Coordination and Party Change in the United States

Date01 November 2020
Published date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 807 –821
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20921370
Party change is an important aspect of democratic politics
with the United States as no exception. The American major
parties are under constant pressures to build and sustain their
electoral and legislative coalitions, as seen during the con-
tentious 2016 presidential primaries for both major parties as
well the continued intra-party conflicts since then. Changes
in U.S. politics since the 1960s have spurred extensive
research on parties, in particular, their ideological polariza-
tion (e.g., McCarty et al., 2008; Theriault, 2006; Thomsen,
2017) and polarization among a wider range of issues
(e.g., Carmines & Stimson, 1989; Layman & Carsey, 2002;
Lindaman & Haider-Markel, 2002; Shipan & Lowry, 2001).
A significant point to account for when analyzing American
parties is how they are relatively weak and decentralized
compared with their European counterparts.1 Considering the
incentives of individual politicians is, therefore, important,
which has long been recognized in the legislative politics lit-
erature. For instance, in his seminal work, Mayhew (1974)
analyzes each member of Congress (MC) individually, each
maximizing her own chances for re-election with little
consideration of parties. Although the political times have
changed, particularly the reemergence of partisanship,
Mayhew’s initial insight is still instructive. Following in his
footsteps, rational choice accounts of parties similarly ana-
lyze the strategic calculus of individual party members, which
has led scholars to consider in-depth the relevance of collec-
tive action problems to establishing and sustaining parties
(e.g., Aldrich, 2011; Cox & McCubbins, 1993).
Recent studies of party change, however, have given less
theoretical attention to the individual choices of politicians
and potential problems of coordination, as an example of
a coordination problem, suppose the party wants to adopt a
more extreme platform. One might simply use a simple
Downsian model to analyze changes to the parties’ platforms,
but that approach explains electoral competition at the dis-
trict/race/individual level, rather than party level. How can
the party coerce all of its members and potential new candi-
dates to adopt that new platform? Karol (2009), for example,
argues how each party’s issue commitments are a product of
coalition management, but this raises the question of exactly
who within the party plays the role of manager. Schlozman
(2015) likewise stresses the importance of social movements
in the transformation of the political parties’ issue commit-
ments, but again the question remains of “who” responds on
behalf of the party or how does a large enough set of party
members coordinate “the party’s” response (“large enough”
to be a meaningful signal of a shift in the party’s issue posi-
tion)? One might argue that presidential elections with its
national constituency drives positioning of the national
921370APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20921370American Politics ResearchLee and Brady
1University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA
2Denison University, Granville, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Daniel J. Lee, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Pwky,
P.O. Box 455029, Las Vegas, NV 89154-5029, USA.
Coordination and Party Change in
the United States
Daniel J. Lee1 and Michael Brady2
The ability of American political parties to change issue positions is potentially hindered by problems of coordination.
Research on parties since the 1990s has shown what tools party leadership can use to enforce discipline and cohesion among
its ranks. We, however, question whether those theories of party control, which explain party stability, can straightforwardly
explain party change. Oftentimes we think of parties strategically altering issue positions, but what is “the party?” Rather
than a monolithic group, American parties are relatively decentralized, weak, and individualistic compared with other party
systems. We present an evolutionary game theoretic example to illustrate the problem of coordination in party change.
This theoretical framework suggests an empirical focus on individual-level behaviors to better understand the dynamics of
party change. We analyze roll call voting of members of Congress on the environment and abortion to illustrate micro-level
behaviors suggested by our theoretical discussion.
political parties, party change, coordination

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