How Did We Get Here: Permeable Parties — Groups and the Organization of the American Party System

From More than Red and Blue: Political Parties and American Democracy
Trump buttons in a pile in black and white.


Groups and factions are central to any understanding of American political parties as organizations and as an organizing force in American politics. Historically, political parties managed and reflected key group cleavages, sustaining democracy by providing a means for the political expression of group interests, encouraging compromise in the building of electoral majorities, and offering voters meaningful representational choice, as responsible party theory requires. Recent developments in party nomination processes, media, and campaign finance have further opened already permeable parties, providing the opportunity for extreme and antidemocratic voices a more powerful role in party nominations and policy position-taking.



Groups and factions are central to how political scientists have understood American political parties as organizations and as an organizing force in American politics. In a two-party system, winning seats and votes requires that parties build and manage broad coalitions. Satisfying and expanding the coalition often compels parties to take sides in both long-standing and emerging group conflicts. Party coalitions are thus continually made and remade in response to economic developments, social disruptions, and political transformations. In the relentless search for electoral support, parties are strikingly permeable, seeking out, accommodating, and open to alliances with formal and informal groups.

The grounding of American parties in group conflict is in many ways a benefit to democracy: providing voters with clear choices on pressing issues is a key requirement for responsible political parties, and the logic of competition provides an inherent incentive for parties to do just that.1Bernhardt, Dan, John Duggan, and Francesco Squintani. 2009. “The Case for Responsible Parties.” American Political Science Review 103 (4): 570-87.2Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.3Sundquist, James L. 2011. Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Brookings Institution Press. Moreover, by providing an arena for the management and resolution of group conflicts, as coalition- building requires, political parties are a source of stability and order for the American political system. By representing diverse group interests, political parties offer a means for the legitimate and nonviolent resolution of conflicts through political processes.

American parties have always been remarkably permeable, providing opportunities for groups to shape parties and incentives for parties to reach out to groups. But that permeability also opens parties to a range of actors and interests who may seek antidemocratic ends, a possibility that has perhaps become more likely, even pressing, as key developments have weakened parties as organizations and encouraged antidemocratic attitudes and goals.4Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. First edition. New York: Crown. This chapter reviews the dominant ways in which political scientists have conceived of the relationship between parties and groups, and suggests some ways in which recent developments have made the parties’ characteristic openness to group conflict in American politics potentially democracy-threatening, rather than democracy-sustaining.

Groups as Foundational to American Political Parties

Groups as Foundational to American Political Parties

Political scientists continue to contest the meaning and nature of political parties in American politics, but there is no theory of political parties in which groups do not play a central role. For the earliest theorists, and for many today, political parties exist to contest democratic elections and secure political offices and their attendant powers.5Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.6Schattschneider, Elmer Eric. [1942] 2004. Party Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. In his classic tripartite definition of political parties, Key7Key, V.O. 1964. Politics, Parties, & Pressure Groups. Crowell. identified the components of parties as the party-in-government, the party organization, and the party-in-the- electorate. Parties as organizations, the subject of this chapter, are constituted for the purposes of contesting elections, and the voters, who may or may not express some psychological identification with one or the other party, are the choosers among them.8Schattschneider, Elmer Eric. [1942] 2004. Party Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.9Schlesinger, Joseph A. 1984. “On the Theory of Party Organization.” The Journal of Politics 46 (2): 369-400.

The party-in-government organizes policy-making, but the purpose of party organization is winning the votes and seats that put them there. In a two-party
system10Duverger, Maurice. 1963. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. Second English edition, revised, 1959. New York: Science Editions.11Riker, William H. 1982. “The Two-Party System and Duverger’s Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science.”The American Political Science Review 76 (4): 753-66., mass parties must appeal to broad coalitions in order to win elections. This reality has long been thought to contribute to the stability and success of a democratic system. In order to achieve their goals, parties must appeal to a range of voters, encourage compromise among diverse groups, and moderate their policy positions.12Brown, Robert D. 1995. “Party Cleavages and Welfare Effort in the American States.” The American Political Science Review 89 (1): 23-33.13Key, V.O. 1964. Politics, Parties, & Pressure Groups. Crowell.14Monroe, Alan D. 1983. “American Party Platforms and Public Opinion.” American Journal of Political Science 27 (1): 27-42.15Petrocik, John R. 1981. Party Coalitions: Realignment and the Decline of the New Deal Party System. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press.

