Responding to First to the Party Book Reviews

I am gratified that three journals published book reviews of my book, First to the Party: the Group Origins of Political Transformation. The book concludes that contested party transformations are more influenced by organized groups than party officeholders or median voters. After summarizing the book and its implications for democracy, I will address some of the areas of disagreement, including a) the extent of cultural conservative influence on the Republican Party, b) the origins of the cultural conservative coalition, and c) whether the 1890s populists failed mainly for being a third party. The disagreements over these historical details will help clarify the nature of parties and their role in a democracy.

Summary of First to the Party

For those who have not read the book, here are the major claims. When an unrepresented group seeks to transform a party against the wishes of some existing groups in a party, it must forge a coalition with other groups in the party. These coalitions are constructed on the basis of complementary issue agendas and strategic advantages. Pundit ideology is not a hard constraint. Coalitions are more or less effective depending on the historical circumstances, including demographic changes, legal regulations, and selective incentives.

The coalition must then exercise influence in a party by being active in nominations. Groups, not politicians or median voters, are the most important cause of party transformation. Politicians are elected by a preexisting party configuration and usually have little incentive to change it. At most, they want to straddle new policy demanders with old ones. For evidence, I turn to archived documents and elite interviews on the civil rights transformation of the Democratic Party and the cultural conservative transformation of the Republican Party. I discuss some of these claims in an interview here.

The history of party transformation sheds light on whether group influence on parties helps or hinders democracy. Partisanship organizes issue positions into bundles for both legislatures and the electorate, to the point where partisans will change their issue positions with the parties. Who controls parties therefore controls important policy choices. Since voters have a choice in officeholders, officeholder-based party transformations are arguably democratic. Party change driven by ideology has a different kind of merit, where trained intellectuals move parties towards positions consistent with each other. But active groups that covertly take over parties can overwhelm median voters, and whether the median voter should prevail depends on the issue and the circumstance. Matters of fundamental rights, for example, should not depend on median voter support. I see no way of designing a political system so that groups representing causes we like can transform political parties, but other groups cannot. Some groups are also left behind of the two major party coalitions and may never gain access. In the future, I hope to sort out the normative implications of political parties in more detail, but I am not sure a final answer is possible.

Other scholars have looked at these transformations but concluded that the interaction between officeholders and groups is more bidirectional – groups influence officeholders, but officeholders also influence groups. Groups like the Tea Party can transform a party even if party politicians do not think the transformation is in their interest, because politicians need to take positions that are unpopular with the general electorate to deflect primary challenges.

Response to Reviews

In the Journal of Politics, Boris Heersink asks whether cultural conservatives really had the influence over the Republican Party that I ascribe to them, zeroing in on George H.W. Bush’s presidency. It’s a valid question that I pose to students, and I review part of the evidence in this blog post. Bush relied on advice from his evangelical outreach director, Doug Wead, to learn the appropriate codewords to talk to evangelical Christians as early as 1986. With Wead’s help, most leading evangelical Christian figures endorsed Bush before the 1988 primary season. Bush withdrew from public association with Christian conservatives after Super Tuesday, but they stayed loyal to avoid losing face. In office, the same leaders were upset with his handling of the Federal Communications Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), though satisfied at the time with his court appointments. (Pat Robertson said that the administration hit the ball out of the park with David Souter). One might argue that cultural conservatives thought they had a seat at the table, but “got played.”

Although there is room for debate, I conclude that Bush paid the bigger price. The book’s theory suggest that it is wise for officeholders to honor group commitments within voter blind spots, and evidence bears this out. Bush had to make up for unmet commitments by broadcasting support loudly during an election year, when more median voters were apt to notice. Facing a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan in 1992, he fired the director of the NEA. At the 1992 Houston Convention, he allowed Buchanan and other vocal Christian conservative to give unedited speeches in prime-time speaking slots. The platform gave the Christian Right more of what they wanted than 1980-1988, without any resistance from the Bush campaign. Bush spoke at Liberty University and a Christian Coalition convention in the fall of 1992, when the public was most likely to notice. Therefore, organized groups caused Bush to switch from dog whistles to klaxons and blank checks, from clandestine meetings to public rallies. George W. Bush witnessed all of this and took extra care to let Christian conservatives know that he would not be like his father. Heersink’s (2018) own research, published after my manuscript was finished, offers additional evidence on the role of national party committees, which I hope to review in future work.

Another debate is on the role of cultural issues like abortion versus racial issues like tuition tax credits for “segregation academies,” which speaks to what kinds of coalitions can prevail in party transformations. Seth Masket and Ryan Claassen say that my work would benefit from greater engagement with other books that trace the rise of cultural conservatives to civil rights and segregation academies. Southern religious schools recruited more tuition-paying students in the 1970s as parents wanted alternatives to increasingly desegregated public schools. When the federal government began taxing private schools that were not integrated under Nixon, their livelihood was threatened. Such a framing would be broadly consistent with other findings in First to the Party: professed ideology can be a cover up for organizational interests such as school enrollment and the racial views of parents sending their students.

