Party Responsibility Research Paper

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Party responsibility is the attribution of collective responsibility to the political party in power for the performance of government. This contrasts with the attribution of individual responsibility to particular officeholders for their performance in office. Party responsibility is the core idea of a model, known as responsible party government, of how democratic government should be organized in a modern populous nation.

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1. The Party Government Model

The party government model was first developed by the American writers Woodrow Wilson, Frank J. Goodnow, A. Lawrence Lowell, and Henry Jones Ford in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and served as a base for criticizing the existing American parties and proposing party reform. It lost favor in the Progressive Era and languished until the 1940s, when it was revived by another generation of American writers led by E. E. Schattschneider in Party Government (1942) and The Struggle for Party Government (1948), with support from Herman Finer in The Theory and Practice of Modern Government (1932) and James MacGregor Burns in The Deadlock of Democracy (1963). Its visibility was maximized in 1950 with the publication of Toward a More Responsible Two-party System, a report of the American Political Science Association’s Committee on Political Parties.

The model is based on the proposition that democratic responsibility depends on the possession and exercise of power. If an individual or group does not control the actions of government, a sovereign people cannot effectively hold that individual or group responsible for those actions. Democratic governments in modern populous nations cannot be controlled by individual officeholders, not even US presidents. A member of Congress has only a small share of the total power over government, and he or she can be held responsible only for his or her votes and speeches, not for the performance of the entire government. Even the president cannot control the actions of Congress or the Supreme Court, and so cannot meaningfully be held responsible for governmental performance.

The only entity large enough to control the entire government and public enough to be held responsible for what it does or fails to do is a political party. Therefore, only the collective responsibility of the majority party can establish effective popular control of government.

The model has three basic requirements. (a) The parties must have near-perfect cohesion on all public issues: the members of each party must act together so that they can be held collectively responsible. (b) The voters must vote for a preferred party’s candidates as representatives of the collectivity, not as isolated individuals. (c) The winning party must control the entire power of government, so that it can reasonably be held responsible for the government’s actions and inactions.

Ideally, the model of responsible party government should work like this: at least two (and, preferably, only two) unified, disciplined major political parties exist. In a pre-election campaign, each sets forth its proposals for measures to deal with the nation’s problems, and the differences between the two sets of proposals are great enough to provide the voters with a meaningful choice. In the election the voters vote for certain candidates for Congress and the presidency or for Parliament, not because of their individual eloquence and probity, but because they are members of the party the voter thinks should control the government for the next term. One party receives a majority of the votes and public offices, and takes over complete governmental power and therefore assumes complete responsibility for what government does or fails to do. At the end of its term the voters decide whether the governing party’s record is mainly good or bad. If they like it, they vote to return it to power. If they dislike it, they vote to replace it with the other party, which has pointed out the governing party’s errors, and stands ready to take its place.

The doctrine’s advocates generally present it as a model, a theoretical construct, the merits of which are to be assessed by theoretical reasoning and discourse. They do not wish its merits to be determined by how well or badly any actual governmental system performs. However, it is clear that most of them regard the government and party system of the United Kingdom as close enough to the model to provide a basis for answering questions about how the model would actually work in a nation like the United States.

2. The Model Used

From its origins the model of responsible party government has been used mainly to highlight certain perceived failings of the American party system and to prescribe remedies. Three such failings have received the most attention: first, the parties do not stand for anything. As Woodrow Wilson put it,

Provided with parties in abundance, and entertained with very nice professions of political principle, we lack party responsibility. American parties are seldom called to account for any breach of their engagements, how solemnly soever those engagements may have been entered into … ‘Platforms’ are built only for conventions to sit on, and fall into decay as of course when conventions adjourn. Such parties as we have, parties with worn-out principles and without definite policies, are unmitigated nuisances. (Committee or Cabinet Government? Wilson 1925, p. 109)

Some commentators of Wilson’s persuasion said that the American major parties are like bottles bearing different labels but equally empty.

They are uncohesive and therefore irresponsible. Votes in Congress rarely fall along strict party lines, and so it is impossible for voters to tell what each party—as distinct from its individual members—has done on the issue. Hence, neither party can meaningfully be rewarded for good governmental actions or punished for bad ones. As a result, the American people can choose only between an incumbent officeholder and his or her opponent, neither of whom has much power over—and therefore cannot assume responsibility for—the actions of government. As the American Political Science Association (APSA) committee put it, the American party system consists largely of ‘two loose associations of state and local organizations, with very little national machinery and very little internal cohesion ….[both of which are] illequipped to organize [their] members in the legislative and executive branches into a government held together and guided by the party program’ (American Political Science Association, Committee on Political Parties 1950, p.v).