In his influential account of American party emergence and development, Aldrich16Aldrich, John H. 2011. Why Parties?: A Second Look. University of Chicago Press. views parties as teams of ambitious politicians who coordinate with other politicians to ensure stable policy outcomes and manage the tasks of electoral mobilization. These ambitious politicians maintain and expand long coalitions by mobilizing groups with policy promises and appeals to group identity. In Downsian17Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper. terms, the party (ambitious politicians) offers group-associated bundles of goods (policy promises) on the electoral market, stressing brand loyalty and customer identity in order to win elections and make policy. The groups themselves may not be the deciders, but ambitious politicians must attend to their interests and incorporate them into the party writ large in order to achieve their goals.

In contrast, for the “UCLA school”18Bawn, Kathleen, Martin Cohen, David Carol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. 2012. “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (3): 571-97.19Cohen, Marty, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. 2008. The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations before and after Reform. University of Chicago Press. the groups themselves are the key actors in parties, coordinating amongst themselves to nominate party candidates who will advance the coalition’s policy interests. The need to offer a bundle of policies to voters is less important to parties in this telling, since few voters have the knowledge or interest to judge parties by their policy promises. Rather, well-informed policy-demanders work amongst themselves to ensure the nomination of candidates who will serve as advocates for the groups’ interests once in office. Mass partisanship and voter inattention solve the electoral problem once groups coordinate around a nominee.

While theoretical differences are real and substantial, both perspectives — as well as just about every other major or minor treatment of the American parties — view parties as fundamentally defined by the coalitions of groups they manage and represent. The ability of parties to accommodate new groups and conflicts is key to their longevity and stability. Most notably, V.O. Key’s20Key, V. O. 1955. “A Theory of Critical Elections.” The Journal of Politics 17 (1): 3-18.21Key, V. O. 1959. “Secular Realignment and the Party System.” The Journal of Politics 21 (2): 198-210. classic theory of party change — critical realignment — understands American electoral history in terms of the parties’ shifting coalitions and alignments. The most famous of these is the Democrat’s New Deal coalition (workers/unions, poor farmers, Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Southern whites) which dominated American politics in the middle of the previous century, and stood in contrast to the Republican’s minority coalition of business, upper-class, and Protestant whites.22Andersen, Kristi. 1979. The Creation of a Democratic Majority, 1928-1936. University of Chicago Press.23Burnham, Walter Dean. 1970. Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. [1st ed.]. New York: Norton.24Gamm, Gerald H. 1989. The Making of the New Deal Democrats: Voting Behavior and Realignment in Boston, 1920-1940. University of Chicago Press.25Salisbury, Robert H., and Michael MacKuen. 1981. “On the Study of Party Realignment.” The Journal of Politics 43 (2): 523-30.26Sundquist, James L. 1973. Dynamics of the Party System; Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Washington: The Brookings Institution.

The theory of realignment traces electoral and partisan change to groups of activists who raise new issues that cut across the current cleavage. In the classic understanding, such conflicts disrupt the stability of the parties’ coalitions, and established parties initially struggle to accommodate these new (or newly-salient) issues, leading to periods of intense disruption and eventually, to new partisan coalitions.27Burnham, Walter Dean. 1970. Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. [1st ed.]. New York: Norton. In the period before the American Civil War, for example, the “second party system” (1828-1852) was defined by a Democratic coalition of those less privileged, populists, Western farmers, and immigrants, and a Whig coalition of the upper classes, Eastern business interests, and prohibitionists. Both parties took great pains to sidestep the issues of race, slavery, and abolition in order to maintain their coalitions. As conflict over slavery became increasingly prominent and violent, the established major parties struggled to accommodate the issue without alienating key parts of their coalitions, eventually leading to the collapse of the Whigs, the reorganization of the Democrats, and the creation of the anti-slavery Republican party.28Sundquist, James L. 1973. Dynamics of the Party System; Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Washington: The Brookings Institution.

