A little-known report — written in 1950 for the American Political Science Association, or APSA — keeps popping up in commentary on the state of American politics. Yascha Mounk, a Harvard University political scientist, mentioned the report in the New Yorker recently. Lee Drutman referred to it in Vox this past spring.
Why is an old report still garnering such interest? It’s because the report called for political parties that are more cohesive and nationalized. That has finally come true — but many people don’t like what they see.
Why a report on political parties?
It was 1946 when APSA established its Committee on Political Parties. After the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency, many people — political scientists among them — had the feeling that U.S. political parties were not as effective as they might be. As the federal government became larger and more complex, the two major parties were not adjusting to changing economic, social and political times. They remained localized and disorganized, lacking either enough centralized staff or a clear identity.
Both Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, struggled to get their domestic programs through Congress, partly because of opposition from within their own party. One concern was the manner in which Democrats in the House helped to water down the Full Employment Bill of 1945. They finally passed it, much amended, as the Employment Act of 1946. Many drew a sharp contrast with the United Kingdom. In July 1945, the British Labour Party won a crushing electoral victory with a mandate to implement a radical program — something it subsequently did.
In 1950, the committee published its 99-page report, “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System,” packed with sweeping recommendations. The report urged political parties to become much more tightly organized, nationally oriented and disciplined — which is what we see today.
Why did the report become such a lightning rod for critics?
But on publication, the report bombed badly.
First, the committee’s recommendations immediately ran into trouble within the political science community. Some critics suggested ideological polarization was inherently undesirable. Others argued that the Constitution precluded adoption of many of the report’s ideas (e.g., the strengthening of the executive and the introduction of a more formalized Cabinet). Many of those taking issue with the report were young scholars: A few founded their reputations on critiquing it. Now-renowned political scientists Austin Ranney and Julius Turner both published their first major papers on the report.
Second, the committee ignored advice to make the report accessible, and overloaded the report with recommendations. One page alone suggested making presidential elections a holiday, holding weekend elections, keeping polls open longer hours, removing restrictions on voter registration, extending the vote to the then-disenfranchised inhabitants of D.C. and more.
Third, APSA botched the report’s rollout. It invited the press over to a Friday afternoon cocktail party, held during the congressional elections recess, to discuss the report’s contents.
At the launch, James Pollock, then APSA’s president, distanced the association from the findings, emphasizing it did not endorse the proposals. He complained that the research funds available to political science were piddling compared to those on offer for the physical sciences. Most damning, perhaps, APSA appears to have assumed the authors’ status was so formidable that simply publishing the report would generate national discussion. It did not organize any sustained follow-up about its proposals: no panels and no meetings with politicians, party officials, or other policymakers. It did not disseminate the report around Washington for more than six months. It finally sent out a limited number of copies in late summer 1951.
Fourth, APSA’s timing was very unlucky. The day after the report’s release, Chinese Communist troops crossed the Yalu River, invading North Korea to engage with U.N. forces. The nascent Korean War absorbed all the news media’s attention; relatively few newspapers noted the report.
The report deserves another look
Yet today, critics still target the report — even blaming the committee for today’s polarized U.S. politics. Journalist David Shribman, for example, branded the report’s authors (along with FDR) bluntly as the culprits responsible for political gridlock.
But the report was much more complex than critics let on. In fact, it’s not clear whether the authors of the report intended their work as a plan — or as a broad set of proposals meant to spark debate. That public debate never happened.
The report called for parties to offer much more distinct positions. But it argued such choices should be based on carefully laid out platforms, agreed at conventions held biennially to ensure greater continuity and clarity. The report suggested parties should have more defined and authoritative leadership structures that could offer stability and direction between elections. And parties needed to develop an identifiable role for their grass-roots members. Any polarization, the authors advised, should develop within such a framework.
I am not suggesting “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System” offers anything like a blueprint for changes that might be made to contemporary American political parties. Much has changed since. On some issues, the two major parties now look much more like the parties proposed in the report. In other areas, that’s clearly not the case. For example, the report wanted less emphasis on individual candidates and more on party platforms. And some of its analysis looks dated and misplaced.
But some ideas in the report do merit further discussion, and might improve U.S. political institutions. The report emphasized measures to increase voting (the one issue on which it had some impact on the Truman White House). To encourage party competition across the country, it proposed that each state’s electoral college votes in presidential elections should be divided in proportion to each nominee’s vote in the state — rather than allowing the winner to take all. Some states are now considering such a move.
The APSA report tackled fundamental issues at the heart of democratic politics and of effective policymaking — making it as relevant now as it was in 1950. Its proposals could still help focus a healthy and much-needed debate about how the U.S. party system does — and should — operate.
Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of political science at the University of Bristol, is author of “Whatever Happened to Party Government? Controversies in American Political Science” (University of Michigan Press, 2018).