Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government

By Stephen C. Craig | Go to book overview

13
From Ward Heelers to Public
Relations Experts: The Parties'
Response to Mass Politics

PAUL S. HERRNSON KELLY D. PATTERSON JOHN J. PITNEY JR.

Just as democracy thrives on the free flow of ideas, political parties thrive when they control resources needed to communicate those ideas to voters. In the days of the old-fashioned political machines, parties influenced the flow of political information. Ward heelers, precinct captains, and other party functionaries kept close watch over their neighborhoods. Most of these exchanges took place on a personal level, with a member of the party organization acting as an intermediary for the exchange of political information. The emergence of mass society, however, contributed to the decline of political machines and to the rise of a candidate-centered system. The replacement of tight-knit immigrant communities by suburban housing developments deprived political machines of much of their popular base. Political reforms also weakened the machine's role in the political system. These changes produced a political era marked by low levels of partisanship among voters and reduced party cohesion in Congress, and they ushered local party organizations to the periphery of the electoral process.

Political parties have sought to adapt to the new era in several ways. Much of the adaptation has taken place at the national party organizations, with the parties' national, congressional, and senatorial campaign committees becoming more fiscally sound, more organizationally sophisticated, and more adept at campaigning and disseminating a national message ( Hermson 1988). Other changes have taken place inside government -- for example, members of Congress have altered their parties' leadership structures in such a manner as to allow them to send more thematic messages to the general public. As a result, unlike the personal interaction that once characterized relations between party leaders and rank-andfile members, communications today between the two groups tend to be elite

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