Antidemocratic efforts are not always successful; national party leaders were able to hold the line against…a number of early 20th century media-friendly authoritarian figures…

One consequence of the parties’ grounding in groups is the tendency for social and economic groups in the electorate to identify with a specific party and support its candidates.29Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. University of Chicago Press. For a time (1970s-1990s) in the late 20th century, however, it seemed that mass partisanship itself was in decline and parties no longer provided an anchor between groups and politics; rather, we had entered into a period of partisan dealignment characterized by widespread declines in party identification, candidate-centered elections, and divided group loyalties. Increases in educational attainment, direct candidate appeals (as facilitated by television, for example), and the declining relevance of the New Deal realignment all weakened voters’ reliance on parties as mediators and cue-givers.30Dalton, Russell J. 2013. The Apartisan American: Dealignment and Changing Electoral Politics. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.31Dalton, Russell J. and Martin P. Wattenberg. 2002. Parties Without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.32Ladd, Everett Carll. 1981. “The Brittle Mandate: Electoral Dealignment and the 1980 Presidential Election.” Political Science Quarterly 96 (1): 1-25.33Wattenberg, Martin P. 1991. The Rise of Candidate-Centered Politics: Presidential Elections of the 1980s. Harvard University Press.34Wattenberg, Martin P . 2009. The Decline of American Political Parties, 1952-1996. Harvard University Press.

Such an era was short-lived, however. Since at least the early 1990s, the major American parties have been increasingly defined by their relationships to salient groups in society. While the collapse of the New Deal coalition initially unmoored groups from parties, the ideological sorting of the parties accomplished by Southern realignment (in which conservative white Southern Democrats became Republicans) and other changes ultimately resulted in the current historically high association of groups with parties.35Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.36Pew Research Center. 2020. “In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race and Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, June 2. As citizens’ various identities increasingly align with and reinforce their party identity, we have observed a strengthening of mass partisanship, rising affective partisanship, and partisan polarization.37Abramowitz, Alan I., and Steven W. Webster. 2018. “Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties But Behave Like Rabid Partisans.” Political Psychology 39: 119-35. Voters now strongly associate specific groups (e.g., environmentalists with Democrats, evangelical Protestants with Republicans) with each party.38Goggin, Stephen N., John A. Henderson, and Alexander G. Theodoridis. 2020. “What Goes with Red and Blue? Mapping Partisan and Ideological Associations in the Minds of Voters.” Political Behavior 42 (4): 985-1013.39Henderson, John A., Geoffrey Sheagley, Stephen N. Goggin, Logan Dancey, and Alexander G. Theodoridis. 2022. “Primary Divisions: How Voters Evaluate Policy and Group Differences in Intraparty Contests.” The Journal of Politics 84 (3): 1760-76. Citizens in fact grossly overestimate the presence of such groups in the parties’ coalitions40Ahler, Douglas J., and Gaurav Sood. 2018. “The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions about Party Composition and Their Consequences.” The Journal of Politics 80 (3): 964-81.41Smith, Candis Watts, and Rebecca J. Kreitzer. Forthcoming. “Where’s the Party in Social Construction Theory?: Partisan Mappings of Politically Relevant Target Groups.” Journal of Politics.; while sorting is at an all-time high, cross-cutting cleavages (in which individuals’ identities point in conflicting partisan directions) do still exist. This overestimation, however, signals the extent to which citizens now view the parties as fundamentally defined by their group bases.

