Are Strong Parties the Answer?

Issue Date July 2019
Volume 30
Issue 3
Page Numbers 173-176
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Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself. By Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Who, or what, is responsible for the crisis of liberal democracy today? Voters have expressed growing levels of dissatisfaction with their governments, culminating in the election of populist and illiberal leaders. This dissatisfaction is rooted in many trends—economic policies that have produced inequality and economic insecurity; the increased movement of people across borders; and shifts in international and supranational centers of power. Citizens report feeling that their governments are unable or unwilling to make decisions that benefit the public.

Antipathy toward political parties is both a symptom and a cause of this broader democratic discontent. Party membership in Western Europe has been on the decline for years; in the United States, the number of self-identified “independents” has been on the rise. Politicians can easily mobilize voters outside the traditional party system, resulting in new forms of party organization (such as Italy’s internet-based Five Star Movement), new centrist parties (such as France’s “En Marche” party), and insurgent politicians on both the right and left.

About the Author

Didi Kuo is senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

View all work by Didi Kuo

Frances Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro begin Responsible Parties with a warning: “This is a contrarian book” (p. ix). In some ways, it is. The authors argue that parties are weak, and that this weakness is the result of plebiscitary trends across the advanced democracies that have led to the sacrificing of “good public policy” for an elusive, and unattainable, internal democracy. They contend that what is needed instead is “big, responsible [End Page 173] parties,” the kind that can build consensus over policies. The contrarianism of this argument lies in blaming popular decision making rather than political elites or economic trends for eroding democratic institutions. The book is also a full-throated defense of the Westminster system, which the authors concede does not exist in any country today—not even in Britain.

Less contrarian are the positions that Rosenbluth and Shapiro take when diagnosing the problems with parties. There is evidence that governments are not responsive to the preferences of average citizens, and that parties are no longer the robust vehicles for promoting citizens’ interests that they once were. While Responsible Parties joins the chorus of democracy-in-crisis literature that has taken off with the Trump presidency, it does so by refocusing attention on the electoral system and the institutions that shape the incentives of party leaders. It takes up debates from the period after the Cold War when scholars—many in these pages—debated which configuration of electoral institutions could produce the best outcomes in democratizing societies.

Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue that two strong, centralized parties—strong being somewhat loosely defined—allow for a politics that “aims for the political middle” (p. 12). Their focus is on policy outcomes, and they argue that majority rule allows politicians to implement programs that serve most voters’ interests, while limiting the costs to people whom the policies harm. Weak parties are not able to do this because they can be coopted by narrow interests who offload the cost of their policies on to the majority of voters. To achieve this system of two big, strong parties, Rosenbluth and Shapiro recommend a host of accompanying institutions: plurality elections in large and heterogeneous, single-member district districts; parliamentary leadership that enforces party discipline; and an institutionalized role for the loyal opposition. Their approach, like the one advocated by Donald Horowitz, is meant to strengthen the political center—but unlike Horowitz’s, this approach includes no role for ranked-preference voting.

Responsible Parties uses the Westminster system as a baseline for evaluating electoral systems elsewhere, and the book takes us on a jaunty trip across the world. The authors critique the weak parties and federal structure in the United States, the proportional systems in small European countries, France’s majority-runoff system, Germany’s mixed-member system, and presidential systems with weak parties in Latin America. In discussing how the electoral systems of these countries have changed over time, Rosenbluth and Shapiro provide brief but helpful histories. Further, they trace the way in which plebiscitary pressures—a heading under which they group distinct phenomena including open-list proportional representation, the emergence of small parties of the right and left, and devolution—have undermined governance since the 1980s.

