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True Blues

Tracing the rise of the advocacy party from the fall of the New Deal order through the presidency of Barack Obama, True Blues explains how and why the Democratic Party has come to its current crossroads and suggests a bold new perspective for comprehending the dynamics driving American party politics more broadly.

True Blues
The Contentious Transformation of the Democratic Party

Adam Hilton

2021 | 280 pages | Cloth $55.00
Political Science
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Table of Contents


Introduction. Who Governs Parties?

Part I. The Rise of the Advocacy Party
Chapter 1. In the Shadow of States' Rights: The New Deal Democratic Party and the Prelude to Reform
Chapter 2. The Undemocratic Party: Antiwar Insurgents and the Party Crisis of 1968
Chapter 3. "Curing the Ills of Democracy": Party Entrepreneurship in the McGovern-Fraser Commission
Chapter 4. The Party Turned Upside Down: The McGovern Nomination and the Backlash Against Reform
Chapter 5. Bringing the Counter-Reformers Back In: The Coalition for a Democratic Majority and the Making of the Advocacy Party

Part II. The Politics of the Advocacy Party
Chapter 6. The Limits of Group Influence: Jimmy Carter and the Demand for Full Employment Policy
Chapter 7. The Officeholders Strike Back: The New Democrats' Resistance to the Advocacy Party
Chapter 8. The Advocate-in-Chief: Barack Obama's Harnessing of the Advocacy Party

Conclusion. The Consequences of the Advocacy Party


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Who Governs Parties?

Who governs political parties? The question—a perennial concern among political scientists—was thrust to the center of public debate over the course of the turbulent 2016 presidential election in the United States. From the primaries to the conventions and finally election night itself, the contest to succeed Barack Obama as president delivered one surprise after another. Donald Trump's overt shattering of the norms of American politics brought shock to nearly all concerned. Lacing his campaign promise to "Make America Great Again" with racist and xenophobic messages, Trump doubled down on his disruptive political style by breaking from a number of traditional Republican policy planks. Major party donors refused to fund him. Party leaders denounced him. Still more shocking, however, was how repeated predictions of his inevitable demise continually foundered on rising poll numbers and primary victories. His eventual triumph over Hillary Clinton in November and assumption of the presidency the following year delivered yet more surprises, as many incumbent Republicans retired before the 2018 midterm elections and those that stayed quickly fell into line behind their new leader. In the course of a few short years it seemed the GOP had become the party of Trump.

Questions about who really governs parties swirled on the other side of the aisle too. While overshadowed by the rise of Trump on the right, 2016 delivered its own set of surprises to the Democrats on the left. What many had initially expected to be a straightforward coronation of Obama's heir apparent turned into a drawn-out battle for the nomination and the soul of the Democratic Party. Harkening back to strains of the New Deal tradition and reaching abroad to European social democracy, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and his brand of democratic socialism struck a nerve with the primary electorate and the wider public, especially young people. To draw out his differences with Clinton, Sanders deployed an economic populist rhetoric that transformed the nomination contest into a referendum on the trajectory of American society itself, calling for a "political revolution" to address the rising levels of inequality and frustration that fueled racial populists like Donald Trump. Although Clinton eventually clinched the nomination, her subsequent loss reopened a torrent of debate about the future of the Democratic Party. Sanders began polling as America's "most popular" politician, and, despite the crowded field, the 2020 nomination contest was defined by many of his signature policy issues. In the course of a few short years, it seemed the Democrats had gone from the certainty of purpose of the early Obama era to being mired in an identity crisis.

Beyond the public square, the events of 2016 and their aftermath also seemed to confound recent influential theories of parties in political science, which argued that despite the adoption of primary elections in the 1970s, party officials and officeholders still effectively controlled the nomination process by coordinating with interest groups behind the scenes and clearing the field for their preferred candidates. Confronted with evidence to the contrary, political scientists, like members of the public, could do little more than grope for answers in the face of a party crisis and political transformation that defied easy answers.

The current crisis in American politics is rooted in the decades-long transformation of both political parties, and its resolution, if there is one, will require the parties to change yet again. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the historical processes of party change that led to the current conjuncture if we are to glean what theoretical and practical insights we can to guide further efforts at reform. Yet, as the unanimity of surprise at the 2016 election reveals, the dynamics of modern party politics remain poorly understood. Assertions of either elite control or interest-group dominance both failed dramatically to explain the Trump victory and the surprise of the Sanders insurgency and their subsequent reverberations through the American political landscape.