Parties as Arenas for Group Conflict

Parties as Arenas for Group Conflict

Scholars continue to trace the parties’ shifting coalitions around the most pressing issues of our time, including race, class, religion, and immigration.42Beck, Paul Allen. 1982. “Realignment Begins?: The Republican Surge in Florida.” American Politics Quarterly 10 (4): 421-38.43Jeong, Gyung-Ho, Gary J. Miller, Camilla Schofield, and Itai Sened. 2011. “Cracks in the Opposition: Immigration as a Wedge Issue for the Reagan Coalition.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (3): 511-25.44Miller, Gary, and Norman Schofield. 2003. “Activists and Partisan Realignment in the United States.” The American Political Science Review 97 (2): 245-60.45Rosenfeld, Sam. 2017. The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press.46Schofield, Norman, Gary Miller, and Andrew Martin. 2003. “Critical Elections and Political Realignments in the USA: 1860-2000.” Political Studies 51 (2): 217-40.47Others criticized the realignment framework as insufficiently coherent, testable, or predictive and not well suited to politics post-1932 (Mayhew 2002; Shafer 1991). Rather than search for critical elections and mass realignments, scholars have shown how contemporary parties have slowly and steadily evolved their issue positions in response to group demands and changing group power. The realignment of the American parties around race — from Democrats as segregationist (with an appeasing Northern wing) to Democrats as the party of civil rights — is the definitive and most consequential case. The impact on the parties’ coalitions was enormous, with Democrats solidifying their advantage with Black Americans while losing (and Republicans gaining) Southern whites, and directly contributed to our current period of close partisan competition.48Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.49Carmines, Edward G., and James A. Stimson. 1989. Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.50Feinstein, Brian D., and Eric Schickler. 2008. “Platforms and Partners: The Civil Rights Realignment Reconsidered.”Studies in American Political Development 22 (1): 1-31.51Schickler, Eric. 2016. Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Similar shifts on such issues as women’s rights and abortion, LGBTQ issues, immigration, guns, and the environment have transformed the parties’ coalitions in important ways as well.52Karol, David. 2009. Party Position Change in American Politics Coalition Management. New York: Cambridge University Press.53Karol, David . 2019. Red, Green, and Blue: The Partisan Divide on Environmental Issues. Cambridge University Press.54Karol, David, and Chloe N. Thurston. 2020. “From Personal to Partisan: Abortion, Party, and Religion Among California State Legislators.” Studies in American Political Development 34 (1): 91-109.55Layman, Geoffrey C. 2001. The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.56Wolbrecht, Christina. 2000. The Politics of Women’s Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

In their search for electoral advantage, parties also have incentives to reach out to groups in society that may not yet have developed conceptions of shared interest or political goals. Republicans, for example, purposively mobilized religious conservatives in the 1970s in an effort to weaken Democratic majorities.57Layman, Geoffrey C. 2001. The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics. New York: Columbia University Press. The addition of new groups to the parties’ coalitions does not only mean new policy demands but may also shape the policy preferences of other coalition members. As religious conservatives became an increasingly important component of the GOP, stalwart Republican economic conservatives became increasingly conservative on cultural issues as well, while new members of the Republican coalition who opposed abortion, gay rights, and religious pluralism also found themselves increasingly opposed to big government and high taxes.58Layman, Geoffrey C., Thomas M. Carsey, John C. Green, Richard Herrera, and Rosalyn Cooperman. 2010.“Activists and Conflict Extension in American Party Politics.” The American Political Science Review 104 (2): 324-46.59Layman, Geoffrey C., and Thomas M. Carsey. 2002. “Party Polarization and ‘Conflict Extension’ in the American Electorate.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (4): 786-802. In doing so, the GOP solidified their coalition and advanced party polarization.

Not all internal group dynamics are settled quite so amicably, however. Big tent parties mean that the groups brought together to form winning coalitions likely disagree over at least issue priorities, and often issue positions as well. In the wake of President Obama’s election in 2008, for example, Tea Party Republicans sought to move the Republican party toward its preferred stringently conservative positions on race, immigration, and health care. Unlike “consociational factions” which are welcomed into the party as allies with little conflict, “insurgent factions” like the Tea Party seek to take over the party from within, openly attacking party leaders, contesting party nominations, and prioritizing ideological purity over electability. Funded by powerful external groups, the Tea Party was able to reorient the GOP towards a more reactionary conservatism.60Blum, Rachel M. 2020. How the Tea Party Captured the GOP: Insurgent Factions in American Politics. University of Chicago Press.61Karpowitz, Christopher F., J. Quin Monson, Kelly D. Patterson, and Jeremy C. Pope. 2011. “Tea Time in America? The Impact of the Tea Party Movement on the 2010 Midterm Elections.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44 (2): 303-9. As discussed below, other changes to the political context may assist such factions in their efforts. Yet, groups are not always successful in their efforts to join party coalitions and shift party positions and priorities; the antiwar movement in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, fought for influence within the Democratic party but was ultimately unsuccessful in shifting that party entirely toward its goals.62Schlozman, Daniel. 2015. When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Moreover, the inclusion of any one group into a party coalition is not necessarily decisive; contestation between different party groups over candidates and policy positions is the very nature of party politics.

