Teaching Shefter (1986) in November 2023

I just finished teaching/discussing a classic article on NYC party politics in the 1920s-50s. It was an interesting coincidence that the Working Families Party had just done well the day before in some Northeastern cities. (The Libertarians also did well, but that is a potential connection for later.)

Shefter’s piece is not easy to read. It was one of the first to run in Studies in American Political Development. The theory casts “political incorporation” and “extrusion” as “two sides of the same coin” of the handling of “new social forces” in American politics. All these terms need interpreting.

The argument also rests on details about many forgotten local politicians. That is a lot to keep track of. It also mentions interest groups, both formal (like the Citizens Union) and informal (like the mafia).

I taught the piece with pictures of the underlying coalition structure, light discussion of the electoral institutions, and a bit on the then-emerging New Deal party system. (The other key part of the theory is a “crisis” or “realignment” in/of the party system.) Then we interpreted the key terms. Then I had students look up names from the article (La Guardia, Marcantonio, O’Dwyer, Powell, etc) and try to say how their portrayals supported the theory.

Here is the initial post-reform coalition structure. By reform I mean the institutional changes of 1936.

Here is the coalition structure as the institutions were about to change again.

There are clear differences, and these mapped nicely onto details in the article.

The images are illustrative, not authoritative. I made them several years ago. The newer representation of these data was done instead by scaling everything together (due to the attendant research purpose).

I did not bring up the WFP at all. One student did mention AOC, and we discussed how well the framework fits her trajectory, which historical figure seems most similar, etc.

I have been thinking a lot about how all of the above relates to nationalization, as well as another book I look forward to reading on that.

What does Philly suggest about the future of the party system?

I am keeping an eye on Philly for what it may say about the future of the Democratic Party and/or institutional change.

Philadelphia Magazine has a good story on Sen. John Fetterman’s (D) endorsement of two Working Families (WFP) candidates for city council. (Gov. Josh Shapiro [D] also has endorsed one of these candidates.) Does this reflect a broader willingness within the Democratic Party to empower WFP as a coalition partner?

It is worth remembering that Fetterman did not have to make endorsements.

The backdrop is an upcoming election to seven ‘at-large’ council seats. By law, a party may not nominate more than five candidates. This had the effect, until 2019, of reserving two seats for the Republican Party. Now the party is down to one, and November’s election may reduce that to zero.

As of late spring/early summer, three potential approaches to the situation were apparent.

One was to go to nonpartisan elections, potentially with instant runoff or Approval Voting. That buzz surrounded the mayoral nominating primary, but it reasonable to believe there is a constituency for similar reforms of the council electoral system.

Another was to try to remove WFP from the ballot. That effort was unsuccessful.

A third approach was along the lines of what Fetterman (and Shapiro) are now doing.

One might add a fourth approach, which I have not seen discussed: increase council size, and impose some form of proportional representation (PR). ‘At large’ elections are often thought to shut out numerical minorities, but they also let groups (like parties) aggregate their votes over larger areas than what a single-seat district typically encompasses. A greater number of at-large seats could help the GOP if this were twinned with PR, such that the threshold of exclusion were brought down to the party’s share of voters.

Thought experiments aside, this is an interesting situation to watch. Parties are not unitary actors. One often finds different views within them on how to approach situations like the one in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s at-large seats

Today was primary day in Philly. Below is a portion of the ballot. I found myself relying on the “Vote for not more than X” instructions.

The race of interest is council-at-large. Here we are selecting five Democratic nominees to contest seven seats in November. (No party may give its label to more than five.)

This is where I pitch the “one-vote system.” All of the above candidates could run in the general without spoiling their party. There would be no further need to limit nominations by law. And the act of voting would be more user-friendly.