“The Decline of Collective Res|>onsibility in American Politics”
Morris P. Fiorina
For more than three decades, political scientists have studied the changing sta tus of American political parties. Morris Fiorina suggests that political parties provide many benefits for American democracy, in particular by clarifying pol icy alternatives and letting citizens know whom to hold accountable when they are dissatisfied with government performance. Writing in the early 1980s, he sees decline in all the key areas of political-party activity: in the electorate, in government, and in party organizations. He argues that the decline eliminates the motivation for elected members of the parties to define broad policy objectives, leading to diminished political participation and a rise in alienation. Policies are aimed at serving the narrow interests of the various single-issue groups that domi nate politics rather than the broad constituencies represented by parties. Without strong political parties to provide electoral accountability, American politics has suffered a “decline in collective responsibility” in Fiorina’s view. In the effort to reform the often-corrupt political parties of the late 1800s—commonly referred to as “machines” led by “bosses”—Fiorina asks us to consider whether Americans have overly weakened the best institutional device available to hold elected offi cials accountable at the ballot box.
Though the Founding Fathers believed in the necessity of establishing a genuinely national government, they took great pains to design one that could not lightly do things to its citizens; what government might do
for its citizens was to be limited to the functions of what we know now as the “watchman state.”
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Given the historical record faced by the Founders, their emphasis on constraining government is understandable. But we face a later historical record, one that shows two hundred years of increasing demands for gov ernment to act positively. Moreover, developments unforeseen by the Founders increasingly raise the likelihood that the uncoordinated actions of individuals and groups will inflict serious damage on the nation as a whole. The by-products of the industrial and technological revolutions impose physical risks not only on us, but on future generations as well. Resource shortages and international cartels raise the spectre of economic ruin. And the simple proliferation of special interests with their intense, particularistic demands threatens to render us politically incapable of taking actions that might either advance the state of society or prevent foreseeable deteriorations in that state. None of this is to suggest that we should forget about what government can do to us—the contemporary concern with the proper scope and methods of government intervention in the social and economic orders is long overdue. But the modern age demands as well that we worry about our ability to make government work/or us. The problem is that we are gradually losing that ability, and a principal reason for this loss is the steady erosion of responsibility in American politics.
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Unfortunately, the importance of responsibility in a democracy is matched by the difficulty of attaining it. In an autocracy, individual responsibility suffices; the location of power in a single individual locates responsibility in that individual as well. But individual responsibility is insufficient whenever more than one person shares governmental author ity. We can hold a particular congressman individually responsible for a personal transgression such as bribe-taking. We can even hold a president individually respc^sible for military moves where he presents Congress and the citizenry with a fait accompli. But on most national issues individual responsibilityls difficult to assess. If one were to go to Washington, ran domly accost a Democratic congressman, and berate him about a 20-percent rate of inflation, imagme,the response. More than likely it would run, “Don’t blame me. If ‘they’ had done what I’ve advocated for x years, things would be fine today.”
American institutional structure makes this kind of game-playing all too easy. In order to overcome it we must lay the credit or blame for national conditions on all those who had any hand in bringing them about: some form of collective responsibility is essential.
The only way collective responsibility has ever existed, and can exist given our institutions, is through the agency of the political party; in Amer ican politics, responsibility requires cohesive parties. This is an old claim to
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be sure, but its age does not detract from its present relevance. In fact, the continuing decline in public esteem for the parties and continuing efforts to “reform” them out of the political process suggest that old arguments for party responsibility have not been made often enough or, at least, convinc ingly enough, so I will make these arguments once again in this essay.
A strong political party can generate collective responsibility by creat ing incentive for leaders,- followers, and popular supporters to think and act in collective terms. First, by providing party leaders with the capability (e.g., control of institutional patronage, nominations, and so on) to discipline party members, genuine leadership becomes possible. Legislative output is less likely to be a least common denominator—a residue of myriad conflicting proposals—and more likely to consist of a program actually intended to solve a problem or move the nation in a particular direction. Second, the subordination of individual officeholders to the party lessens their ability to separate themselves from party actions.iike it or not, their performance becomes identified with the performance of the collectivity to which they belong. Third, with individual candidate variation greatly reduced, voters have less incentive to support individuals and more incentive to support or oppose the party as a whole. And fourth, the circle closes as party-line voting in the electorate provides jsarty leaders with the incentive to propose policies that will earn the support of a national majority, and party back-benchers* with the personal incentive to coop erate with leaders in the attempt to compile a good record for the party as a whole.