The Permeability of Parties in an Increasingly Competitive Context

The Permeability of Parties in an Increasingly Competitive Context

The considerable porousness of American political parties allows them to be tools for ambitious politicians and/or policy-seeking groups, targets for social movements, and arenas for group contestation. This permeability, driven by the logic of electoral competition, has always contained the potential for antidemocratic actors and groups to enter party coalitions and push the parties in antidemocratic directions. Southern state parties (and as a result, the national Democratic party) were dominated by antidemocratic Southern white supremacists from Reconstruction through the middle of the 20th century.63Carmines, Edward G., and James A. Stimson. 1989. Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.64Schickler, Eric. 2016. Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. In Southern one-party states, the result was authoritarian political systems; the slow advance of the GOP and competitive politics in the South65Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.66Glaser, James M. 1998. Race, Campaign Politics, and the Realignment in the South. New Haven: Yale University Press. contributed to democratization in the region.67Lublin, David. 2007. The Republican South. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.68Mickey, Robert. 2015. Paths Out of Dixie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Antidemocratic efforts are not always successful; national party leaders were able to hold the line against (and deny nominations to) a number of early 20th century media-friendly authoritarian figures, such as Charles Lindburgh and Henry Ford.69Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. First edition. New York: Crown.

The accelerated sorting of groups into parties creates reinforcing identities that hamper citizens’ abilities to find connections across the partisan aisle.

In a number of key ways, the American parties have become more open to group influence in recent years. Some of these developments are long-standing. The selection of party nominees — the defining function of political parties — has been accomplished via primaries for House and Senate candidates since the early 20th century. For presidential candidates, however, primaries were not in wide use until the 1970s, when the Democrats’ McGovern-Fraser commission reforms — intended to open and diversify power in the party — pushed both parties to increasingly employ presidential primaries, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.70DeSilver, Drew. 2016. “Near-Record Number of Primaries This Year, but Not Quite as Early.” Pew Research Center, February 17. but-not-quite-as-early. Unlike most party systems which put the choice of nominees in the hands of party elites, party primaries theoretically permit any candidate or group to rally mass support and secure the valuable party label on the ballot. Primaries do not necessarily reward extremism, but they do take power away from party elites and hamper their ability to manage their coalition and rebuff antidemocratic candidates (see Chapter 6). For many years, party elites managed to direct the presidential nomination process and outcome by coordinating around preferred candidates, access to resources, and elite signals, but their ability to do so has been sorely tested in recent years.71Cohen, Marty, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. 2016. “Party Versus Faction in the Reformed Presidential Nominating System.” PS: Political Science and Politics 49(4): 701-8.72Friedersdorf, Conor. 2016. “How the Republican Party Decided on Trump.” The Atlantic, May 3., Hans. 2018. “The Activists Decide: The Preferences of Party Activists in the 2016 Presidential Nominations.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 28 (2): 225-44.

Competition from other actors has weakened the ability of parties to resist the influence of groups they may find counterproductive or dangerous. The rise of partisan media can aid parties but also competes with formal party organizations to set the party’s agenda, advance particular candidates, and mobilize supporters.74Arceneaux, Kevin, Martin Johnson, René Lindstädt, and Ryan J. Vander Wielen. 2016. “The Influence of News Media on Political Elites: Investigating Strategic Responsiveness in Congress.” American Journal of Political Science 60 (1): 5-29.75Arceneaux, Kevin, Johanna Dunaway, Martin Johnson, and Ryan J. Vender Wielen. 2020. “Strategic Candidate Entry and Congressional Elections in the Era of Fox News.” American Journal of Political Science 64 (2): 398-415.76Heersink, Boris. 2023. National Party Organizations and Party Brands in American Politics: The Democratic and Republican National Committees, 1912-2016. New York: Oxford University Press. In pursuit of viewers or at the direction of owners and media personalities, partisan media thus offers a separate means by which specific groups can shape, even determine, party outcomes. Given the high costs of entry and access, as well as the incentives for attention-grabbing and uncomplicated content, we might expect that partisan news offers advantages to some interests over others.

