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Tuesday April 17th, 2012

Party and Ideology

John Zaller, Ph.D. – Professor of Political Science at UCLA

Tuesday April 17, 2012, 4:30-6:00 p.m.

Sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University

Anyone who has watched the bitter competition between the Democrats and Republicans in Congress in recent years, or the fight to win the Republican nomination for President this year, might be wondering how to explain the current political party system in the United States. It looks like a period of deep ideological cleavages between the parties, and pretty strict enforcement of some form of ideological correctness at least in one of them. Yet for decades or even centuries scholars of politics have argued that ideological divisions were relatively weak in our elections and legislative process. What is happening, and what has happened?

This may be the central question for understanding the current state of American politics. So it will be a special pleasure to welcome to campus, on April 17, one of the leading and most original scholars of both parties and public opinion in the country, John Zaller.

Zaller’s book on The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (1992) is widely ranked with just a few other works, such as The American Voter, as a classic in the study of citizen attitudes. In The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (2008), John and colleagues have made an argument about how party elites, including interest groups aligned closely with one or the other party, shape presidential nominations. Their argument has become one of the tools used by commentators seeking to handicap the current nomination process.

Now he is delving more deeply into the nature of political parties in the United States, both now and in the past. As in his other work, a central theme is the relationship between mass opinion and political leadership. And that has to involve where ideology fits in. Are we in an era where ideology is much more central to parties? Why, and with what consequences?

Scholars and the public have had many different views of this question. In one traditional view, they were gangs of entrepreneurs seeking to capture and divide the spoils of office. Broad principles were to be adapted and adopted only as useful. For many years political scientists who believed this view also criticized it. They argued that, instead, parties should be organized around clear principles so that voters would be given clear choices about the ideology that would govern them – an idea called “responsible party government.” A third view argued, in ways that might look more plausible now than in the past, that reducing American politics to a fight about principles between just two sides couldn’t possibly represent a huge country fairly, would leave many voters feeling unrepresented, and maximize conflict. From this view, truly partisan divisions were dangerous, and a politics based on interest groups would be both more representative and less dangerous.

The latter view assumes, however, that interest groups create cross-cutting cleavages: that peoples’ identities mean they agree with lots of other people on different things. What happens, however, if the interest groups become more ideological, and more closely linked to parties? What happens if voters are more easily mobilized on broader, ideological issues than narrower (“save the whales”) issues? More precisely, what happens when one party sees “save the whales” as an attack on its basic principles?

It is getting harder to argue that political parties are not so important, but not much easier to figure out what they do or how they do it. The central questions have to do with the roles of voters and public opinion, organized interests, and politicians. What motivates each, and what influence does each have? Nobody has contributed more than John Zaller has to our understanding of these questions. It will be very interesting to hear about his new work.

John Zaller is Professor of Political Science at UCLA. His first book, The American Ethos: Public Attitudes Towards Capitalism and Democracy (with Herbert McCloskey, 1984) explored the tensions in public opinion between the two most basic tenets of American ideology. In The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (1992) he explored how political messages reach the public and influence its thinking. The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (with Marty Cohen, David Karol and Hans Noel, 2008), argues that, contrary to the common view that the party reforms of the 1970s gave the voters more power, the most consequential contests remain the candidates’ fights for prominent endorsements and the support of various interest groups and party leaders. Among his other projects is “A Theory of Media Politics,” a widely-cited paper and book in progress that describes how the conflicting interests of reporters, politicians and citizens shape the political news. Other recent projects use simulation models to explore incumbency advantages in elections to the U.S. House of Representatives and to determine the power of opinion surveys to identify the influence of media events on public sentiment.

Professor Zaller teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in American politics, public opinion and statistical methods. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. He served for eight years on the Board of Overseers of the biennial National Election Studies, and has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.