How We Got Modern Political Parties


Reviewing Julian E. Zelizer’s The Fierce Urgency of Now, an account of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, Sam Tanenhaus traces our ideologically-sorted political parties to a 1950 report by the American Political Science Association, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System”:

This report grew out of a project supervised by E. E. Schattschneider, a professor at Wesleyan and a leading exponent of Wilsonian party government. A political party that “does not capitalize on its successes by mobilizing the whole power of the government is a monstrosity reflecting the stupidity of professional politicians who are more interested in the petty spoils of office than they are in the control of the richest and most powerful government in the world,” Schattschneider had written.

This argument became the overriding theme of the 1950 report. Schattschneider’s team of fifteen scholars and policy experts had talked to congressional leaders, to officials in the Truman Administration, and to state and local politicians. It concluded that the two major parties were “probably the most archaic institutions in the United States”—scarcely more than “loose associations of state and local organizations, with very little national machinery and very little national cohesion.”

The Republican or Democrat sent to Congress was seldom screened by the national party and so felt no obligation to support the party’s program, if he even knew what it was. Once in office, he delivered patronage and pork to his constituents back home. He operated free of a coherent agenda and belonged to no “binding” caucus. The parties, in other words, were failing because they weren’t sufficiently ideological, partisan, and polarizing.

The solution was a “responsible party system”—centralized, idea-driven, serious-minded. Each party needed stronger central “councils” that met regularly, not just in Convention years, to establish principles and programs. Candidates should be expected to campaign on these platforms and then to carry them out, with dissidents punished or expelled. The party in power would enact its program, and the minority party would provide strong criticism and develop alternatives to present at election time.

(Image: President Johnson endeavors to give “The Treatment” to Senator Richard Russell in 1963, via Wikimedia Commons)