Social media also can interfere with parties’ long- dominant role in shaping citizens’ views of candidates, groups, and issues.77Hawthorne, Joshua, and Benjamin R. Warner. 2015. “The Influence of User-Controlled Messages on Candidate Evaluations.” In Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns, eds. In addition, social media can dramatically reduce the costs of organizing, allowing previously-un-crystalized interests to identify allies and plan political action and established groups to mobilize more effectively.78Gray-Hawkins, Malcolm. 2018. “Collective Movements, Digital Activism, and Protest Events: The Effectiveness of Social Media Concerning the Organization of Large-Scale Political Participation.” Geopolitics, History, and International Relations 10 (2): 64-69.79Heaney, Michael T. 2020. “Protest at the Center of American Politics.” Journal of International Affairs 73 (2): 195-208.80Tufekci, Zeynep. 2014. “Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape.” Journal of International Affairs 68 (1): 1-18. This new media environment undermines the ability of parties to “decide” through signals like endorsements and can facilitate the success of groups and individuals who may advocate for undemocratic processes and outcomes.81Kim, Young Mie. 2009. “Issue Publics in the New Information Environment: Selectivity, Domain Specificity, and Extremity.” Communication Research 36 (2): 254-84.82Wagner, Michael W., and Mike Gruszczynski. 2018. “Who Gets Covered? Ideological Extremity and News Coverage of Members of the U.S. Congress, 1993 to 2013.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95 (3): 670-90.

Changes in campaign finance law have also empowered groups and weakened the ability of the parties themselves to decide their nominees and direct the agenda. In the last decades of the 20th century, the soft money loophole permitted organized parties to raise and then strategically allocate unlimited funds, enhancing each party’s power to select and control their candidates. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 closed that loophole, while Citizens United v. FEC (2010) gave donor groups the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to support preferred candidates, further undermining the parties’ influence over the nomination and election process. Empowered wealthy groups and individuals can advance specific candidates and agendas, including those who seek antidemocratic ends, to a degree previously impossible.83Fishkin, Joseph, and Heather K. Gerken. 2015. “The Party’s Over: McCutcheon, Shadow Parties, and the Future of the Party System.” The Supreme Court Review 2014 (1): 175-214.84Oklobdzija, Stan. 2023. “Dark Parties: Unveiling Nonparty Communities in American Political Campaigns.” American Political Science Review., Brenton. 2019. “Signaling Policy Intentions in Fundraising Contests.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 14 (2): 225-58. At the same time, the ability of celebrity candidates in particular to attract “earned media” (free media coverage as opposed to purchased ad buys) can divorce candidate viability from traditional sources of party funding support.86Magleby, David B. 2019. “Political and Policy Implications Following the 2016 Election.” In Financing the 2016 Election, ed. David B. Magleby, 299-350. Brookings Institution Press. Donald Trump — who raised less money than many of his competitors in the 2016 GOP primary but benefited from unprecedented levels of media coverage — is a prime example.87Confessore, Nicholas, and Karen Yourish. 2016. “$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump.”The New York Times, March 15.

