John Aldrich’s Visionary and Contrarian Analysis of American Politics

John Aldrich
John Aldrich, Pfizer, Inc./Edmund T. Pratt, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Political Science. (Design by Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

The buzz of the 1970s political cognoscenti was pronouncing that American political parties were about to die. But even at a time when prominent titles included “Is the Party Over?” (1972), John Aldrich was establishing evidence that democracy is hardly conceivable or viable without political parties.

Aldrich’s scholarship has been visionary, anticipating developments in American politics that have come to full realization only recently. With the benefit of hindsight, we can fully appreciate Aldrich’s early intellectual innovations — and at times contrarian assertions — in his now most influential scholarly works.

According to Aldrich, party brands are an essential shortcut that enable harried citizens, who have little time to devote to political information processing, to make approximately intelligent political choices. And parties allow politicians to pool resources to make their “brand” known to mass publics so they can learn about the electoral alternatives on offer.

Aldrich’s most important insight results from his investigation of the cradle of modern party formation, the U.S. Congress of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, brilliantly documented in his book “Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.

Without parties, a cacophony of hundreds of different individual legislator preferences may lead to chaos in the process of lawmaking. Just about any proposal put up to a vote may be defeated by a new alternative presented to the floor of the assembly, creating a continuous churning of majority decisions without ever generating any stable collective outcome — a nightmare in any polity. After suffering that experience in the early terms of the U.S. Congress, legislators invented the political party as a device that coordinates politicians’ voices around collective positions and thereby bundles the legislative alternatives.

The process of logrolling and horse-trading among individual legislators means they knock their heads together and agree to joint positions even while many settle for their second or third best preferences on many issues. But political parties thereby overcome chaos and create the miracle of stable and binding majority decisions from the multiplicity of individual legislator voices.

Aldrich came to be a visionary contrarian in other regards as well.

When he was a graduate student and young professor, he observed that American politics was on the tail end of a prolonged era of electoral turnout stagnation that began in the 1960s. Many political scientists puzzled over the paradox of why people vote at all, given that no individual vote ever makes a difference for the outcome and that the United States requires quite high levels of effort to vote, compared to other countries.

Many more or less plausible explanations to the puzzle had already been circulated — moral obligation, peer pressure, plain habit, the perception of a close election and so forth. But Aldrich turned the perspective upside down.

In a 1993 “American Journal of Political Science” article, he focused not just on the demand side of voters, but the supply side of politicians: It is they who organize and mobilize extra effort when they believe that small changes in electoral turnout may result in victory or defeat. It is parties’ active and persistent voter persuasion and turn out efforts that make the big difference in election outcomes.

Again with the benefit of hindsight, we realize that Aldrich wrote just ahead of a substantial upswing in presidential and congressional election turnout, induced by unprecedented party activism. The 2020 presidential election even reached a hitherto high-water mark of electoral turnout.

And Aldrich was a contrarian and visionary in yet a third respect: Already in the early 1980s, long before polarization became virulent in American politics intensifying all the way to the present time, he provided an explanation for ideological polarization in a two-party system.

Conventional theories of two-party systems surmised that vote-maximizing politicians would steer their parties to the center so as not to lose voters in the middle, assuming that more extreme voters were trapped to support one or the other side anyway, albeit with misgivings. But Aldrich argued that this simple “median voter theorem” disregarded the crucial contribution of party activists who supply the requisite human power to turn out the vote and propagate the party’s collective positions.

These activists are not bland centrists, but decisively committed to one or the other political side. And they will mobilize for their party only if the leadership makes at least a modicum of commitment to their partisan beliefs. Moreover, it is these activists who tend to be most prominent in primaries that select the parties’ nominees for electoral office.

By recognizing the importance of party activists, Aldrich could hypothesize that party leaders have incentives to veer off a bland centrist political appeal and embrace more extreme positions. How far veering off to more extreme positions brings electoral benefits or losses also depends, of course, on other things. And activist extremism is historically variable. But now, these partisan activists are indeed a great deal more radical, contributing to the polarization of the major parties and proving Aldrich’s insight.

Putting it all together, John Aldrich’s work has anticipated three major developments in American politics on full view today but not yet perceptible to most observers when he was writing in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of us may view with alarm what has happened in American politics over the past several decades. But John Aldrich has surely made a major contribution to help us understand why it happened.