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The American Political Party System

Continuity and Change over Ten Presidential Elections


John S. Jackson


Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2014

Paperback. xi+243 p. ISBN 978-0815726371. $36.00


Reviewed by Olivier Richomme

Université de Lyon



As the US presidential campaign is underway, many candidates are positioning themselves for the Iowa caucus and the South Carolina primary while keeping an eye on the parties’ conventions. This nomination process is key to decide what type of candidate will emerge for both the Democrat and the Republican parties. As of late the Republicans have had trouble nominating candidates that were viable for the general election. The polarization inside the Republican Party is such that the primaries system forces candidates too far to the right to be able to pivot in time towards the center for the general election. Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996 and was involved in Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, declared: “I’m not sure that Ronald Reagan could be nominated today.” Reagan opened his 1980 presidential campaign with the theme of “states’ rights” in Neshoba, Mississippi, near the town of Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers had been murdered and he was supported at the 1980 Republican convention by Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. Yet, a Reagan-type candidate would probably be considered too liberal today. Centrists have disappeared from Washington D.C. In 2015 Jeb Bush is considered a moderate Republican.

The same problem happened in Congress in 2012, especially under the influence of the Tea Party that was able to oust moderate candidates during the primaries only to see their new recruits fail spectacularly during the general election. So much so that in 2014, the national leaders of the Republican Party had to devise a strategy (thanks to the help of the US Chamber of Commerce) to prevent the emergence of ultraconservative anti-establishment candidates that were at risk losing in the general election. The success of the Republican Party during the 2014 mid-term election is largely due to this coordinated effort of containment of the Tea Party. The same strategy might be necessary in 2016 to make sure that the candidate of the GOP is not damaged goods for the general election. The role of national parties, especially their nomination process, in the era of the imperial presidency is still crucial.

The polarization of American politics and the two-party system that drive policy gridlock in Washington has been much studied in the academic press.(1) Yet John S. Jackson’s book The American Political Party System provides an interesting angle to the study of political polarization in America. Jackson, Professor Emeritus as Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC), argues that

the presidential nominations and the election system have helped to produce a new kind of party activist and new party organization base. Activists are more ideological and more partisan than activists in old pragmatic party system and they have been sorted and realigned along ideological and partisan lines.

By describing how polarization has been reinforced by party polarization Jackson helps us analyze the rearticulation of the relationship between the presidency and the party system or what Sid Milkis and Jesse Rhodes would call the “new” political party system.(2) Jackson’s book is really the work of a life time, building on his seminal work with William Crotty, since the author covers ten presidential elections and provides us with a thorough study of the evolution of the national parties’ convention delegates. But this quantitative and qualitative analysis of micro-politics is always accompanied by its historic context of macro-politics and grounded in political theory. It is a must-read for anybody interested in the presidential nomination process and modern American politics.

The first two chapters of the book are especially useful for students. In Chapter one the author discusses the basic functions of American parties and the role of party leaders. Chapter two focuses on the major realignment of the two main parties since the 1960’s, in particular the realignment of the South and the ideological polarization that accompanied it and defines the political landscape today.

Chapter 3 is a bit more technical as it summarizes the McGovern-Frasier reforms of 1970 and the rules changes that followed it. The rules changes were intended to alter the demographic composition of the conventions, which they did. Chapter 4, based on Hannah Pitkin’s work, discusses what the theory of representation has to do with the characteristics of the political elites who make up the convention delegates. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 constitute the heart of the book thanks to the author’s incredible accumulation of data on convention delegates from 1976 to 2008. These chapters delve into the political values of these elites, compare their political views with those of the party base and examine the backgrounds and political recruitment of the political elites in order to see if they are a self-perpetuating elite or if they allow a circulation of elites.

Chapter 8 adds an important emphasis on the party factions as coalitions are major components of the polarization of today’s two main parties. Chapter 9 summarizes the author’s diagnosis and provides suggestions to change the system to ensure informed choices by the people and a coherent majority rule in the context of a uniquely American version of the responsible party model. The separation of powers and system of checks and balances, coupled with the different constituencies and electoral calendars of the two political branches, make governing quite challenging. Polarization and absence of political compromise marked by intraparty homogeneity and interparty conflict block the entire system. Today, even the Supreme Court is divided among ideological lines. The author’s recommendations to make the current system more efficient are sound but not new, and while many would share his diagnosis the key issue would be to find the political willingness and courage to push for such reforms and find a way to convince the parties’ elites that a more effective system of government would be in the electoral interest of the parties. In the meantime, short-term calculations prevail and it appears that at least for the 2016 election cycle the American political system is still stuck in what Rohde and Aldrich have called “conditional party government".(3)


(1) For example cf. Abramowitz, Alan I. The Disappearing Center : Engaged Citizens, Polarization and American Democracy. Yale University Press, 2011 and McCarty, Nolan; Poole, Keith T. & Rosenthal, Howerd. Polarized America : The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. MIT Press, 2006.

(2) Milkis, Sidney & Rhodes, Jesse. “George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the ‘New’ American Party System”. Perspectives on Politics 03 (September 2007) : 461-488.

(3) For example, cf. Aldrich, John & Rohde, D.W. “Consequences of Electoral and Institutional Change : The Evolution of Conditional Party Government in the U.S. House of Representatives”. In Stonecash, Jeffrey M. (ed.) New Directions in American Political Parties. New York: Routledge, 2010 : 234-250.



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