This book is about the contentious politics of Democratic Party transformation since the end of the New Deal order. Its central argument is that Democratic Party change was a process driven principally by the recurrent conflict between extra-party groups and officeholders to define and control party identity, program, and policy. The outcome of this prolonged struggle was a new kind of party—what I call an advocacy party—which institutionalized greater party dependence on outside groups for legitimacy and organizational support, while also, in turn, fostering greater group dependency on the administrative presidency for the satisfaction of their symbolic and substantive demands. Together, the major claims of this book explain why and how the Democratic Party has come to its current crossroads, suggesting a new perspective for comprehending the dynamics polarizing American politics more broadly.

The central argument of this book rests on three core claims: that political parties are contentious institutions; that entrepreneurial reformers and counter-reformers both played pivotal roles in reshaping the Democratic Party since the late 1960s; and that, paradoxically, despite the increased role of interest groups and movement actors within the party, the Democrats' advocacy-party structure promotes presidential dominance over party governance, reinforcing forms of representational inequality by limiting agenda-setting influence to select groups that retain the capacity to mobilize their constituencies to ensure officeholders pay more than lip service in exchange for group support. My within-case account of Democratic Party transformation uses a combination of methods—causal narrative, process tracing, and pattern matching—to describe, explain, and test processes of party change. Let me unpack these claims and their methodological underpinnings in turn.

Political Parties as Contentious Institutions
The first claim, that parties are contentious institutions, departs from the two prevailing perspectives on parties and party change found in the political science literature. The traditional perspective, stemming from the work of Anthony Downs, see parties as teams of office-seeking politicians whose overriding priority is election rather than enacting specific public policies. Not all politician-centered perspectives share Downs's assumption that party actors care only about reelection or his faith in party convergence around the median voter. Party elites need loyal activists who volunteer their time and money to party activities, and for whom ideological or policy issues are of paramount concern. Social movement mobilization may alter the calculus of officeholders seeking out new positions to build their coalitions and ensure reelection. Finally, party elites themselves may play a formative role in shaping and reshaping voter preferences, using their unique set of material and discursive tools to structure commonsense understandings of the social world and its political cleavages.

Recently, however, the traditional view of parties as creatures of politicians has been challenged by an alternative perspective, one that sees politicians as agents rather than as principals of party activity and change. Over the past decade, this stream of scholarship has extended the concept of party beyond the traditional focus on elite officeholders and their formal organizations to include interest groups, donor networks, issue-oriented advocates, and partisan media organizations. These "extended party networks," it is claimed, are defined by the cooperation among their actors, which signal their preferences through elite endorsements, channel information to the formal party organization, share personnel, and reposition the parties by compelling officeholders to relent to their policy demands.

While recognizing the contributions of both traditional and network approaches, this book departs from the existing scholarship by reconceptualizing parties as fundamentally and inextricably contentious institutions. Rather than the exclusive domain of officeholders or a harmonious nexus of politician-group cooperation, I theorize parties as institutional arenas in which politicians and party-oriented groups make rival and often discordant claims to representational legitimacy, leadership authority, and control over party governance—essentially, about who actually governs the party. As previous scholarship has demonstrated, ambitious office seekers prioritize winning elections, even when policy change is one of their goals. On the one hand, the work of constituency service and policy making normally plods along at a slow place and unfolds over a lengthy time scale. Interest groups, advocacy organizations, and social movements, on the other hand, prioritize "ideological patronage" and policy change. Because movements unfold in unpredictable ways, their demands are often impetuous, needing to strike while the iron is hot while their public clout and disruptive capacity are at their height, before demobilization inevitably sets in. Different positions in the state-society nexus, different priorities and modes of operation, and different time frames thus set officeholders and groups in tension with each other. This does not eliminate the possibility of coalition and cooperation, of course. Indeed, officeholders and groups need each other and regularly ally as a means to their respective ends. However, the resulting alliance is likely to be an uneasy one, fraught with contentious relations that may be expressed more or less overtly, but are permanently present nonetheless.

Figure 1

At the most fundamental level, the forces of intraparty contention stem from an inherent ambiguity in what parties are and who they serve. As institutions that uniquely straddle the line between civil society and the state, parties carry the double mandate of public representative and government administrator. Long-held debates about "delegate" versus "trustee" forms of representation reflect contrary and mutually incompatible interpretations of this mandate, depending on whether party sovereignty is rooted in voter preferences or the expertise of policy makers. From one angle, parties appear as the essential mechanisms of democratic government, organizing, aggregating, and projecting the people's voice into the state, and holding officeholders accountable for their performance in enacting the party program—a perspective immortalized in E. E. Schattschneider's famous aphorism that "parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties." From another angle, despite their basis in civil society, parties succumb to an "iron law of oligarchy" as elected elites use the power and privileges of office to entrench themselves in government and insulate policy making from excessive or disruptive democratic demands. This tendency need not apply only to corrupt or authoritarian politicians. Elected officials of all stripes are likely to feel pressure to protect the prerogatives of office and their future careers from outside interference, even if only to better promote their own view of the public good. Together, these push-and-pull forces twist parties in multiple directions simultaneously, subjecting them to rival claims of authority.

