When Political Parties Won’t Stay Dead - Pacific Standard

When Political Parties Won’t Stay Dead

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Minnesota and Nebraska have both attempted non-partisanship in their statehouses. Those experiences show the enduring strength of parties.

By Seth Masket

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Workers lay track around the Nebraska State Capitol in 1922. (Photo: Public Domain)

It’s no secret that political parties are pretty unpopular in modern American politics. Reformers have proposed a number of ways to reduce the strength and influence of parties, but what if we just went all the way and completely banned them? This is essentially what two states have tried, and their experiences are pretty fascinating and telling.

I explore these experiments with non-partisanship (along with several other state party reform initiatives) in my new book The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How They Weaken Democracy. Two American states, Minnesota and Nebraska, have established non-partisan elections for their legislatures. Minnesota did so from 1913 to 1973, and Nebraska created its non-partisan system in 1937; it is still running today. Interestingly, there are important parallels in their experiences, both suggesting that partisanship can emerge even in an officially non-partisan environment.

Minnesota’s experience is particularly fascinating in that non-partisanship wasn’t imposed on them through direct democracy procedures. A partisan legislature actually abolished its parties as part of a legislative gambit gone awry back in the 1910s. The system ultimately proved popular enough that legislators and the public were willing to work with it. State legislative elections were, under that system, non-partisan: voters would simply choose a favorite among the candidates on the ballot, usually only with job titles listed next to the candidates’ names.

Evidence suggests that the Minnesota legislature really functioned in a non-partisan fashion for a while; coalitions organized around certain issues would occasionally emerge, but they wouldn’t last long. A legislator might vote with a colleague on one issue and then vote against that same colleague on the next. It was a chaotic environment, although not necessarily an unpleasant one for the politicians.

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The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How They Weaken Democracy. (Photo: Oxford University Press)

By the 1950s, however, the state legislature began to polarize along ideological grounds. Two persistent coalitions, calling themselves the liberals and the conservatives, formed and organized the chamber. They built alliances with the state’s two major parties, the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) party and the Republican party, respectively. They were also sustained by support from labor unions and business associations. The liberal and conservative factions in the statehouse were in every way like legislative parties — setting agendas for the chamber, determining voting behavior, and even recruiting and supporting candidates in elections — except that their labels never appeared on ballots. The legislature of the late 1960s was as strongly polarized as many partisan chambers are today, with every liberal voting to the left of every conservative.

In the early 1970s, after the election of a liberal majority in the statehouse and a DFL governor, the government voted to return to a partisan system, figuring that Democrats would do better in elections if voters could see who they actually were. But in many ways, this return to partisanship was simply ratifying something that had effectively happened years earlier. It was already a partisan and polarized legislature — the legal change simply erased the fiction of non-partianship.

Nebraska, meanwhile, adopted its non-partisan system in the mid-1930s as part of the same reform that produced its peculiar system of unicameralism. Unlike Minnesota’s, Nebraska’s reform was imposed upon the legislature through a voter initiative, championed by Progressive United States Senator George Norris. Nebraska legislators couldn’t remove the system if they wanted to — it would require another act of the people to do so.

As in Minnesota, Nebraska experienced many decades of non-partisan governance. What few academicstudies of Nebraska statehouse politics that exist suggest that any legislative voting coalitions that existed were ephemeral and weak.

Fascinatingly, however, all that changed in Nebraska over the past decade. Today, Nebraska has the most rapidly polarizing state legislature in the country. It went from one of the least polarized chambers to one that is more polarized than dozens of other state chambers. The ideological distance between (unofficial) Democrats and Republicans in the chamber has doubled over the past decade.

Partially, that’s the result of term limits in Nebraska, which went into effect in 2006. That kicked many longstanding incumbents out of office, and the official parties have been very active in recruiting a more ideological brand of candidates to run in their places. My research also suggests that major donors in the state have become much more polarized in recent years, expecting more partisan behavior from the candidates they fund.

But the lessons from both these states suggest a certain futility in efforts to weaken parties. Completely banning parties from elections and legislatures, as both these states did, is pretty much the most dramatic anti-party reform one can employ. And it worked for a few decades. But partisanship nonetheless returned in both situations. If parties can survive their actual banning and still return in force, perhaps this isn’t the best way to go about fixing politics.

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