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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Three Questions on Our Minds 

August 21, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

In the run up to next week’s annual American Political Science Association meeting in Washington, we have several conversations teed up with our academic partners about the current state of affairs and what, if anything, the Madison Initiative can do to help improve it.  To prime the pump for these discussions, we have shared three big—and in our minds truly open—questions with colleagues who will be in attendance. I thought it would be a good idea to share these same questions with readers of this blog, in what I will confess is a shameless request for help in the form of extended comments and / or guest posts with your answers to them. So here goes:

First, our modern parties—well-sorted, ideologically coherent, and politically divergent—seem increasingly at odds with the core constitutional features of our system of government (separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism). Those features presume the need for compromise and appeared to be much better adapted to the pragmatic, catch-all parties of yore. Where do we go from here if the goal is to support government that can actually solve problems? We aren’t presuming we can revert back to the golden age of the mid-20th Century (if in fact it was that golden). But what are the alternative models for how our system of government could function reasonably effectively? Are there any relevant lessons from comparative politics or American history that would suggest a path forward?

Second, we have also been struck by the growing body of literature that is reconceiving parties as networks anchored in, and animated by, elites and well-organized interests acting as “long coalitions” of “intense policy demanders.” We appreciate that, insofar as it reflects the evolving reality, this conception of parties calls into question a number of assumptions, about the electorate’s role in our political system, the accountability of parties, and the ability of the system to force recalcitrant partisans back to the center. What should we make of this alternative view of party politics? If it holds up, what does it imply for our goal of alleviating the impact of polarization?

Finally, are there any structural reforms to our electoral system and processes (e.g., primaries, redistricting, campaign finance, voter registration and election administration, etc.) that you believe should be a central focus of our grantmaking? We went into this work expecting that these types of reforms would be very important, but the more we sift the evidence about their potential impact and consider the challenges and opportunities for making them happen on a state-by-state basis, there don’t appear to be any “slam dunks” in this area. Are we missing anything?

Thanks in advance for any guidance you have on one or more of these questions! Again, please feel free to comment below or propose a longer form guest blog in response.