These developments come at a time, and indeed are related to, the accelerated presence of antidemocratic forces in American politics. While beyond the scope of this chapter, threats of terrorism, rising economic inequality, and a diversifying population have all fueled the growth of an extreme right that disdains liberal democratic ideals, embraces authoritarianism, and advocates white supremacy.88Ballard-Rosa, Cameron, Amalie Jensen, and Kenneth Scheve. 2022. “Economic Decline, Social Identity, and Authoritarian Values in the United States.” International Studies Quarterly 66(1): sqab027.89Hetherington, Marc J., and Elizabeth Suhay. 2011. “Authoritarianism, Threat, and Americans’ Support for the War on Terror.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (3): 546-60.90Main, Thomas J. 2018. The Rise of the Alt-Right. Brookings Institution Press. The accelerated sorting of groups into parties creates reinforcing identities that hamper citizens’ abilities to find connections across the partisan aisle. The resultant out-group animosity fuels affective partisanship (viewing out-partisans as not just opponents, but an existential threat), moral disengagement, and perhaps even political violence.91Abramowitz, Alan I., and Steven W. Webster. 2018. “Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties But Behave Like Rabid Partisans.” Political Psychology 39: 119-35.92Hetherington, Marc J., and Jonathan D. Weiler. 2009. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. 1st edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.93Kalmoe, Nathan P., and Lilliana Mason. 2022. Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy. University of Chicago Press. Close competition between the parties discourages cross-party cooperation and frames each election as an all- or-nothing battle over fundamental values94Lee, Frances E. 2016. Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. These forces and dynamics have always been present in American politics, but the combination of more permeable parties and growing authoritarianism may make the parties’ porousness more dangerous to democracy than in the past.

Responsible Political Parties and American Democracy

Responsible Political Parties and American Democracy

For a democracy, the permeability of American political parties has many appealing characteristics. New issues and new groups are integrated into existing parties, allowing parties to be both the objects and instruments of necessary political change in response to changing realities. Parties can be agents of representation, a key means by which groups in society can make their voices heard in elections and policy-making. As new groups emerge and the political landscape changes, this porousness allows parties to incorporate and manage new group conflict within established structures of American politics.

That party organization can contribute to political system stability and representation does not, however, mean that it always will. Parties are now as permeable as they have ever been while other developments (new media, campaign finance, celebrity) offer up new tools of influence to other actors. Aldrich’s95Aldrich, John H. 2011. Why Parties?: A Second Look. University of Chicago Press. ambitious politicians (even the authoritarian-minded ones) have more resources with which to use the party for their own purposes while the UCLA School’s96Bawn, Kathleen, Martin Cohen, David Carol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. 2012. “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (3): 571-97. policy-demanding groups (including those with antidemocratic goals) have new strategies for gaining supporters and shaping party outcomes.

Responsible party theory requires political parties offer substantive choices to voters by putting forth distinct policy platforms and then acting on those promises when in office.97Adams, James. 2001. Party Competition and Responsible Party Government. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Importantly, that theory gives voters the central role of choosing between the options parties offer. Over the past twenty some years, this has been viewed as another potential source of democratic weakness. At the same time that parties’ ability to manage their coalitions, and specifically to keep out antidemocratic forces, has weakened, mass partisanship has strengthened, with overwhelming majorities of identifiers supporting their chosen party’s candidates at the ballot box. As political scientist Julia Azari98Azari, Julia. 2016. “Weak Parties and Strong Partisanship Are a Bad Combination.” Vox, September 13., Julia. 2019. “The Puzzle of Weak Parties and Strong Partisanship | Insights: Scholarly Work at the John W. Kluge Center.” has written, we are in a period of “weak parties and strong partisanship.” The result is that even a candidate with antidemocratic leanings can count on substantial electoral support if she secures a major party nomination.

Yet even in a time of heightened partisanship, voters may still act as bulwarks for democracy. In the recent 2022 midterm elections, former President Trump endorsed a range of candidates, most of whom supported his false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and/or opposed the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.100Moore, Elena, and Haidee Chu. 2022. “Tracking Trump’s Endorsements: Here’s How His Picks Have Fared in Primaries.” NPR, September 6. In the general election, Trump-endorsed candidates in competitive districts underperformed expectations by an average of 5 points, contributing to the GOP’s overall poorer-than-expected showing in the midterm elections.101Cohn, Nate. 2022. “Trump’s Drag on Republicans Quantified: A Five-Point Penalty.” The New York Times, November 16., Phillip. 2022. “We Can Now Quantify Trump’s Sabotage of the GOP’s House Dreams.” Washington Post, November 15. The permeability of the American political parties may offer the rising tide of antidemocratic groups and actors access to the parties labels and resources, but, in a responsible party system, it is the voters who have the final say.

The analysis, views, and conclusions contained herein reflect those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of the American Political Science Association or Protect Democracy.

About the Author

Christina Wolbrecht

University of Notre Dame

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