Political Polarization and Networked Parties: Options for Reform

How do you fix a seemingly broken system of government, dominated by dysfunctional parties? This is the central question Seth Masket (Univ. of Denver) conquers in his new paper “Mitigating Extreme Partisanship in an Era of Networked Parties: An Examination of Various Reform Strategies.”

In the paper, Masket reviews an important idea that is gaining traction among political scientists: parties as networks. He explains that “a party…is a collection of different types of actors—donors, interest groups, officeholders, candidates, even some media officials—working together to advance a set of policy goals by controlling party nominations and winning elections.” Essentially, the composition, interests, and efforts of that network have serious consequences for how parties look and the types of strategies they pursue.

One thing is clear: parties are causing dysfunction within the political system and the policy world. In response, there exist myriad reform proposals intended to solve some of the major problems including hyper-partisanship, polarization, and gridlock.

Masket skillfully and eloquently reviews several of these proposals including primary reform, redistricting reform, media reform, changing members’ social networks, the return of earmarks, barring fringe candidates, ranked choice voting, and campaign finance reform. His analysis examines both the chances that such reforms will be realized as well as their likely effects on political dysfunction.

The verdict: Masket paints a less than hopeful picture of the viability of many of these reforms.  By using a combination of theory and empirical evidence, he shows that most proposals are unlikely to have the intended or even expected results. Masket takes the important step of addressing the popular proposals that political snake oil salesmen advertise as the elixir that American politics needs; he brings a sober reality to the many popular myths about these reforms.

However, the picture is not entirely bleak. There are a few explicit and implicit takeaways from the paper about how best to move forward. First, he illustrates the need for more research on the effects of these proposals—both theoretical and empirical—using the best techniques and cases available in the US and abroad. Second, he encourages state and local governments to use more experimentation to find and test political reforms in an effort to solve the nation’s most pressing problems. Third, Masket’s critique of the effectiveness of reform proposals is not a white flag for efforts in this area. On the contrary, the paper encourages scholars, policy analysts, reform advocates, and citizens to think of new ways to rid American politics of polarization and gridlock.

Throughout, the paper is an enlightening look at American politics and the modern efforts to overhaul it that will encourage readers to think differently about their own political system. Read the full paper, “Mitigating Extreme Partisanship in an Era of Networked Parties: An Examination of Various Reform Strategies.”