In the American context, strong parties have traditionally clarified politics in two ways. First, they allow citizens to assess responsibility easily, at least when the government’s unified, which it more often was in earlier eras when party meant more than it does today. Citizens need only evaluate the social, economic, and international conditions they observe and make a simple decision for or against change. They do riot need to decide whether the energy, inflation, urban, and defense policies advocated by their congressman would be superior to those advocated by [the president]—^were any of them to be enacted!
The second way in which strong parties clarify American politics fol lows from the first. When citizens assess responsibility on the party as a whole, party members have personal incentives to see the party evaluated favorably. They have little to gain from gutting their president’s program one day and attacking him for lack of leadership the next, since they share in the president’s fate when voters do not differentiate within the party. Put simply, party responsibility provides party members with a personal stake in their collective performance.
‘Back-benchers are junior members of the British Parliament, who sit in the rear benches of the House of Commons. Here, the term refers to junior members of political parties [Editors].
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Admittedly, party responsibility is a blunt instrument. The objection immediately arises that party responsibility condemns junior Democratic representatives to suffer electorally for an inflation they could do little to affect. An unhappy situation, true, but unless we accept it. Congress as a whole escapes electoral retribution for an inflation they could have done something to affect. Responsibility requires acceptance of both conditions. The choice is between a blunt instrument or none at all. \
In earlier times, when citizens voted for the party, not the person, parties had incentives to nominate good candidates, because poor ones could have harmful fallout on the ticket as a whole. In particular, the existence of presidential coattails (positive and negative) provided an inducement to avoid the nomination of narrowly based candidates, no matter how commit ted their supporters. And, once in office, the existence of party voting in the electorate provided party members with the incentive to compile a good party record. In particular, the tendency of national midterm elections to serve as referenda on the performance of the president provided a clear inducement for congressmen to do what they could to see that their presi dent was perceived as a solid performer. By stimulating electoral phenom ena such as coattail effects and mid-term referenda, party transformed some degree of personal ambition into concern with collective performance.
The Continuing Decline of Party in the United States
Party Organizations In the United Stabes, party organization has traditionally meant state and local party ‘organization. The national party generally has been a loose confederacy oTsubnational units that swings into action for a brief period every four years. This characterization remains true today, despite the somewhat greater/influence and augmented functions of the national organizations. Though such things are difficult to measure precisely, there is general agreement that the formal party organizations have undergone a secular decline since their peak at the end of the nineteenth century. The prototype of the old-style organization was the urban machine, a form approximated today only in Chicago.
[Fiorina discusses the reforms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century] In the 1970s two series of reforms further weakened the influence of
organized parties in American national politics. The first was a series of legal changes deliberately intended to lessen organized party influence in the presidential nominating process. In the Democratic party, “New
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Politics” activists captured the national party apparatus and imposed a series of rules changes designed to “open up” the politics of presidential nominations. The Republican party—long more amateur and open than the Democratic party—adopted weaker versions of the Democratic rules changes. In addition, modifications of state electoral laws to conform to the Democratic rules changes (enforced by the federal courts) stimulated Republican rules changes as well.
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A second series of 1970s reforms lessened the role of formal party orga nizations in the conduct of political campaigns. These are financing regu lations growing out of the Federal Election Campaign Actvof 1971 as amended in 1974 and 1976. In this case the reforms were “aimed at cleaning up corruption in the financing of campaigns; their effects on the parties were a by-product, though many individuals accurately predicted its nature. Serious presidential candidates are now publicly financed. Though the law permits the national party to spend two cents per eligible voter on behalf of the nominee, it also obliges the candidate to set up a finance committee separate from the national party. Between this legally man dated separation and fear of violating spending limits or accounting reg ulations, for example, the law has the effect of encouraging the candidate to keep his party at arm’s length.
The ultimate results of such reforms are easy to predict. A lesser party role in the nominating and financing of candidates encourages candidates to organize and conduct independent campaigns, which further weakens the role of parties…. [I]f parties do not grant nominations, fund their choices, and work for them, why should those choices feel any commit ment to their party?
