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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 lives.

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