Sidebar -- "Running Scared", January 1997
Larry Sabato Responds
The Atlantic's Ryan Nally recently asked Sabato to elaborate on the current state
of American political parties.
Anthony King asserts, "Lack of party cohesion, together with American
voters' disposition to vote for the individual rather than the party, means
that congressmen and senators are always in danger of being picked off one by
one." Do you agree?
King is right on the mark. Of course this is the most dramatic
difference between the government of the United States and a government, such as
the United Kingdom's, that is under a parliamentary system. But let
me point out that the two-party caucuses in each house of the American Congress
are showing greater cohesion now than at any time since the beginning of this
century. A larger proportion of the members of each caucus -- Democratic and
Republican -- are voting identically to the other members on a greater
percentage of votes than at any time in the better part of a century. We've
reversed the slide toward chaos that appeared to be accelerating in the 1970s.
This is generally to the good. There is a downside however: there are fewer
liberal Republicans and fewer conservative Democrats, which means it's more
difficult to achieve compromise and consensus.
What might be done to strengthen political parties?
I believe strongly that parties can be strengthened neither by action of
the Congressional caucuses nor, at the national level, by active party
committees. The way to strengthen parties is to reconnect individual voters to
their local parties. We need to make parties relevant to average peoples'
lives; parties must be involved in delivering services to citizens. They need
to acquire a constituency-delivery capability that can compete with what
members of Congress currently have. That's the way for parties to become
competitive again. They'll matter more to citizens when they serve the
citizenry in a direct and tangible way.
King acknowledges your point that citizens entitled to a tax refund could be
allowed to divert a small part of their refund to the party of their choice as
a way to strengthen parties.
Absolutely. But again, why would citizens do that? Most citizens will not
even consider doing that until they regard the party as being relevant to their
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