Party in the Electorate
In the citizenry at large, party takes the form of a psychological attach ment. The typical American traditionally has been likely to identify with one or the other of the two major parties. Such identifications are trans mitted across generations to some degree, and within the individual they tend to be fairly stable. But there is mounting evidence that the basis of identification lies in the individual’s experiences (direct and vicarious, through family and social groups) with the parties in the past. Our cur rent party system, of course, is based on the dislocations of the Depres sion period and the New Deal attempts to alleviate them. Though only a small proportion of those who experienced the Depression directly are active voters today, the general outlines of citizen party identifications much resemble those established at that time.
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Again, there is reason to believe that the extent of citizen attachments to parties has undergone a long-term decline from a nineteenth-century high. And again, the New Deal appears to have been a period during which the decline was arrested, even temporarily reversed. But again, the decline of party has reasserted itself in the 1970s.
As the 1960s wore on, the heretofore stable distribution of citizen party identifications began to change in the general direction of weakened attachments to the parties. Between 1960 and 1976, independents, broadly defined, increased from less than a quarter to more than a third of the voting-age population. Strong identifiers declined from slightly more than a third to about a quarter of the population.
Indisputably, party in the electorate has declined in recent years. Why? To some extent the electoral decline results from the organizational decline. Few party organizations any longer have the tangible incentives to turn out the faithful and assure their loyalty. Candidates run indepen dent campaigns and deemphasize their partisan ties whenever they see any short-term electoral gain in doing so. If party is increasingly less important in the nomination and election of candidates, it is not surpris ing that such diminished importance is reflected in the attitudes and behavior of the voter.
Certain long-term sociological and technological trends also appear to work against party in the electorate. The population is younger, and younger citizens traditionally are less attached to the parties than their elders. The population is more highly educated; fewer voters need some means of simplifying the choices they face in the political arena, and party, of course, hàs been the principal means of simplification. And the media revolution has vastly expanded the amount of information easily available to the citizenry. Candidates would have little incentive to operate campaigns independent of the parties if there were no means to apprise the citizenry of their independence. The media provide the means.
Finally, our present party system is an old one. For increasing numbers of citizens, party attachments based on the Great Depression seem lack ing in relevance to the problems of the late twentieth century. Beginning with the racial issue in the 1960s, proceeding to the social issue of the 1970s, and to the energy, environment, and inflation issues of today, the parties have been rent by internal dissension. Sometimes they failed to take stands, at other times they took the wrong ones from the standpoint of the rank and file, and at most times they have failed to solve the new problems in any genuine sense. Since 1965 the parties have done little or nothing’ to earn the loyalties of modern Americans.
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Party in Government ,
If the organizational capabilities of the parties have weakened, and their psychological ties to the voters have loosened, one would expect predict able consequences for the party in government. In particular, one would expect to see an increasing degree of split party control within and across the levels of American government. The evidence on this point is overwhelming.
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The increased fragmentation of the party in government makes it more difficult for government officeholders to work toge^ey than in times past (not that it has ever been terribly easy). Voters meanwhile have a more difficult time attributing responsibility for government performance, and this only further fragments party control. The result is lessened collective responsibility in the system. >
What has taken up the slack left by the weakening’of the traditional [party] determinants of congressional voting? It appears that a variety of personal and local influences now play a major role in citizen evaluations of their representatives. Along with the expansion of the federal presence in American life, the traditional role of the congressman as an all-purpose ombudsman has greatly expanded. Tens of millions of citizens now are directly affected by federal decisions. Myriad programs provide opportu nities to profit from government largesse, and myriad regulations impose costs and/or constraints on citizen activities. And, whether seeking to gain profit or avoid costs, citizens seek the aid of their congressmen. When a court imposes a desegregation plan on an urban school board, the con gressional offices immediately are contacted for aid in safeguarding exist ing sources of funding and in determining eligibility for new ones. When a major employer announces plans to quit an area, the congressional offices immediately are contacted to explore possibilities for using federal programs to persuade the employer to reconsider. Contractors appreciate a good congressional word with DOD [Department of Defense] procure ment officers. Local artistic groups cannot survive without NBA [National Endowment for the Arts] funding. And, of course, there are the major individual programs such as social security and veterans’ benefits that create a steady demand for congressional information and aid services. Such activities are nonpartisan, nonideological, and, most important, noncontroversial. Moreover, the contribution of the congressman in the realm of district service appears considerably greater than the impact of his or her single vote on major national issues. Constituents respond rationally to this modern state of affairs by weighing nonprogrammatic constituency service heavily when casting their congressional votes. And this emphasis on the part of constituents provides the means for incumbents to solidify their hold on the office. Even if elected by a narrow margin, diligent service activities enable a congressman to neu-
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tralize or even convert a portion of those who would otherwise oppose him on policy or ideological grounds. Emphasis on local, nonpartisan fac tors in congressional voting enables the modern congressman to with stand national swings, whereas yesteryear’s uninsulated congressmen were more dependent on preventing the occurrence of the swings.
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[The result is the insulation of the modern congressional member from national forces altogether.]
The withering away of the party organizations and the weakening of party in the electorate have begun to show up as disarray in the party in government. As the electoral fates of congressmen and the president have diverged, their incentives to cooperate have diverged as well. Congress men have little personal incentive to bear any risk in their president’s behalf, since they no longer expect to gain much from his successes or suffer much from his failures. Only those who personally agree with the president’s program and/or those who find that program well suited for their particular district support the president. And there are not enough of these to construct the coalitions necessary for action on the major issues now facing the country. By holding only the president responsible for national conditions, the electorate enables officialdom as a whole to escape responsibility. This situation lies at the root of many of the problems that ■now plague American public life.
Some Consequences of the Decline of Collective Responsibility
The weakening of party has contributed directly to the severity of several of the important problems the nation faces. For some of these, such as the government’s inability to deal with inflation and energy, the connections are obvious. But for other problems, such as the growing importance of single-issue politics and the growing alienation of the American citizenry, the connectiojis are more subtle.
/ ‘ Immobilism As the electoral interdependence of the party in government declines, its ability to act also declines. If responsibility can be shifted to another level or to another officeholder, there is less incentive to stick one’s neck out in an attempt to solve a given problem. Leadership becomes more difficult, the ever-present bias toward the short-term solution becomes more pronounced, and the possibility of solving any given problem lessens.
… [Pjolitical inability to take actions that entail short-run costs ordinarily will result in much higher costs in the long run—^we cannot continually depend on the technological fix. So the present American
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immobilism cannot be dismissed lightly. The sad thing is that the Amer ican people appear to understand the depth of our present problems and, at least in principle, appear prepared to sacrifice in furtherance of the long-run good. But they will not have an opportunity to choose between two or more such long-term plans. Although both parties promise tough, equitable policies, in the present state of our politics, neither can deliver.
In recent years both political analysts and politicians have decried the increased importance of single-issue groups in American politics. Some in fact would claim that the present immobilism in qur politics owes more to the rise of single-issue groups than to the declihe of party. A lit tle thought, however, should reveal that the two trends are connected. Is single-issue politics a recent phenomenon? The contentionxis doubtful; such groups have always been active participants in Americah-politics. The gun lobby already was a classic example at the time of President Ken nedy’s assassination. And however impressive the antiabortionists appear today, remember the temperance movement, which succeeded in getting its constitutional amendment. American history contains numerous fore runners of today’s groups, from anti-Masons to abolitionists to the Klan— singularity of purpose is by no means a modern phenomenon. Why, then, do we hear all the contemporary hoopla a,bout single-issue groups? Prob ably because politicians fear them now more than before and thus allow them to play a larger role in our politics. Why should this be so? Simply’ because the parties are too weak to protect their members and thus to con tain single-issue politics.
In earlier times single-issue groups were under greater pressures to reach accommodations with the parties. After all, the parties nominated candidates, financed candidates, worked for candidates, and, perhaps most important, party voting protected candidates. When a contemporary single issue group threatens to “get” an officeholder, the threat must be taken seriously.
Not only did the party organization have greater ability to resist single issue pressures at the electoral level, but the party in government had greater ability to control the agenda, and thereby contain single-issue pres sures at the policy-making level. Today we seem condemned to go through an annual agony over federal abortion funding. There is little doubt that politicians on both sides would prefer to reach some reasonable compro mise at the committee level and settle the issue. But in today’s decentral ized Congress there is no way to put the lid on. In contrast, historians tell us that in the late nineteenth century a large portion of the Republican constituency was far less interested in the tariff and other questions of national economic development than in whether German immigrants
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should be permitted to teach their native language in their local schools, and whether Catholics and “liturgical Protestants” should be permitted to consume alcohol. Interestingly, however, the national agenda of the period is devoid of such issues. And when they do show up on the state level, the exceptions prove the rule; they produce party splits and striking defeats for the party that allowed them to surface.