To be sure, the civil rights transformation needed to happen first. Southern white evangelicals were ready for a new political party only after the civil rights transformation of the Democratic Party. As I said, “They were ripe for conversion, but not yet converted” (p. 101). A Republican Party that was liberal on civil rights would have divided white evangelical Christians and prevented a unified coalition from changing the party. Many of the early leaders of the Christian Right, including Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, Paige Patterson, and Paul Pressler, were opponents of civil rights legislation, even if they backed away from publicly supporting segregation by the 1970s. Among the New Right who were brokering an alliance between cultural conservatives and other conservatives, many had proposed an economically moderate Ronald Reagan/George Wallace ticket in 1976. I highlight religious school tax exemptions as a “gateway issue” (p. 129) for religious broadcasters and in a summary of the founding motives of cultural conservatives (p. 141). On the cutting room floor, I had evidence that Christian School Action preceded the Moral Majority and helped convince Jerry Falwell that his mailing lists could raise money for political interest groups.

At the same time, religious school tax exemption and abortion were two of many issues that allowed the cultural conservatives to flourish. The Christian Right continued to thrive and experienced its greatest growth in the 1990s, after the taxation of religious schools waned as an issue. Even during the first wave of the Christian Right, the IRS revised its rules to make enforcement less rigid in 1979, and appropriation riders in 1979-1981 blocked even this enforcement so long as schools declared that they did not discriminate.

Cultural conservatives had a visceral reaction to a variety of issues occurring alongside tuition taxation – the ERA, curriculum control, school prayer, and gay rights, which Francis Schaeffer tied together as “secular humanism.” The Christian Coalition, which was more effective than its earlier counterparts, began in the late 1980s after court cases settled the taxation issue. Schlozman (2015) also points to many “connected opportunity points that entrepreneurs exploit to bring together actors” – “the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, the second Miami gay rights vote, the passage of Proposition 13, the filibuster of labor-law reform, the defeat of IRS regulations, the publication of Schaeffer and Koop’s Whatever happened to the Human Race?, the initial ERA deadline, the initial conservative victory at the Southern Baptist Convention, and the formation of the Moral Majority all took place between March 1978 and April 1979.” Milkis and Tichenor’s (2019) recent account lists multiple causes – tuition tax credits, opposition to communism, libertarian economics, and parental control of public school curriculum.

The reviews have clarified my thinking about the various causes of change. A culturally conservative Republican party could not have happened without the parties’ transformation on civil rights, but it is also difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a cultural conservative movement that ended with the taxation of religious schools. In multicausal explanations of change, the rarest and most proximate of the causes is arguably the sufficient condition. Mahoney, Kimball and Koivu (2009) use the following metaphor. Sunlight is required for a rainbow, but sun showers are the more proximate cause. In this example, the cultural issues are the more proximate events (sun showers) against a larger backdrop of racial realignment (sunlight). The sunlight had been there since the Democratic Party transformation on civil rights, but was not sufficient for the Republicans to take over state parties or commit the party to its current trajectory. The cultural revolution of the 1960s also needed to happen to organize more people against the Republican party’s status quo and take on the particular colors of the rainbow we are familiar with, in a way that sunlight alone did not.

Compared with other accounts, First to the Party emphasizes a self-serving motivation different than either civil rights or cultural issues. Evangelical broadcasters used politics as a way of advancing their ministries. Religious programming and even religious services were a competitive industry where preachers poached on each other’s followers. Leaders wanted to rise to the top of their profession and raise more money for their universities and ministries abroad, and became convinced (rightly or wrongly) that politics would help, particularly with the sensational culture war issues. With the hindsight of scholarship published since the manuscript was finished, including Lilliana Mason (2018), I would have discussed the way broadcasters appealed to their audience’s group identities, including gender and racial identity, and how they interacted with Christian identity.

In my shadow case study of the Populist Party, I argue that the Populists failed because groups had failed to first construct a viable coalition, underscoring the role of coalitions in party transformation. In his book review, Masket responds with a simpler explanation – third parties like the Populists cannot become major parties in a first-past-the-post system. In southern states in the 1890s, however, there was not a functioning two party system where Republicans had a chance of winning. New statewide parties can arise in subnational units in some first-past-the-post systems, like the Social Credit party in Alberta, particularly during periods of crisis. With a more robust alliance between black farmers and white farmers, a Populist Party could have competed with Democrats in the South. After the Panic of 1893 and the national Democratic Party’s divided response, a major national party was also as ripe for displacement as any party since the Whigs, though a Populist Party organized against Democrats in the South and Republicans nationally would have been an awkward straddle.

The manuscript was finished in 2014 and I wish I had the benefit of scholarship since then. Among them are works by Megan Ming Francis (2014), Corrine McConnaughy (2015), Hans Hassell (2017), Andrew Lewis (2017), Francis Fitzgerald (2018), and Boris Heersink (2018). Nonetheless, I am grateful for the reviews and the attention it has gotten from a number of political science professors and graduate students. I hope this review clarifies the ways First to the Party contributes to our understanding of party transformation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *