First to the Party: The Group Origins of Party Transformation

First to the Party: The Group Origins of Party Transformation

First to the Party: The Group Origins of Party Transformation

First to the Party: The Group Origins of Party Transformation


The United States has scores of potential issues and ideologies but only two major political parties. How parties respond to competing demands for their attention is therefore central to American democracy. First to the Party argues that organized groups set party agendas by invading party nominations to support candidates committed to their interests. Where the nominees then go, the parties also go.

Using in-depth archival research and interviews with activists, Christopher Baylor applies this proposition to the two most important party transformations of the twentieth century: the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights in the 1940s and 50s, and the Republican Party's embrace of cultural conservatism in the 1980s. The choices made by the parties in these circumstances were less a response to candidates or general electoral pressures than to activist and group influences on nominations. Party change is ultimately rooted in group change, which in turn is ultimately rooted in the coalitional and organizational challenges confronting groups. Baylor surveys the factors that determine whether a coalition is viable, including issue overlap, the approval of their own members and staff, and the ability to reach new audiences. Whether groups succeed in transforming parties depends largely on choosing the right allies and adjusting accordingly.

In moments of profound party change, the prevailing political forces come to light. With its fine-grained analysis of major party change, First to the Party offers new insight into the classic issues confronting parties, representation, and democracy.


What do you do if you belong to a small, unpopular group that wants something from the government?

For many political scientists, the answer is obvious: join a political party. Parties are commonly understood as coalitions of groups that, by banding together, can win elections and thereby gain the power to enact the policies they prefer. If a new group—even a small and unpopular one—helps a coalition win an election, it will be rewarded with a share of the policy benefits.

But what if powerful groups in both major parties oppose the group’s program? That was the situation faced by African Americans in the 1930s. the Republican Party, their nominal ally, had done little for them in decades. the Democratic Party, though sponsoring the New Deal, was not especially eager to spread its benefits to racial minorities. Its entrenched and powerful southern wing was adamantly opposed to government benefits or civil rights for African Americans. the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt was little more promising as a coalition partner than was the Party of Lincoln.

Christian conservatives faced a similar problem in the late 1970s. They believed that abortions were legalized murder but were unable to get either party to take up their cause. the Democratic Party had become home to feminism and Republicans were the party of mainline Protestants, business people, and educated suburbanites, many of whom supported women’s right to abortion. As a consequence, gop officeholders viewed the “Christian Right” as an albatross that would sink the party.

But both African Americans and Christian Conservatives nonetheless found a way to make political parties the solution to their political grievances.

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