At the same time, both politicians and citizen groups are internally heterogeneous collections of differently positioned actors with distinct stakes in the current order of things. Officeholders and office seekers are in competition with one another, if not always over a particular office, then at least over campaign donations, media exposure, elite endorsements, and a relative edge in terms of public prestige and influence in the polity. Groups also compete against one another in their unceasing contest to garner philanthropic funding, monopolize advocacy niches, and gain favorable access to decision makers and influence the policy process. Not all groups can hold pride of place in the party coalition at the same time, and in order to increase or even maintain their relative position in the context of a dynamic competitive environment, groups continuously jockey with one another, despite their cooperative relationship as coalition members.

Finally, while the foregoing relations of contention are likely to affect all major political parties in the democratic world, the strict duopoly of the American party system is likely to exacerbate them. Due to the significant barriers to entry for newcomers, the American two-party system significantly raises the stakes for influence and control over the existing Democratic and Republican parties. Other exceptional features of the American party system, such as the private financing of campaigns and the role of primary elections, reinforce the tendency of movements, groups, and wealthy individuals to try to impress their preferred agendas onto one of the existing parties. Thus, while all parties are contentious institutions, American parties are likely to be especially contentious.

The contentious parties framework developed here joins with other social scientists in the historical institutionalist tradition who see parties as "thick" collective actors that have developed over time, accreting layers of rules, norms, organizations, ideas, and relationships. From this perspective, officeholders, officials, interest groups, activists, primary voters, and other agents are all "engaged in a process of continuous negotiations" about what the party is, what it stands for, and what it should do. However, while these insights point toward a new horizon beyond the familiar politician-centered/group-centered dichotomy, they have not gone far enough in producing a new theoretical synthesis. As the new historically oriented party scholarship shows, what parties are and what they do is indeed a question that requires an enlarged perspective that takes the actions of party and nonparty agents into account. However, this scholarship also suggests that the negotiations within party networks and across coalitions is more likely to be contentious rather than harmonious. A theory of party-group relations that gives inadequate attention to the contentious dimension of parties will miss critical factors that determine who holds power in party politics and how and why that power changes over time.

Rethinking Democratic Party Reform
In the following chapters, I deploy this framework foregrounding the dynamics of contention inherent in American party politics to explain the transformation of the Democratic Party since the end of the New Deal order. My selection of the post-New Deal Democrats for an intensive within-case analysis is motivated by several factors, including the need to rebalance the existing scholarship, which has focused primarily on the Republicans; the need to develop a conceptual model of entrepreneurial party change; and the necessity of revising the prevailing views of Democratic Party reform, which tend to mischaracterize the politics of the reform process by truncating its timeline and scope.

First, the extant scholarship on American political parties is heavily lopsided toward the right, for good reason. It is, of course, no surprise that the GOP has seized the lion's share of attention in recent decades. The Republicans' transformation into a vehicle of extreme conservatism is arguably the single most important shift in the American political landscape in the last fifty years and the main driver of contemporary partisan polarization, legislative gridlock, and policy stalemate. That said, things have not remained static on the other side of the aisle. While congressional roll call scores and other data indicate that the Democrats have not shifted to the left to the same degree the Republicans have moved to the right, the Democrats have nevertheless undergone their own profound transformation, remaking themselves into a coalition that, while still rooted in the old New Deal economic alignment, has extended its identity and program to groups and issues previously unimaginable. The party of Jim Crow has become the party of Barack Obama. The party of many religious voters has become the party of reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights. The party of Cold War anticommunism has become a party that is seriously debating the merits of democratic socialism. The Republican story has been investigated and analyzed to great effect, and valuable studies have compared the two stories of party transformations side by side. However, no recent study has looked in depth at the post-New Deal Democratic Party in its own right, and the resulting imbalance in our collective understanding of America's "party of the people" has limited our ability to explain its evolution, trajectory, and current identity crisis.

Second, this book goes beyond much of the previous scholarship by opening the "black box" of party to examine in fine-grained detail the precise mechanisms of entrepreneurial party change. Parties change for a variety of reasons: changing voter preferences, elite decision making, or exogenous shocks like an economic downturn or a foreign policy crisis. But sometimes parties change because political entrepreneurs—those who seek to change the rules in order to win the political game—set out to change them. This book ties together elements of contingency, agency, and structure to develop a process-tracing model that can answer the question of exactly how entrepreneurs change parties when they have the opportunity to do so.

