Six Feet Under - The Death of American Parties

Term Paper, 2005
21 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 The Concept of Party Identification
2.1 The Michigan School Model
2.2 Rational Choice Theory
2.3 The Multidimensional Model
2.4 Difficulties in Measurement

3 The Decline of Party Identification
3.1 Empirical Data
3.2 Socio-Economics and Party Identification
3.3 Education and Party Identification
3.4 Issue Voting and Candidate Voting
3.4.1 The Concept of Issue Voting
3.4.2 The Concept of Candidate Voting

4 Consequences of Declining Partisanship
4.1 Electoral Impact
4.2 Candidate and Partisan Images
4.3 Alternative Partisan Activism - Election Campaigns

5 Conclusion


1. Introduction

Due to my father’s involvement in local politics, I was excited when election time came around. Even little children were showered with gifts, such as candy, sun visors, balloons, pens - and the list goes on. Seeing the party logo in bold letters on every imaginable item became an everyday experience. But it was after my grandfather had died that I had the most memorable experience concerning the German party system. My father had kept his party membership certificate, a book with smooth leather binding and a black, red, and golden tassel dangling from its spine. I asked my father whether my grandfather was still a member; he shock his head and told me: “No, a party membership expires once the person has died.“

It is striking, that this kind of regulating party identification by institutional and legal means is non-existent in the United States. What theories then describe the exceptional conceptualization of party identification in the American context and how has party identification developed over time in the U.S.? To answer these questions, major theories of party identification will be presented and the decline of party identification will be analyzed. In conclusion, evidence will show that American parties in the electorate are in a state of decline, which will have major consequences for the political and social landscape during the next few decades.

2. The Concept of Party Identification

The concept of party identification has many names: partisanship, political attachment, or party loyalty. As all these terms refer to something intangible, it becomes clear that American parties are different from, for example, European parties, where party membership is institutionalized. American parties are not mass parties and do not have any kind of formal membership, or as Larry J. Sabato puts it: “Most American voters identify with a party but do not belong to it“ (Sabato 1988, 111). Thus, political scientists cannot use the data gathered from surveying membership numbers to measure the level of political participation in the United States. Another problem that arises is that “[...] activists may attach themselves to individual candidates rather than to parties and it is often difficult to decide when such activists should be considered as supporters of that candidate’s party” (Ware 1996, 90).

Thus, in this section a brief overview will follow to highlight the different aspects of party identification in the U.S. before examining some approaches for measuring identification and gathering comparable data.

2.1 The Michigan School Model

In the 1950s, the so-called socio-psychological model of party ID was developed by researchers surrounding Angus Campbell at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Seminal works concerning the Ann Arbor Model, as it was also dubbed, are The Voter Decides (1954) and The American Voter (1960). According to the Michigan School, party ID is a long-term, stable affective attachment to a group, in this case to a political party (Campbell et al. 1960, 121). The model, as its name reveals, describes a psychological kind of party membership, which The American Voter describes in the following way:

“Only in the exceptional case does the sense of individual attachment to party reflect a formal membership or an active connection with a party apparatus. Nor does it simply denote a voting record, although the influence of party allegiance on electoral behavior is strong. Generally this tie is a psychological identification, which can persist without legal recognition or evidence of formal membership and even without consistent record of party support” (Campbell et al., 1960, 121).

While positive attitudes towards a party are an indispensable part of party ID, it does not suffice to account for a citizen’s party attachment, but rather has party ID to be a part of an individuals iden]tity (Miller 1991, 558).

Among every individual’s various attachments, party ID holds a very important position. Often, it may simply be a tool used to channel complex, unfamiliar information and to categorize political issues that are not in the realm of personal knowledge. Thus, party ID provides orientation in the sphere of politics and reduces the complexity of political issues (Campbell et al. 1960, 128-136). Due to its stability and generalizability it also works as a filter of perception that influences every citizens view on political issues (Campbell et al. 1960, 142-145). On the one hand, it causes you to perceive politics as personally important and on the other hand, leads you to view reality in a light that favors the party you identify with (Miller 1976, 27). As a result, a party’s appeal is strongest among those who identify with the party and the party’s candidate receives the highest competency ratings from these partisans. Conversely, ratings of other parties and candidates are lowest among these partisans.

The Ann Arbor-Model assumes an intergenerational transfer of party ID in early childhood, similar to hereditary traits. Studies show that children in politically interested or active families are more likely to develop partisan feelings at an early age. Furthermore, children then typically express the same party affiliation as their parents, especially if both parents are supporters of the same party (Campbell et al. 1960, 146-149). As a child experiences the world seen through a partisan filter, party ID is likely to gain strength with age. However, this does not result in a system of beliefs that is impenetrable and immune to any new and different views. Adolescent party identifiers may especially experience a clash between personal opinions or attitudes and party affiliation as part of their coming of age process. Most often, such conflicts are resolved over time because of the superior position of party ID compared to short-term preferences. Only very serious cases of conflicting individual perceptions and party line can permanently alter party loyalties. In the U.S., for example, major crises like the Civil War or the Great Depression were capable of changing American party ID on a large scale (Campbell et al. 1960, 134-135, 159-160, 165).

