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Who’s in Charge?

Political Parties and Polarization in the 2016 Election

It wasn't long ago that the 2016 Presidential Election seemed as if it would be business as usual. The Republican candidate field was crowded, but Jeb Bush seemed to have the implicit blessing of his Party and be well on the path toward the nomination. Donald Trump, the pundits said, was a summer phenomenon who would be gone by the fall.

By Super Tuesday 2016, the story had changed—dramatically. As the Republican Party marches toward its July Convention, the only sure thing is that nothing is for sure. As a result, the Republican Party—and perhaps political parties in general—won’t be the same.

“The conventional wisdom among people who study American politics is that political parties here are weak relative to parties in other countries,” says Professor Sarah Anzia, a political scientist who studies elections, political parties and interest groups. “In other countries, people strongly affiliate with a political party. They go to party meetings and vote according to lists of candidates crafted for them by their party.”

The relative weakness of American political parties is tied to the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century, which introduced reforms like the direct primary. Until then, party leaders gathered in proverbial smoke-filled rooms to decide who the Party’s nominees would be. Now voters would have a say.

As a result, notes Professor Anzia, political scientists in the last four decades have assumed that American elections are candidate-centric. “In that model, all it takes for someone to run for office and to win is the ambition of the individual and that individual’s ability to raise money,” she says.

In 2008, a group of political scientists advanced a new theory in The Party Decides (University of Chicago Press). They argued that rather than being weak, political parties were made up of coalitions with common interests, whose leaders effectively selected candidates long before the candidates reach the ballot box.

“This is known as the ‘invisible primary,” says Professor Anzia. “The idea is that the party elite do whatever they can to convince the voters of the best candidate and the voters, presumably, fall in line.”

This theory has come under fire in this current presidential campaign.

“What Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and everything that is happening in the Republican party makes clear is that even if you think of the Republican Party as a coalition of interest groups, there’s nothing that says that the groups will agree on what is best,” says Professor Anzia. “We tend to think of parties as unitary actors with someone on top, deciding what is best for the Party, but that’s not actually happening. There is very little Reince Priebus [Chairman of the Republican party] can do to enforce discipline and cohesion in the party. He can’t force voters to vote a certain way, nor can he compel candidates to leave the race. The head of the Republican party actually has very little authority. We read the news and think we can’t understand how the Republican Party can be in such disarray, but the party is not one thing; it’s made up of individuals and interest groups, all acting in their own interests, not necessarily in the interests of the party as a whole.”

The fragmentation within the parties has given voice to the more extreme groups in both parties, according to Dean Henry E. Brady, who studies elections and political polarization.

“The best social science suggests that the longterm causes of political polarization are growing inequality and increased immigration,” he says. “The 1950s through the 1970s were one of the least polarized eras in American politics, characterized by strong unions and corporations that had strong local roots and a sense of responsibility to their local areas. Globalization in the 1970s and 1980s led to rootless international corporations, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the diminution of union influence in the private sector, and increasing inequality. At the same time, immigration increased dramatically. The net result was increased inequality and anti-immigrant sentiment—with the two often conjoined in the sense that immigrants (or people like them in foreign countries) were blamed for taking away American jobs.”

This presidential election is also showing that Republican Party leadership has underestimated the degree of dissatisfaction people are feeling.

“Donald Trump has outflanked his party by combining strong anti-immigrant sentiment, nationalism, and xenophobia with opposition to free trade and attacks on hedge funds and Wall Street,” says Dean Brady. “If Donald Trump is the nominee, the party will undergo a big change,” adds Professor Anzia.

“If Trump is not the nominee, no one knows what is going to happen at the convention. No matter what, the last year is going to impact the Party. These voters are not just going to be upset for the moment and eventually just fall back in line.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Policy Notes.