Elections create winners and losers, not only between parties but within them as well. For presidential campaigns—which involve complicated, often controversial, claims about the appropriate mix of messaging and mobilization—a victory or a loss in the general election can vindicate or undermine the legitimacy of the party nominee, their platform, and their strategy. Losses tend to dredge up acrimonious debates that relitigate what went wrong, who is to blame, and what can be done about it four years down the road. Fueling these debates is the fundamental ambiguity surrounding voter choice. Electoral outcomes do not speak for themselves; their results require interpretation and explanation, and often lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Political scientists have explained why voters vote the way they do as a result of near-term macroeconomic performance, wars, and the extent of partisan identification in the electorate. Victorious nominees often interpret their victory as a mandate for specific policy action. Political entrepreneurs, by contrast, often supply very different explanations, ones based on their motivation to seize the opportunity provided by an electoral upset to transform how parties work.

The process by which political entrepreneurs transform parties can be theorized as a three-step process, as depicted in Figure 2. In the first stage, a party crisis beyond the usual alternation of office is a necessary contextual condition. Electorally, this may take the form of a landslide loss across multiple levels of office or merely an unexpected, yet narrow, defeat. Substantively, it may signal a larger rejection of the political regime overseen by the incumbent party. Whatever the exact cause, party entrepreneurs can leverage the legitimacy crisis engulfing the defeated party and its leadership to implicate the mechanisms of leadership selection themselves, proposing structural reforms to those institutions as a means to resolve the crisis and chart a path back to victory.

Figure 2

Meanwhile, as entrepreneurs propose more or less far-reaching reforms, incumbents with the most to lose from reform find that they have little in the way of defense. Depending on the nature and severity of the crisis, incumbents will likely find it very difficult to defend the existing way of doing things. The electoral results seem to underscore their obvious inadequacy. Effectively silenced by the sting of defeat then, incumbents acquiesce to reformers, if not out of genuine enthusiasm, then at the very least with the hope that reform will be of limited disruption and the party will return to power at the next election, putting the issue to rest.

With the initiative in hand, party entrepreneurs then face a double challenge in the next stage: they must formulate, propose, and engineer changes to the party's rules and procedures in such a way that they plausibly resolve the party crisis; and they must also take their reformed party into battle and see if it passes the electoral test. Proof of the effectiveness of party reform is ultimately whether it succeeds where the old party could not—winning public office. Should they succeed, the value of reform becomes undeniable, and entrepreneurs will have the mandate to consolidate their reform project further, cementing their changes in place. Should they fail to win, however, electoral defeat provides incumbents and other reform skeptics what they previously lacked: a compelling rationale for opposing reform. And by employing the same kind of political entrepreneurialism exhibited by their opponents, counter-reforms are likely to then set about unmaking the reforms.

In the final stage, reformers and counter-reformers engage in contentious struggle over the structure of the party. Each side in the contest presents competing claims regarding what ails the party and how it can return to power. As they do battle, each side scores partial victories and suffers partial defeats. Some old practices are restored, some new reforms are retained, and some compromise changes are introduced, mixing and layering institutional change into a new, unforeseen composite.

These mechanisms connecting party crises, entrepreneurial agency, and institutional change are clearly observable in the case of Democratic Party reform. As Chapter 1 argues, the Democrats' decentralized federal party structure was instrumental in reproducing the strange-bedfellow coalition of labor-liberals and southern conservatives underpinning the New Deal order from its origins in the 1930s to its end in the mid-1960s. However, precisely because the Democrats' party structure limited the reach of New Deal liberalism, it became a frequent, though elusive target of New Deal reformers. By 1968, as I show in Chapters 2 and 3, the contradictions inherent in the New Deal order could no longer be managed. In the wake of the party crisis triggered by internal domestic and foreign policy disputes, the insurgent campaigns of senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, the violence and disorder of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and electoral defeat that November, "New Politics" reformers—hailing from segments of the civil rights, student, antiwar, and feminist movements, as well as liberal union leaders—capitalized on the atmosphere of disarray and the temporary disgrace of incumbent leaders to promulgate a narrative diagnosing the party crisis as a product of barriers to participation, inadequate representation, and the absence of democratic accountability. Over the next two years, under the auspices of the McGovern-Fraser Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, New Politics reformers dismantled procedures that empowered party officials, officeholders, and other "bosses" to monopolize candidate selection in fabled smoke-filled backrooms. In their place, reformers ushered into being the modern process of binding primary elections familiar today. What's more, after having engineered major alterations to the rules governing convention delegate selection and the process of presidential nomination during 1968-1972, further attempts were made between 1972 and 1974 to reconstruct the national party organization itself, including introducing a dues-paying rank-and-file membership; creating a more representative Democratic National Committee; building new institutions, such as regional party organizations, to interface between state and national committees; and holding midterm party conferences to strengthen the national party's policy-making capacities and act as mechanisms for party members to hold officeholders accountable to the party platform.

