, the political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld do three things. They tell the history of the six political traditions that have informed American political parties—what they call “party strands.” They describe how political parties became “hollow,” seemingly everywhere but lacking in fundamental capacities. And they provide a guide for revitalized parties. They are, unabashedly, “partisans of parties.” This makes them a rare voice in our political conversation. Theirs is a voice well worth listening to. If they are correct, stronger parties would be the linchpin of a stronger democracy, not the damaging force that so many assume.

Schlozman and Rosenfeld are scholars of political institutions and political history, each with a previous book under his belt. In When Movements Anchor Parties, Schlozman documented when and why social movements like organized labor choose to ally with political parties. In The Polarizers, Rosenfeld chronicled how mid-twentieth-century Democratic and Republican activists deliberately set about pushing the two parties further apart ideologically. Those books set the stage for a deeper history of U.S. political parties.

The six party strands occur and reoccur in this history. In the accommodationist strand, parties are viewed as collections of political professionals, making deals, organizing blocs of voters, trading favors, mediating disputes—essentially, accommodating the many people in or potentially in the party. Think Tammany Hall. The anti-party strand is visible among opponents of both the spirit and the organization of parties. The Progressive movement and the modern technocrat are exemplars.

The pro-capital strand is about how politics can serve the interests of business. It can be seen from free labor Republicans, who served Northern industries, to Reaganite Republicans. The policy-reform strand believes that parties solve problems. It flourished under the New Deal Democrats. In the radical strand, parties transform society to make it more equal. The egalitarian goals of today’s left-wing Democrats represent this. Finally, the populist strand divides the country into “us” and “them.” Its orientation is not to build coalitions but to fight enemies. The contemporary manifestations are obvious.

Viewed this way, the history of U.S. political parties is not one of discrete eras or “party systems.” Instead, different parties and party factions embody different and usually multiple strands. In the 1850s and ’60s, the nascent Republican Party project combined elements of four strands: accommodationist (in its patronage politics), pro-capital (via the support of Northern industry), policy-reform (via accomplishments such as funding land-grant colleges), and radical (visible in the Radical Republicans’ push for Black Americans’ rights). More recently, longtime “Democratic institutionalists” such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are both accommodationists and policy reformers. The modern conservative movement—what Schlozman and Rosenfeld call the “Long New Right”—channels the pro-capital and populist strands.

These party strands help the authors draw fascinating historical parallels. For example, Schlozman and Rosenfeld describe a “politics made by experts in service to a common good” and a “benevolent technocracy” that were endemic in both the Progressive movement and, a hundred years later, Obama-era liberalism. Even more, the Progressive movement’s push to empower “enlightened leadership” and ordinary plebiscites over party regulars like the leaders of the big-city political machines shows up again in “the Trump voter yearning for a savior to clean up the politicians’ mess.”

So where, then, does the hollowness arise? The Progressive attack on parties certainly took its toll, as party organizations began to lose their roots in local communities and their control over electoral politics. But the critical juncture came in the 1970s. Postwar economic growth gave way to stagflation, and policymakers responded by replacing the New Deal order with a neoliberal one. The end of the one-party South produced ideologically sorted and polarized parties. The rise of advocacy organizations and new campaign finance rules fragmented the political landscape. Party organizations were replaced by paraparty organizations—the “party blob,” exemplified by think tanks, activist groups, and shadowy nonprofits—whose attitude toward parties ranged from opportunistic to indifferent to actively hostile. Schlozman and Rosenfeld place less emphasis on the much-maligned post-1968 Democratic reforms to the presidential nomination process. To them, the critical juncture occurred later, and it involved the right as much as, if not more than, the Democratic Party.

Hollowness made Democrats “listless” and Republicans “ruthless.”

To Schlozman and Rosenfeld, these changes have affected the two parties in different ways. Hollowness made Democrats “listless” and Republicans “ruthless.” In their view, Democrats struggled to develop a new “party project” once stagflation, deindustrialization, and union decline wrecked the party’s formula. The Democratic Party lost ground to paraparty organizations (e.g., the Center for American Progress), activists (e.g., the Netroots), and liberal donors funding super-PACs and 501(c)(4)s. Democratic leaders, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were not much interested in party-building. In 1992, the head of the Democratic Leadership Council, Al From, said, “We don’t care about the party apparatus.”

The Democrats’ challenges were made more acute by the rise of the Long New Right. Schlozman and Rosenfeld are particularly sharp on this subject. They reject the notion that modern conservatism is purely or even primarily an ideological movement—although it has clear policy commitments, evidenced mainly in its pro-capital strand.

For them, the populist strand is more important. They describe its vision of parties and its rejection of the accommodationist strand thusly: “[P]olitical parties served not as means to cross-cut or tamp down underlying conflict but as instruments of power to extend the domination, or to prevent the domination, of some groups over others.” They quote Kevin Phillips, the author of the classic The Emerging Republican Majority, who articulated it this way in 1968: “knowing who hates who.” Their account seeks to “bring the fever swamps back in” to the study of the right and document its “streak of gonzo feverishness” and its “politics of antics.”

