Notes on “The Party Decides”

“The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform” got quite a run during the 2016 US presidential primary season – mostly being trotted out to justify why the Republican Party would exert its dominance over the primary process and stop Donald Trump from getting up. That… well, that didn’t go so well, did it?

Now that I’ve finished the book project (of which more later), I decided to pick up The Party Decides to see how well it held up after Trump. Some bits haven’t held up well: 


…while other parts have been a pretty cogent insight into the party-political process in the USA. I’m only about ten percent into it, but if you don’t mind the academic tone, it’s a pretty good read.

I’ll probably have more to say about this in future posts (and maybe it’ll fit into a tweet – the only reason this is a blog post is because it was too big for a tweetstorm), but there’s one passage I’m finding particularly interesting: 

In the politician-centred theory of parties, politicians are the key decision-makers. They organize campaigns, take positions on issues, and create service organizations to help them. Activists may, in [political scientist John] Aldrich’s variant of politician-centred parties, pressure candidates, but the candidates remain the “actual leaders” of the party. 

But in our group-centered theory, the party consists of groups whose aim is to get policy out of government. Acting as a coalition, groups decide which candidates to nominate for office and what positions they want them to take on issues. As full-time professionals, officeholders are often the most visible members of the party, but, to use Schattschneider’s phrase, groups are the owners of the party. 

In America, this seems to hold up – but in Australia’s parliamentary system, the exact opposite seems to hold: politicians hold much more sway over the party system, mostly because they’ve all started their own.

Just in the last few years Australia’s had Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie, Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch, Glenn Lazarus, John Madigan, Bob Katter, and the Clive Palmer Experience Psychedelic Love Train Circus Party all launching self-titled parties that are pretty obviously reflections of a strongly politican-centric party theory. (You could easily stretch the definition to include the Christian Democrats under Fred Nile’s banner, and the Rise Up Australia Party with Danny Nalliah as its figurehead.)

The intense factional politics in the two major Australian parties (Liberal and Labor) are more reflective of a Party-Decides-style group-centred political theory, but it’s interesting that the ease of getting third parties onto the ballot in Australia (especially in the Senate) seems to attract a class of personality-driven politics that doesn’t really exist in America.

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