My model of entrepreneurial party change not only illuminates the mechanisms characterizing the tactics of the New Politics reformers in their efforts to rebuild the Democratic Party. It also explains the entrepreneurship of their opponents. As detailed in Chapters 4 and 5, under the banner of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), party officeholders and officials, labor leaders, foreign policy hawks, and anticommunist Cold Warriors mobilized party stakeholders to thwart the reformers' plans to reconstruct the national party organization. Just as party reformers seized the opportunity provided by the 1968 defeat, so too did counter-reformers seize on the 1972 landslide defeat of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, the standard bearer of the New Politics movement. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the CDM and its allies launched a rearguard battle across multiple fronts of the party to scuttle the structural phase of reform and weaken some of the new delegate selection rules. Ironically, CDM members utilized the new party bodies and institutional authority of the national committee created by the reformers to coordinate their antireform campaign, ultimately codifying the loosely organized, federated party structure they preferred in the party's new constitution, the Democratic Party charter, bringing the New Politics movement to an end.

While an intensive within-case analysis such as this one can confirm the causal mechanisms theorized to be at work in the process of entrepreneurial party change, its applicability to other cases has obvious limits. A process-tracing model such as this one knowingly sacrifices social scientists' traditional goal of generalizability for a deeper understanding of the mechanisms and processes that produce change over time. But, as a first step toward building a more comprehensive understanding of party change, this study aims to demonstrate the utility of process tracing for understanding conceptually how entrepreneurial party transformation works at the national party level, focusing mostly on what has been called the presidential party, and I leave it to others to test its veracity in other cases.

Finally, a third factor motivating this study is the need to revise prevailing narratives of Democratic Party reform. The party reforms of the McGovern-Fraser Commission have been extensively researched and analyzed. Yet most accounts focus almost exclusively on the reforms made to the presidential nomination process, neglecting similar efforts directed at reconstructing the party organization. This truncated analysis has tended to mischaracterize the project of the New Politics reformers, obscure the pivotal role played by counter-reformers, and flatten out the convoluted and contentious process that eventually put the Democrats on the path to the advocacy party.

With few exceptions, most accounts of Democratic Party reform mischaracterize New Politics reformers as "antiparty." These scholars rightly observe that opening up delegate selection procedures to voter participation diminished the role of the formal party organization in selecting presidential nominees. Before the reforms, each stage of the nominating process, from the local precinct meetings all the way up to the national convention, was conducted under the supervision and control of party leaders. After the reforms, the authority of the party chieftains was drastically reduced in favor of grassroots activists and primary voters. Consequently, the national convention was reduced to "a body dominated by candidate enthusiasts and interest group delegates," surviving "primarily as spectacle."

But it is odd to characterize the McGovern-Fraser reformers as antiparty when their project was itself an unprecedented assertion of national party authority, not only over its state and local affiliates, but also over state laws under which the subnational parties operated. Neither the formal authority nor the institutional capacity of the national party to formulate and impose a universal code of standards for party governance existed prior to the McGovern-Fraser reforms and therefore had to be built in the process of their implementation and enforcement.

Moreover, the party-building orientation of the New Politics movement is undeniable when the post-1972 phase of national party reconstruction is brought back into the narrative. It is striking that this history makes no appearance in the critical literature. It could be argued that because the structural reforms were less successful than those made to the nominating process, devoting exclusive analytical attention to the latter is justified. But such a teleological retelling reads the outcome of the reform struggle back into the past, resulting in a one-sided and ultimately misleading account of the reform process. To better understand how and why party reform unfolded the way it did, it is necessary to reconnect the first phase of delegate selection reform with the second phase of organizational reconstruction. That the latter was largely unsuccessful does not render it irrelevant. On the contrary, the mix of victory and defeat decisively reshaped the Democratic Party in ways few anticipated, and it was instrumental to the rise of the advocacy party.

New Politics reformers, while not antiparty, held a mix of ideas and orientations that both connected them with past political traditions and broke from them as well. Like their New Deal predecessors, New Politics liberals advocated for programmatic rights in the New Deal mold, looking to set policy achievements outside the remit of "normal politics," such as elections and alternating partisan control of government, by cementing them in expanding administrative structures and guaranteed government protections and services. Unlike their New Deal predecessors, however, New Politics liberals simultaneously turned a skeptical eye on those same government agencies charged with delivering programmatic entitlements. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and an ongoing exposé of FBI abuses and assassinations, the new generation of liberal activists and intellectuals sharpened a two-sided critique. On the one hand, they fought to dismantle the social and political hierarchies that had limited the reach of the New Deal state primarily to white, breadwinning, middle-class men, and that had always been anathema to New Deal liberalism. On the other hand, they turned their criticism and activism against the same executive branch in which postwar liberals had vested their faith as the paramount instrument of liberal reformism.

This two-sidedness of New Politics liberalism helps explain its proponents' emphasis on party reform. Whereas New Deal liberals had opted to overcome the constraints of the decentralized Democratic Party by building the modern executive as an alternative institution to the party system, New Politics liberals turned away from any easy embrace of executive power, effectively taking up the project that New Dealers had abandoned: reconstructing the Democratic Party into an agent of programmatic reform. Without any nostalgia for the days of local and state party machines, New Politics reformers sought to build a nationally integrated, programmatically liberal party that could both escape the parochialisms of the past and curb the aggrandized and abusive powers of the executive branch. As they saw it, only by transforming the Democratic Party into an issue-oriented, participatory organization, more attuned to the will of its activists and organized groups, could the subordination of the party to politicians, local or national, be eliminated and a full-scale revival of responsible party politics be effected. As one key reform architect put it, they intended to "build the party as an institution [to be] bigger than any of its officeholders, bigger than any of its candidates.

Thus, as much as the New Politics reform movement was about overthrowing the old party structures to effect a more direct connection with policy makers, it was equally about constraining those policy makers, especially the president, to govern according to the principles and policies established by the party. The reconstructed party they envisioned would be powerful enough to override the state and local politicians who had limited New Deal liberalism in the past, but it would equally check the autonomy of the president to reshape the political agenda upon taking office by retethering the executive to the party.

It goes without saying that New Politics reformers' ambitious project of party reconstruction entailed imposing serious costs on party stakeholders with vested interests in the old ways of party governance. However, previous accounts have obscured the role and significance of the counter-reformers in derailing the reform project and subsequently reshaping the party to suit their own interests. For instance, despite the exhaustive detail found in Byron Shafer's seminal Quiet Revolution: The Struggle for the Democratic Party and the Shaping of Post-Reform Politics, the narrative stops short of McGovern's 1972 nomination, precluding analysis of the second, structural phase of reform, its mobilized opposition, and its eventual demise. Ironically, despite featuring "struggle" in its subtitle, Shafer's tome contains very little of it. This is no oversight of omission. Rather, it is an accurate retelling of the truncated timeline under his examination. As Sam Rosenfeld has put it, during the first phase of reform from 1968 to 1972, centered on changing the presidential nomination process, reformers experienced so little in the way of organized resistance they were essentially "pushing through an open door." As David Plotke has explained, the absence of any formidable antireform campaign before McGovern's nomination reflected most party stakeholders' disbelief that the McGovern-Fraser Commission would actually be effective in making substantive changes. More importantly, reform skeptics simply had no persuasive alternative to offer in response to the party's legitimacy crisis in the aftermath of the violent and chaotic 1968 Chicago convention and the subsequent electoral defeat in November. All this changed four years later with McGovern's dramatic defeat, which provided counter-reformers with the opportunity to pin the loss on reformers and set about reforming the reforms. Over the next several years, reformers and counter-reformers struggled over the structure and identity of the Democratic Party in a process of dynamic contention that left the party open to grassroots activism but bereft of any "organizational features designed to integrate or even encompass the multiple rather than singular concerns of citizens"—a hybrid institutional structure constitutive of the advocacy party.
But the larger importance of bringing the counter-reformers back in goes beyond merely getting history right. As this book argues, the outcome of the prolonged struggle within the Democratic Party was a new kind of party, an amalgam of institutional reforms, each layered on top of what came before, without any wholesale reconstruction to rationalize its structure. The resulting new party was not the handiwork of reformers alone. Crucially, the entwinning of reform and counter-reform did create a more national, issue-oriented Democratic Party than before. However, rather than marrying participatory and centralized forms of democracy and restraining excessive executive power, the party that emerged was more dependent than ever on using expansive administrative power as its principal instrument for achieving progressive policy victories. The new party had many authors, none of whom can claim full ownership, responsibility, or blame for its evolution.

The Politics of the Advocacy Party

As an outcome of the prolonged struggle over party structure and identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Democrats became what I have termed an advocacy party—a form of organization in which extra-party groups substitute for the diminished institutional capacity and popular legitimacy of the formal party apparatus. Democrats have long been considered to be a coalition made up of distinct interest groups and advocacy organizations in contrast to the Republicans' more unified commitment to conservative ideology. Yet, for all its insight, this take on party asymmetry should not be interpreted to suggest that Democrats are not ideological, nor that Republicans do not have deeply institutionalized affiliations with interest groups. To develop a more precise understanding, I conceptualize advocacy as the public claim that political actors make to represent often marginalized or excluded identity or issue groups, and advocacy party as partisan commitments of support for those groups to curry their electoral assistance and incorporate their constituents into the party coalition. Given the Democrats' historical legacy as the "party of the people" and their ongoing association with various minority outgroups, "advocacy" better captures what sets the Democrats apart from the GOP.

Moreover, as I will develop further, advocacy is an inherently ambiguous form of representation. Advocates are typically self-appointed representatives. Whether or not they have organic connections to the relevant community of interest, individual and collective actors can and do make claims to represent groups affected by political decision making without any formal or institutionalized mechanisms of authorization and accountability. Who speaks for x? can be a complicated empirical and normative question. This is not to suggest that advocates necessarily lack democratic legitimacy or that they cannot empower the groups for whom they claim to represent. What can be problematic, however, is when advocates deviate from constituency preferences in the absence of any effective sanctions.

Of course, advocacy, in its generic meaning, has always been a feature of American party politics. However, two key historical developments distinguish the Democrats' current advocacy party form from its predecessors. Considering first what we might call the demand side, politicians and office seekers have become increasingly dependent on the electorally relevant resources that advocacy groups are uniquely situated to provide. The patronage that once fueled the mass parties of the nineteenth century has been sharply curtailed by good government reformers, sending state and local machines into decline. And although formal party organizations have rebounded in the early twenty-first century and improved their fundraising capacity, they are, in Schlozman and Rosenfeld's apt phrase, "hollow parties," unable to command on their own the manpower, networks, information, and skills that groups can provide, let alone the popular legitimacy that movements can lend parties, which tend to score low levels of public trust in opinion polls.

On the supply side, as James Q. Wilson famously observed over fifty years ago, party politics has been invaded by legions of "amateurs" seeking to use parties for their substantive ends. Since the "advocacy explosion" of the 1960s and 1970s, a proliferating number of professionalized interest groups and nonprofit organizations have been increasingly well equipped to supply the goods and services that parties require. Moreover, changes to campaign finance laws, including pivotal decisions by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, as well as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of Congress in 2002, tightened the legal restraints on formal party organizations to raise funds, all the while letting loose the electoral activity of political action committees (PACs), Super PACs, 527 organizations, social welfare groups, and many others. Every election cycle that raises the costs of competing for office increases the dependence of candidates on well-resourced groups to assist them to victory.

In exchange for services rendered, advocacy groups expect politicians to endorse their cause, sell the public on their policy priorities, and generally work on their behalf in office. Groups may seek the symbolic legitimacy that mainstream recognition can supply or pursue broadly ideological ends or only narrow material benefits. No matter the nature of the demand, politicians are uniquely positioned to provide the policy victories that interest groups and movement actors need. Dependence, therefore, runs both ways: parties need groups, and groups need parties. The historical development of the advocacy party is summarized in Figure 3.

Figure 3

At the core of the advocacy party, then, is the imperative for politicians to secure group resources by becoming advocates themselves. But contrary to what some influential theories of parties predict, increased party dependence on groups for their legitimacy and campaign resources does not necessarily result in effective group control of parties. Rather, as a contentious institutions perspective suggests, officeholders have incentives to take what group resources they can while ceding as little agenda-setting influence as possible. "Advocacy," as a form of representation, helps politicians manage this tension by extending promissory commitments without giving up their autonomy. Four critical variables must be considered when assessing group influence on parties: electoral dynamics, group capture, the asymmetry of group-politician relations, and the potential for officeholders to offer lip service in exchange for group support.

First, the competitive standing of a party—whether it is in the majority or the minority, whether its coalition is weak or strong—may influence officeholders' strategic approach to groups. Politicians may adopt more or less exploitative relationships with groups depending on their electoral prospects. Should officeholders feel confident that their hold on office and policy-making authority is secure, they will have fewer incentives to placate groups with access and influence beyond what is relatively costless for them to provide. However, if party actors are vulnerable or seeking to construct a majority coalition, they may be willing to offer groups much more to incorporate their constituents into the party.

Second, once incorporated, groups may lose leverage over party actors. Groups, of course, can be more or less integrated with parties. Party-group relations vary over time and across groups as both parties and groups undergo internal processes of organizational change as well as exogenous transformation through repeated interactions in the electoral and legislative arenas. Conventional wisdom holds that as groups develop greater amounts of electoral resources, they can exert greater leverage over parties, which need help to win elections and produce legislation. However, possession of significant resources and the cultivation of durable partisan relationships might not be sufficient for groups to exert effective control. Party-group connections are more likely to reflect a curvilinear relationship between the degree of institutionalization and the degree of group influence. While relationships may become so well established that some become "anchoring groups" in the coalition, after a certain point groups may become "captured" by parties as any threat of withdrawal or defection becomes implausible. A necessary condition of group capture in a two-party system is the repositioning of the other party against the group in question or its key issues. Thus, not only does exit from an allied party become less feasible due to a group's sunk costs in that party, but entry into the other party becomes untenable. Paul Frymer applies this theory principally to African American voters in the Democratic Party, but there is no reason why the same logic cannot be extended to organized groups, especially under modern conditions of polarization. Without the meaningful threat of exit, group support is likely to be taken for granted by party actors, and the former's demands deprioritized as a result.

