Schattschneider, E. E.
Schattschneider, E. E. 1892-1971
Elmer Eric Schattschneider received his PhD from Columbia University in 1935. For the remainder of his academic career he taught primarily at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he was John E. Andrus Professor of Government. He was president of the American Political Science Association from 1956 to 1957. He is best known for his work on political parties, which he used as a prism through which he built a powerful and, despite numerous criticisms, enduring argument on the nature of modern democracy.
Schattschneider first presented his argument regarding parties in Party Government (1942). It is probably the most often cited, the most controversial, and the single most influential work on American political parties penned to date. His thesis was that modern democracy is unthinkable except in terms of political parties because they are the umbilical cord that links citizens to their government. If that cord is cut, he thought, both government and citizens would shrivel and die as components of a democratic polity. The weakness of the founding arguments, in The Federalist for example, is that the founders’ conception of government was not only undemocratic but, because it was essentially nonpartisan, was also built on unrealistic assumptions about democracy. American government became progressively democratic as parties developed. Schattschneider became the best-known advocate for the “responsible party” school in American government, the idea that parties should formulate policy proposals and present them to the voters, thus making elections occasions for major policy decisions. The measure of democracy would largely consist of the ability of parties to translate these policy choices made by the electorate into policy government. The cycle of democracy was one of responsible parties, electoral choice between parties, and party organization of government after the election. Schattschneider further refined and developed his party arguments when he was elected to chair the American Political Science Association Committee on Political Parties. The committee report, Toward a More Responsible “Two Party” System, was published in 1950.
The argument for responsible parties was challenged on several grounds. First, responsible parties would necessarily require that ideology, liberal or conservative, would be the organizing principle of policy proposals rather than the more pragmatic consideration of simply winning elections. Responsible parties would intensify political conflict over competing policies. Consensus political scientists argued that the natural tendency of political parties in a winner-take-all system would be toward the center of political gravity because voters would be distributed with varying intensity along a continuum that ranged from liberal to conservative and not merely cluster at the extremes. Second, Schattschneider was challenged on the very purpose of parties in the first place. Do parties exist merely to promote policy government, or do they also serve as intermediary institutions between citizens and their government that should moderate conflict rather than exacerbate it? American political parties, it was pointed out, developed after the ratification of the Constitution and did not so much create a democratic government as they helped provide a means whereby citizens could find a measure of civic peace within a framework that was largely popular from the outset. The founders evidently thought democracy could be conceived of outside the framework of parties.
A measure of Schattschneider’s influence is in the literature of political parties since his most important work. It is almost impossible to discuss American political parties in terms of their purpose and role in a democratic system without reference to his arguments. The resulting quarrels over the nature of parties led Schattschneider to publish The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America (1960). It is a deceptively short book—an essay really—that tries to get at, as he puts it, “what makes things happen” in American government (Schattschneider 1960, p.v.). This is his most philosophical work. His conclusion was that “the role of the people in the political system is determined largely by the conflict system, for it is conflict that involves people in politics and the nature of conflict determines the nature of public involvement” (Schattschneider 1960, p. 126). The people, he thought, are powerless unless the system is competitive, and parties are the institutional agents of that competition. The Semisovereign People is a fitting epitaph for the work of one of the most influential scholars in American political science.
Schattschneider was right to see parties as the engine of policy changes and innovation. He was also right to see in the development of modern party government a significant departure from the founders’ conception of popular government. The extent to which parties are or should be responsible in the sense he advocated is a more debatable proposition.
SEE ALSO American Political Science Association; Competition; Conflict; Elites; Federalism; Party Systems, Competitive; Political Parties; Political Science; Sovereignty; Voting
Schattschneider, E. E. 1935. Politics, Pressures, and the Tariff. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Schattschneider, E. E. 1948. The Struggle for Party Government. College Park: Program in American Civilization, University of Maryland.
Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Schattschneider, E. E. 2004. Party Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. (Orig. pub. 1942.)
Green, John C., and Paul S. Herrnson, eds. 2002. Responsible Partisanship? The Evolution of American Political Parties since 1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
White, John Kenneth. 1992. E. E. Schattschneider and the Responsible Party Model. PS: Political Science and Politics 25 (2): 167–171.
Sidney A. Pearson Jr.