John C. Green
There is no doubt that the American party system has experienced considerable change since 1960. The meaning of this change is, however, the subject of much debate, at the core of which is a basic question: how functional is the American party system after four turbulent decades? Depending on the evidence considered, scholars offer different answers to this question, ranging from a loss of functionality due to party 'decline' to potential gains from party 'revival.' This disagreement occurs in the context of considerable nostalgia for previous eras, either the 'golden age' of partisanship in the 1950s or the 'golden age' of party organization at the turn of the century.
This chapter reviews these arguments and assesses changes in key aspects of the American party system between 1960 and 1996. We find some merit to both the 'declinist' and 'revivalist' points of view. Popular support for, and participation in, the party system has declined since 1960, weakening but not replacing the two-party context for American politics and government. During the same period, the major party organizations have become stronger and more ideological, increasing but not recasting the coherence of American politics and government. This mixed pattern of change has not altered the basic features of the party system—for good and for ill. On balance, the major parties are still functional, serving now, as in the past, as organizers of the context politics and government. However, the major parties exercise little direct control over politicians or policy, and thus are not a consistent source of cohesion in politics and government. Put another way, the United States has highly partisan government, but very little party government. Many scholars wish for the latter, of course, under the assumption that the system would then function better than it does (White and Mileur 1992).
There is a contradiction at the heart of the American party system and the debate over its functionality. On the one hand, the 'two-party' system is nearly
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Publication information: Book title: Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Contributors: Paul Webb - Editor, David Farrell - Editor, Ian Holliday - Editor. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford, England. Publication year: 2002. Page number: 310.
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