Third, the group-control thesis underestimates officeholders' capacity for relatively autonomous action, stemming in part from the inherent principal-agent asymmetries in the politician-group relation. As Kathleen Bawn and her coauthors acknowledge (but decline to develop), "officeholders always have an information advantage over policy demanders" because "the official can tell whether the group is contributing [electoral resources] or not; it is much harder for the group to know whether the official is really advancing its agenda" behind the scenes. Officeholders are also more likely to be better attuned to the opportunity structure facing any specific policy proposal. Accordingly, officeholders may persuade groups about the limits of the possible, the likelihood of success for this or that issue, and the costs and benefits of particular ways of framing their demands. While scholars have emphasized the proactive and generative role officeholders and other political leaders can play in shaping voter preferences, that insight has not been extended to groups themselves, especially when officeholders have well-established links with groups. Group interests themselves may be partly endogenous to party linkages.

No officeholder has greater capacity for autonomous action and reshaping group demands than the president. The power and prestige that attend the position provide the occupant of the Oval Office with the authority to define the policy agenda, apportion political capital, lobby legislators, grant special access to interest groups, staff the judiciary, and reorient the administrative state. As Chapter 6 shows, officeholder advantage over groups was clearly observable in President Carter's efforts to resist the demands of full employment policy demanders in the 1970s. As groups and their congressional allies fought to hold the president's feet to the fire on his policy pledges, the Carter White House threatened to deny groups access to the president and limit his support for their other legislative priorities.

Lastly, as Boris Heersink has observed, "it is not clear whether elected officials and other party leaders actually follow through on their promises" to policy-demanding groups, despite the latter's importance in securing nomination and election. Of course, there are many reasons why officeholders do not deliver on their promises, ranging from electoral results that deny legislative majorities, to domestic or foreign crises that unexpectedly shift the agenda. Yet another plausible scenario is that officeholders may simply pay lip service to the group in question, offering in exchange for their electoral support only superficial recognition for their cause or halfhearted legislative or executive action that amounts to little substantive change. While lip service risks incurring group reaction and threats of defection, these risks may be mitigated by factors such as term limits or capture, and could encourage groups to double down on their partisan engagement rather than exit, judging that even greater influence is necessary.

Much of the oversight of these factors in the new party literature stems from their focus on nominations as the key site of group influence. To be sure, nominations and elections are critical moments in which office seekers are especially dependent on groups' delivery of money, labor, votes, and other electorally relevant resources. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that groups eager to "get a genuine friend nominated and elected to office" offer ambitious office seekers assistance in return for specific policy pledges. However, this approach begs the question of what happens after nominations. Do politicians follow through on their pledges? Bracketing off these important questions forecloses a critical test of whether group influence in the presidential nomination process results in group control over parties and policy making.

To address this issue, in Chapters 7 and 8, I examine how the contentious politics of the advocacy party have played out across two Democratic administrations in the postreform era. While the advocacy party defined the institutional context within which both presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama related to their party, the two leaders held divergent views of the efficacy of the new party politics and adopted vastly different approaches to the advocacy party itself. Clinton and his faction of New Democrats unsuccessfully tried to dismantle the New Politics inheritance by empowering Democratic officials and officeholders in the nomination process and diminishing the clout and visibility of affiliated interest groups, such as labor unions and civil rights organizations. By contrast, Obama sought with much greater success to harness the potential of the advocacy party by campaigning and governing as a veritable advocate-in-chief. Obama's advocacy politics did not diminish the contentiousness of Democratic Party politics, as new and traditional groups continued to express frustration with the content and pace of the president's fulfillment of his campaign promises. On the contrary, the Obama years displayed the central dynamic at the heart of the new Democratic Party: the tacit alliance of interest and movement groups with the growth of executive power and presidential dominance over the party. While the New Politics project had sought to restrain the executive and subordinate politicians to the party, the advocacy party has given way to groups' embrace of presidential unilateralism insofar as it delivers on their demands.

Stepping back and placing the transformation of the Democratic Party in a wider perspective, the rise of the advocacy party has had complex consequences for the course of American political development and the quality of American democracy. In the Conclusion, I consider the impact of the advocacy party on three durable shifts in modern American governance: the rise of executive-centered partisanship, the radicalization of the Republican Party and the asymmetric polarization of American politics, and the effects of increasing economic inequality on political participation and democratic responsiveness. Party reform, of course, did not directly cause any of these three major developments. But the advocacy party that has come about as a result of contentious party politics in the past reinforces their powerful and pathological dynamics in the present. While proposing practical solutions for escaping these problems goes beyond the scope of this book, I conclude by examining the normative assessments about the contemporary party system and the prospects for resolving the current crisis in American party politics.


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