In sum, a strong party that is held accountable for the government of a nation-state has both the ability and the incentive to contain particularis tic pressures. It controls nominations, elections, and the agenda, and it collectively realizes that small minorities are small minorities no matter how’intense they are. But as the parties decline they lose control over nominations and campaigns, they lose the loyalty of the voters, and they lose control of the agenda. Party officeholders cease to be held collectively accountable for party performance, but they become individually exposed to the political pressure of myriad interest groups. The decline of party permits interest groups to wield greater influence, their success encourages the formation of still more interest groups, politics becomes increasingly fragmented, and collective responsibility becomes still more elusive.
Popular Alienation from Government
For at least a decade political analysts have pondered the significance of survey data indicative of a steady increase in the alienation of the Amer ican public from the political process…. The American public is in a nasty mood, a cynical, distrusting, and resentful mood. The question is. Why?
If the same national problems not only persist but worsen while ever- greater amount^ of revenue are directed at them, why shouldn’t the typi cal citizen conclude that most of the money must be wasted by incompetent officials? iFnarrowly based interest groups increasingly affect our poli tics, why shouldn’t citizens increasingly conclude that the interests run the government?’^^Jifteen years the citizenry has listened to a steady stream of promises but has seen very little in the way of follow-through. An increasing proportion of the electorate does not believe that elections make a difference, a fact that largely explains the much-discussed post-1960 decline in voting turnout.
Continued public disillusionment with the political process poses several real dangers. For one thing, disillusionment begets further disil lusionment. Leadership becomes more difficult if citizens do not trust their leaders and will not give them the benefit of a doubt. Policy failure becomes more likely if citizens expect the policy to fail. Waste increases and government competence decreases as citizens’ disrespect for politics encourages a lesser breed of person to make careers in government. And “government by a few big interests” becomes more than a cliché if citizens increasingly decide the cliché is true and cease participating for that reason.
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Finally, there is the real danger that continued disappointment with particular government officials ultimately metamorphoses into disillu sionment with government per se. Increasing numbers of citizens believe that government is not simply overextended but perhaps incapable of any further bettering of the world. Yes, government is overextended, ineffi ciency is pervasive, and ineffectiveness is all too common. But govern ment is one of the few instruments of collective action we have, and even those committed to selective pruning of government programs cannot blithely allow the concept of an activist government to fall into disrepute.
Of late, however, some political commentators have begun to wonder whether contemporary thought places sufficient empha^s on government for the people. In stressing participation have we Ipsf sjght of accountabil ity? Surely, we should be as concerned with what government produces as with how many participate. What good is participation if tKe citizenry is unable to determine who merits their support?
Participation and responsibility are not logically incompatible, but there is a degree of tension between the two, and the quest for either may be carried to extremes. Participation maximizers find themselves involved with quotas and virtual representation schemes, while responsibility maximizers can find themselves with a closed shop under boss rule. Moreover, both qualities can weaken the democracy they supposedly underpin. Unfettered participation produces Hyde Amendments* and immobilism. Responsible parties can use agenda power to thwart demo cratic decision—for more than a century the Democratic party used what power it had to suppress the racial issue. Neither participation nor respon sibility should be pursued at the expense of all other values, but that is what has happened with participation over the course of the past two decades, and we now reap the consequences in our politics.
1. How do political parties provide “collective responsibility” and improve the quality of democracy? Do you believe the complaints raised by Fiorina thirty-five years ago remain persuasive?
2. Are strong parties in the interest of individual politicians? What might be some reasons that members of Congress would agree to strong parties? What would make them distance themselves from their party’s leadership?
3. President Donald Trump won the Republican Party nomination in 2016 despite opposition from many party leaders and elected officials. Is his electoral success in 2016 a confirmation of Fiorina’s concerns or a rejection of them?
“The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976 (three years after Roe v. Wade), prohibited using Medicaid funds for abortion [Editors],