2.2 Rational Choice Theory

Campbell's theory has been criticized by scholars for several reasons. Instead of the Ann Arbor Model, other approaches have been considered. Rational Choice theory is an approach that accepts the notion of the salience of psychological attachment for party identification, but identifies other motivational sources by applying economic to politics (Kamieniecki 1985, 15).

Individuals are seen as utility maximizing agents whose attachment to a certain party is not only based on affections to ideas or candidates but also on the party’s function as an “information shortcut.” According to this theory, parties are regarded as a means of gathering information without having to undergo the process of direct information acquisition. In other words, “[v]oters will rely on information shortcuts because they do not have much incentive to gather information about politics solely in order to improve their voting choices” (Popkin 1991, 13).

This theory has also provoked some criticism, mainly concerning the application of the concept of information in a Rational Choice model of party identification. Downs’ often-quoted statement that “[i]t may be rational for a man to delegate part or all of his political decision­making to others, no matter how important it is that he make correct decisions” (Downs 1957, 233), makes clear that information is regarded merely as a utility that can be maximized by a channelling institution, namely a party. This rather functionalist view, however, does not account for variables like normative predispositions, beliefs or the attachment to parties as institutions in a democratic system (Wattenberg 1994, 15).

2.3 The Multidimensional Model

Having examined the Michigan School’s model of psychological identification and the Rational Choice theory of utility maximization and information shortcuts, the so-called Multidimensional model, which was mainly shaped by Herbert F. Weisberg, provides a third approach to party ID. It proposes that party ID cannot be accurately captured in a single-dimension as the Michigan School does, but rather needs to be examined from various angles and with a possibility for more than ‘either - or’ answers (Weisberg 1980, 33-60). In his approach to party identification, Weisberg and some scholars who work with his model, criticize three fundamental assumptions of the Michigan School psychological model: (1) the assumption that people can identify with only one party rather than investigating their attitudes towards both parties; (2) the assumption that political independence is the exact opposite of party identification; (3) the assumption that opposition to political parties in general is equivalent to independence. (Kamieniecki 1985, 27­29).

Weisberg’s main argument against these assumptions is that voters can have multiple and varied identifications. He tries to show this using the example of sports. His argues that it is possible to identify with teams from rivalling cities at the same time, e.g. identifying with the New York Yankees (baseball) and the New Jersey Devils (hockey). Transferred to party identification, this model proposes that

“[s]ome people might actually consider themselves both Republicans and Democrats. Some might be Independents because they like both parties equally, and still others might be Independents because they positively value political independence. Indeed, some people might consider themselves both Republicans (or Democrats) and Independents, particularly if they generally support Republican issue stands but feel that one should vote on the basis of issues rather than party” (Weisberg 1980, 36).

As can be seen in this quotation, Weisberg’s Multidimensional model not only questions the Michigan School’s psychological identification model, but also takes a critical stance towards a Rational Choice approach of party ID, because aspects like general personal values are considered.

2.4 Difficulties in Measurement

The standard operationalization of the measurement of party identification is the seven-point scale introduced by Campbell et al. in The American Voter. To determine whether a person identifies with a party, the Michigan School uses self-classification. Respondents are asked the following question: „Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Democrat, a Republican, and Independent, or what?“ If the respondent positions himself with one of the parties, he is then asked to evaluate the strength of his attachment. However, has he identified as an Independent, he will be asked to evaluate his leaning tendency to either one of the parties. By using this information, interviewees can be placed on a scale, ranging from strong Democrats to strong Republicans, with Leaners and pure Independents in between. Studies have either used a three- point scale or a more detailed seven-point scale, but the basic assumptions remain the same: party ID is understood as a single-dimensional, bipolar concept where a positive attitude towards one party can be interpreted as a negative attitude towards another party (Campbell et al. 1960, 122­123).

Figure 1: Combined Seven-point and Three-point Scale of SRC

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Critics have voiced concerns about the model, as its single-dimensional setup makes it impossible to record whether an Independent really is anti-partisan, indifferent, or whether his independence is a form of partisanship in itself. They claimed that voting records were a much better statement of party ID than self-evaluation. Campbell does not leave this issue unattended: “We have not measured party attachments in terms of the vote or the evaluation of partisan issues precisely because we are interested in exploring the influence of party identification on voting behavior [...]“ (Campbell et al. 1960, 124).

Using the statistical method of factor analysis, Herbert F. Weisberg developed a model, in which the basic seven-point scale was extended by integrating four new factors: partisan direction, strength of partisanship, party system support, and political independence. By applying these four additional factors it was possible to find statistically significant evidence for the relationship between normative aspects, e.g. the identification with the American party system, and party identification (Kamieniecki 1985, 19-45).

Summarizing this section it becomes clear that, as in most scientific debates, different scholars have different opinions on party identification, ranging from the psychological identification model developed by the Michigan School to a Rational Choice model inspired by the work of Anthony Downs, which emphasizes the crucial role of utility maximization and information shortcuts. Criticizing both models, Herbert F. Weisberg developed the Multidimensional model of partisanship, including normative issues and introducing the concept of multiple identifications.


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Six Feet Under - The Death of American Parties
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