Some critics of the APSA report pointed out that the American constitutional system is an insurmountable barrier to the achievement of party government. Especially the institutions of separation of powers and federalism make it impossible for one party, by winning a majority of the votes and offices in any single election, to get full power over all governmental machinery and assume responsibility for what it does or fails to do.

Some advocates of party government, however, were not impressed. Schattschneider pointed out that in the past parties have had great success in making changes in the constitutional system without altering a word in the Constitution—for example, in the reshaping of the Electoral College system for electing the president—and he concluded that there are no ‘grounds for excessive pessimism about the possibilities of integrating party government with the constitutional system. The greatest difficulties in the way of the development of party government in the United States have been intellectual, not legal. It is not unreasonable to suppose that once a respectable section of the public understands the issue, ways of promoting party government through the Constitution can be found’ (Schattschneider 1942, pp. 209–10). The APSA Committee added that when the electorate becomes convinced that responsible parties are the best device for achieving popular control of government, the battle will be largely won, for the voters will insist that each party act together cohesively in a truly responsible manner.

3. The Model Criticized, The Parties Defended

From its beginnings the responsible party government model has had its critics. Perhaps the most prominent early opponent was Moisei I. Ostrogorski, a Russian writing in French. He first wrote an analysis of the British party system (especially interesting because it attacked the system often hailed as the working model of responsible party government). His basic charge was rooted in his belief that the only meaningful form of democratic responsibility is the individual responsibility of each elected representative to his or her constituents. The worst thing about the British system, he said, is that ‘the ministers … easily hide behind the collective [party] title; however incompetent or culpable they may be, it is impossible to punish one of them without punishing all … ’(Ostrogorski 1902, I, p. 716).

His later (1910) volume on American parties charged them with many sins, of which the worst is that they are permanent conspiracies of political bosses interested only in winning elections so as to control government patronage. They have no interest in policy issues, and the voters cannot affect the course of public policy by voting for one party or the other. The only solution is to restore parties to what they were originally intended to be: ad hoc assemblies of like-minded citizens concerned with a particular policy issue, which will dissolve when that issue is settled.

The debate about what role parties should play in America and how they should be organized to play that role lay dormant until 1940, when E. Pendleton Herring published The Politics of Democracy. Herring argued that the unreformed parties had performed many valuable functions for American government and society, notably overcoming the potential for total gridlock inherent in separation of powers and federalism, stimulating ordinary people’s interest and participation in politics, and moderating the ferocity of interest groups’ demands by aiming their platform compromises and electoral appeals at the members of as many interest groups as possible rather than standing firmly and clearly for the interests of a restricted number of groups and the total rejection of those of other groups.

Herring’s lead was followed by the authors of several works stimulated by Toward a More Responsible Two-party System. Political scientists Julius Turner and Austin Ranney argued in the American Political Science Review that the doctrine of responsible party government makes sense only in a democracy whose people are firmly committed to the implementation of unlimited majority rule, while in fact the American people have shown that they are more committed to the protection of minority rights. This explains why ordinary Americans have been so resistant to adopting the responsible party government model and its features of party discipline and cohesion and so admiring of individual independence in their officeholders. This same argument was developed at greater length in Ranney and Kendall’s textbook Democracy and the American Party System (1956).

These defenders of the existing parties did not, however, silence the doctrine of responsible party government. The Schattschneider position was carried on and updated by, among others, the political scientist James MacGregor Burns (1963) and the journalist David Broder (1972). Moreover, since the 1970s both parties in Congress have become noticeably more cohesive and ideologically more distinct than they were in Schattschneider’s (or Ostrogorski’s) time. On the other hand, the proportion of voters voting split tickets has increased (to about 25 percent in the 1996 elections), and one of its main consequences, divided party government, with one party controlling the presidency and the other controlling one or both houses of Congress—a situation incompatible with responsible party government—has become the rule rather than the exception.

The net result is that while parties and officeholders in some parts of the national government are behaving more as the model requires, the voters’ weakening party loyalties and increasing tendency to vote for individual candidates with little regard for their party labels are behaving less so. The dispute between the model’s advocates and critics continues, but the party system changes only in some parts and in opposite directions.


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