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March 13, 2013 11:00 AM Are Political Parties Really About Policy at All?

By Hans Noel

Greg Koger’s excellent post on the Hastert “guideline” raises a point of disagreement among parties scholars. One that we should make explicit.

Greg goes to great lengths to say that “policy outcomes are secondary to the true goals of political parties”— winning elections. Greg’s position is also taken by Anthony Downs, John Aldrich and others. Meanwhile, elsewhere, Seth and I (and Kathleen Bawn, Marty Cohen, David Karol and John Zaller) have gone to great lengths to say that policy outcomes are pretty primary to the true goals of political parties.

In a real way, this is a chicken-and-egg question. You can’t win office if you don’t have a record, so election-minded folks have to try to pass some sort of policy. And you can’t enact policy without being in power, so policy-minded folks have to get elected.

But parties do not exist only for the egg or only for the chicken. In fact, much of their work is in managing the coordination problems that emerge precisely because these two goals can be in tension. That is the contribution of the so-called UCLA school on political parties, which at least Seth and I would consider ourselves aligned with.

Does this distinction matter? How would we know? One question we might ask is whether election-minded politicians really want political parties. Seth’s must-read book No Middle Ground demonstrates that they do not. When activists were prevented from holding parties accountable for their policy choices due to the institution of cross-filing, legislators in California did not form parties.

Or we might ask whether partisan politicians pass legislation that advantages their known policy goals but risks electoral defeat. For example, research has shown that supporting Obamacare hurt Democrats in the 2010 elections. So all that very partisan activity of forcing Obamacare down the public’s throats/narrowly overcoming partisan obstruction got the Democrats a policy that they say they want, but it also led to a bigger than usual loss in the midterms. Meanwhile, that price wasn’t as bad as it might have been, because the effect of legislative activity on the vote is minimal and short-lived. Which makes it hard to explain the vote in terms of electoral goals. Similarly, liberals in the Democratic Party fought for civil rights in the 1960s, even though it tore their party apart and lost them the South for (more than) a generation.

One way to interpret these facts through Greg’s lens is to say that these policy demanders are not really part of the party. They are just activists who force the party to adhere to policy goals. The problem with that is that many of these activists also advocate moderation and other strategic decisions that help the party win elections. It’s better to say that everyone working on the broad goals of the party is the party, even if they sometimes disagree about priorities.

None of this is to say that election considerations are not important. They are incredibly important. Just as important as policy goals. For policy demanders, electoral victory is instrumental to policy success in the same way that Greg argues that policy success is instrumental to electoral victory. And to the extent that parties have to think about victory, as one of their important goals, everything that Greg wrote is obviously pertinent.

[Originally posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Hans Noel is an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.