In doing this, they connect the dots across the decades from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump. An example of this echo across time is the rise of “anti-anti.” Schlozman and Rosenfeld locate the origin of this tendency in McCarthy and His Enemies, the 1954 book by William F. Buckley Jr. and L. Brent Bozell Jr. that essentially rebuked McCarthy’s opponents to justify his political program. One sees the same approach today in another Buckley creation, the National Review. It famously opposed Trump early in 2016 but now helps to lead what journalist Peter Beinart has called “the anti-anti-Trump right.”

The Long New Right’s style is also fundamentally performative. Schlozman and Rosenfeld quote from the Young Americans for Freedom’s (YAF) 1968 advice to its college chapters: “[C]reate controversy and the element of conflict and drama…the bigger the controversy, the bigger the crowd.” It could be a quote from The Art of the Deal.

Even more than the left, the Long New Right was built on paraparty organizations. A very partial list: the John Birch Society, YAF, the American Conservative Union, Concerned Women for America, the National Right to Work Committee, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the Heritage Foundation, the Council for National Policy, and Fox News. A distinctively Trump-y congeries has risen up as well: the Center for Renewing America, the Election Integrity Network, Compass Legal Group, the American Creative Network, the American Accountability Foundation, America First Legal, Citizens for Renewing America, and Citizens for Sanity, to name a few.

The result is a Republican Party with little ability to police its boundaries. Nowhere is this more evident than in regard to race. Schlozman and Rosenfeld document the importance of race throughout the history of American political parties, such as in the Jacksonian Democrats’ program of racial prejudice and exclusion. Race is central to the Long New Right’s history as well.

At times, this history rhymes. In 1964, the head of the Republican National Committee, Dean Burch, refused to reject Goldwater endorsements from the Georgia and Alabama chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, saying that if the KKK was “not in the business of overthrowing the government, we’re not in the business of discouraging votes.” In 2016, the endorsement of Donald Trump by former KKK grand wizard David Duke led Trump to feign ignorance, saying he didn’t know anything about Duke. When Mitt Romney tweeted a rebuke of Trump, conservatives pounced on Romney. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson adopted the anti-anti tactic and said that “Obama could have written” Romney’s tweet.

The story takes an even darker turn in a chapter about the contemporary Republican Party called “Politics without Guardrails.” Schlozman and Rosenfeld describe today’s GOP as a “shambolic, lumbering, and decidedly dangerous mess.” Its fixation on resentments and enemies has led the party to pursue actively counter-majoritarian strategies in the name of its own power; to embrace personalistic leadership in Donald Trump; and ultimately to sanitize the events of January 6. The authors’ account reminded me of an 1839 quote cited earlier in the book, by the early political scientist Francis Lieber: “All parties are exposed to the danger of passing over into factions, which, if carried still farther, may become conspiracies.”

What is to be done? What might un-hollow our political parties? Along with other pro-party reformers, Schlozman and Rosenfeld favor giving parties greater formal power, such as by helping party members and leaders control nominations via some combination of closed primaries, caucuses, and party conventions. But they see such reforms as incomplete. They want political parties to become stronger civic actors, with robust local and state organizations that can connect citizens to each other and do more to organize conflict.

The authors want political parties to become stronger civic actors, with robust local and state organizations.

Their case study is the Nevada Democratic Party under Harry Reid (aka the “Reid Machine”). They describe how Reid and his allies invested in resources and staff for the Nevada state party, attracting talent and using the party’s power to recruit candidates and clear the field as needed. In the authors’ view, parties need to “show up” and provide citizens with opportunities to engage in community life.

The question is whether and how such efforts would address the core problems Schlozman and Rosenfeld see in each major party. Democratic listlessness clearly pains them both—they admit to being loyal but disillusioned Democrats early in the book—and they yearn for a grand new “party project.” That concept remains a bit vague, however. The New Deal fits the bill, but of course it grew out of a configuration of catalytic crises and political power arrangements that is hard to replicate. Moreover, I would argue, today’s Democrats have maintained a core faith in New Deal tenets and still have ambitious policy goals. Somehow that’s not enough, at least for the authors—but why? Even more, there is also the question of how building civically engaged parties eventually engenders a party project. The work of the Reid Machine appears to have been valuable in Nevada. But would 50 strong state parties necessarily allow Democrats to formulate a grand collective vision? Through what mechanism? This part of the argument is not fully developed.

Schlozman and Rosenfeld feel even more urgency about today’s GOP given how central conservative parties have been historically to both democratic consolidation and backsliding. They are not optimistic and believe that the GOP needs “repeated and substantial electoral losses” to have any incentive to change. But their prescription is the same: “Rebuilding Republican Party organization as a civic force rooted in local communities offers a potential route out of the linked pathologies of rule by donors and rule by demagogues.” They wish for a revival of “genteel accommodationist governance.”

These would be welcome changes, but, again, the exact mechanisms remain unclear. Would the populist strand of the GOP be more or less prominent if there were stronger local parties? Many communities have their demagogues, after all, and local GOP party leaders have often pushed the envelope even further than national leaders have. Just as civically rooted parties may not give the Democrats a shared party project, they may not give Republicans a renewed commitment to democratic governance.

The most famous quote by E.E. Schattschneider is even pithier than the one quoted earlier: “Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” Schlozman and Rosenfeld are unquestionably right that political parties in the United States deserve more thought and more appreciation. Even if solving the problems of today’s parties is not straightforward, their book is an important step in making the parties, and maybe our politics, better.

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John Sides is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.

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