Bait taken, Seth.
In response to Seth’s excellent reaction to my post from Wednesday, I’m going to disagree with him in the most agreeable way possible: I disagree that he disagrees with me. In fact, I think we’re both right. But don’t take my word for it; let’s let V.O. Key decide.
Seth is absolutely correct about the powers and influence of modern local party organizations and the role they play in recruiting, electing, and re-electing candidates. While party bosses may not exist today, there are state and local party leaders who play a heavy hand in candidate selection.
What these modern “bosses” lack is the quid-pro-quo spoils of government jobs that were the defining feature of party machines. This means that while modern party leaders play a strong role in candidate selection, they do not have as many resources to provide (potential) candidates in terms of insurance against election losses. This hampers leaders’ ability to recruit strong challengers to sitting incumbents, resulting in less competitive general election contests. Indeed in many districts across the country, the “real” contest in the district occurs at the primary stage, not the general election stage. But it’s fair to say that once the state and local party leaders have anointed a candidate, that candidate rarely loses.
But we’re still left with Seth’s puzzle with regard to how this affects polarization in Congress:
Why would more independent candidates be more likely to vote along party lines? If politicians are free to distance themselves from their parties, shouldn't we be seeing a less polarized Congress?
This is where the seminal work of V.O. Key comes in. In his book Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups, Key argues that we should think of parties as having three distinct, but related, components: parties as organizations (e.g., the DNC and RNC), parties in government (e.g., the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Congress), and parties in the electorate (e.g., the party ID that voters hold). As part of the electorate, candidates are free to distance themselves from parties as much as they want during the campaign, especially if it helps them get elected. But once in office, the expectations change. The distinct organization of parties in Congress means that party leaders can effectively “whip” their rank-and-file. The distinction between parties in the electorate and parties in government gives state and local party leaders the power and tools they need to select formidable candidates and help them ward off strong challengers, while giving the party leaders in Congress the whipping powers to create strong voting coalitions in Congress.
If V.O. Key’s description of parties is right, then Seth is right that local party leaders have formidable powers of candidate recruitment, and I’m right that this can still lead to weak contests in the general election and strong party coalitions in Congress, which contributes to polarization.