As party elites lost ground to their own members or to new parties, they could no longer maintain the consensus necessary to produce the kinds of programmatic outcomes seen during the postwar period. It is all but impossible, however, to disentangle the relationships at work in these decades. [End Page 174] Rosenbluth and Shapiro try to convince us that redistribution, economic growth, robust social benefits, and high wages were a result of strong parties. They also repeatedly acknowledge, however, that strong parties were themselves the products of strong labor unions, social-democratic ideas, and durable coalitions with business. If parties are merely a reflection of deeper structural factors, such as the balance of power between labor and capital, it is hard to see how they can be made stronger today. Without the clear reemergence of class-based politics, it will be difficult for parties to overcome economic inequality (both within and across countries), globalization, and the decimation of the workforce through offshoring, contracting, financialization, and any number of other trends.

In the case of the United States, Rosenbluth and Shapiro often conflate identity politics with plebiscitary democracy. While the two have concurrent origins in the Democratic Party’s McGovern-Fraser reforms of 1968, they satisfy different demands. After 1968, the Democrats expanded the use of primaries; and they also promoted “descriptive” representation of women and minorities, under the theory that party delegates should reflect the characteristics of party members, as well as their policy preferences. Responsible Partiesis is explicitly uninterested in issues of representation per se, but the problem of responsiveness is related both to policy and to descriptive representation. Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue that pursuing a race-conscious vision of party (including majority-minority districts and Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Rainbow Coalition, from which “the one color missing … was white”) sacrificed good policy for identity (p. 9). Further, they advance the counterfactual hypothesis that were it not for descriptive representation, black voters might be better off today. There is little empirical evidence that this is the case. After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the United States experienced all the difficulties faced by multiethnic countries that democratize, including the politicization of identity. This does not mean that multiracial democracy is inherently incompatible with the promulgation of good public policy.

Rosenbluth and Shapiro devote one chapter to the advanced democracies that have reformed their electoral systems, including Italy, Japan, Mexico, and New Zealand. These reforms, they argue, have served only to fragment politics or to empower some parties at the expense of others. One is left wondering, however, if the main problem with parties today is their weakness or lies in other factors entirely. Scholars of postmateralism, for example, argued that politics in the advanced democracies would increasingly be characterized by professional and elite parties, and cynical, politically aware citizens. Voters might simply become less satisfied over time, even if they remain steadfast in their democratic commitments. Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue that efforts to achieve accountability have had “the opposite effect” (p. 3). But there is a good case to be made that democratic publics might be far worse off in the absence of party reforms. The European Union, for example, shrank the scope of policies—trade, migration, [End Page 175]macroeconomics—that national political systems were effectively able to contest and deliberate. It is for this reason that Peter Mair lamented that the age of party democracy had passed. Further, there is evidence that mainstream European parties can recruit members by offering tangible benefits, such as a role in candidate selection. Internal democracy may very well be a way for parties to recommit to their members.

Responsible Parties convincingly shows that across many countries narrow interests can subvert or coopt the policy-making process. This perversion of majoritarianism is epitomized by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, whose creation and implementation were heavily influenced by the insurance lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, and the states. Rosenbluth and Shapiro try to argue that the polarized politics and rigid parties of today’s United States are not characteristic of Westminster parties, but rather a “chimera”; they decry weak congressional leadership, the risk of partisan outflanking through primaries, and the complex presidential-primary process. Real party discipline would require a clear party elite with decision-making power, as well as coordinating mechanisms to punish backbenchers in Congress. The authors concede, however, that even in this world, parties would still need financing, and would therefore need to privilege the interests of donors over those of citizens.

While Responsible Parties is clear in its diagnosis and prescription, it fails to consider the full panoply of stresses on party politics. Once democracy is granted, it is hard to roll back; this is true not only for big-ticket democratic gains such as voting rights, but also for more incremental ones, such as the right to have a say in a political party. Party elites have sometimes failed to deliver to citizens. Their continuing failure to do so in a world of greater internal party democracy could just as well be the result of exogenous, economic, or elite factors as of plebiscitarianism. The solution of centralized parties with a lesser role for members thus seems unlikely to address the root causes of contemporary voter discontent.