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Reading the barometer of America's political system

The Party Goes On: The Persistence of the Two-Party System in the United States, by Xandra Kayden and Eddie Mahe Jr. New York: Basic Books Inc. 256 pp. $17.95. Some books of political analysis and commentary are impressive because they break new ground, others because they summarize developments well-known but not previously discussed in an integrated fashion. ``The Party Goes On,'' by Xandra Kayden and Eddie Mahe Jr., makes the latter sort of contribution.

The last quarter century has seen extraordinary change in the American political parties. Indeed, so much has been happening both to voter alignments and party organizations that it is mystifying one can still encounter references to ``the New Deal party system'' that aren't purely historical. The partisan arrangements of Franklin D. Roosevelt's time are as different from our own as are those when Ulysses S. Grant occupied the White House.

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In the case of almost any institution rocked by sweeping change, it is useful occasionally to stand back and take stock of what has transpired. Kayden, a political scientist at the Harvard University Institute of Politics, and Mahe, a Republican strategist and former deputy chairman of his party's national committee, have done this for the parties, concentrating on organizational experience. They chronicle the blows both parties endured in the 1960s and 1970s, some self-inflicted. Responding to new activists and impulses that eventually were to strengthen them, the Republicans misread the national mood disastrously in 1964 and painted themselves a party of racial reaction. Just when they were climbing out of this, Watergate engulfed them. Responding as well to new (or underrepresented) groups and demands, the Democrats likewise stumbled. In the name of ``reform'' they acted as though their presidential nominating procedures were designed for abstract representation -- rather than for waging and winning elections as prelude to successful governance. They belittled the ongoing role of the institutional party and established party leadership.

Broad social forces were at the same time disrupting traditional party functions and responsibilities. Today's highly educated electorate feels less need of parties for political cues and direction than did electorates of times past. Communications functions that belonged historically to the parties have been taken over by the mass media. Social-welfare functions have been assumed by government itself. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the parties organized successfully on a tightly knit geographic basis: Ward or precinct committees were the soul of party organization, their vitality reflecting the central place of party organization, their vitality reflecting the central place of neighborhood life. But by the 1960s the United States was well on its way to building new sorts of communities -- organized around the workplace or profession rather than the neighborhood, and traditional party organization could not survive the eclipse of the traditional community organization on which it had been based.

In the early to mid-1970s, Kayden and Mahe remind us, all of these disparate developments had come together. Inevitably, both the Republicans and Democrats were sent reeling.

The literature of the 1970s -- which includes David Broder's ``The Party's Over,'' the title played upon in ``The Party Goes On'' -- stressed the parties' dire straits. Contrary to the suggestion Kayden and Mahe make repeatedly, the earlier commentary never suggested that the parties were dead. The ``persistence of the two-party system'' was not at issue -- but rather the capacity of that system to perform satisfactorily.

The parties' problems deserved the emphasis given them. Still, those of us who wrote about them erred in not sorting out short-term elements from those likely to persist. Watergate was a terrible burden for the GOP in 1975, but there was really never a chance that it would be a lasting burden. Some historic party functions were diminished by social change, but the basic need for parties in organizing the electorate remained as vital as ever.

``The Party Goes On'' is at its best in reviewing how the Republican Party pioneered in harnessing new technology to the new forms of association and communication. The GOP thus established its national and congressional campaign committees as more active, vital, and successful organizations than they had ever before been. In this area the Democrats are now playing Burger King to the GOP's McDonald's.

Some of the problems the parties confronted in the 1970s have simply disappeared; others have been overcome through successful adaptation. Many remain as challenging as ever, though, and some are even intensifying. For example, Christopher J. Matthews, the principal assistant to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., observed recently that ``at a dizzying pace the TV news networks have absorbed many of the democratic functions traditionally held by political parties: The elevation of key public issues, the promotions of new leaders, the division of executive and legislative authority, and the constitution of political opposition.

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``Today,'' Matthews writes, ``network executives make these decisions . . . on a rational mix of `news judgment' and commercial savvy. For better or worse, the nation's dogged two-party system has been challenged by a three-network system that runs at much higher voltage and delivers at a speed approaching light itself.''

America's political parties are somewhere in the middle of their journey, not near its end. Kayden and Mahe have nicely chronicled the latest wanderings and reminded us of the traveler's resourcefulness. We would also do well to remember, though, that the parties, the only primary representative institutions in American government not expressly recognized in the Constitution, are still vulnerable institutions. Amid the revivals of the 1980s, their resources remain modest when set against the expectations for leadership we bring to them.

Everett Carll Ladd is a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

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