Seth E. Masket is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. He discussed his new book, “No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures” with Capitol Weekly during a promotion tour through Northern California.
Tell us about No Middle Ground.
The book is really an attempt to understand what is kind of the essential history of California parties. Sometimes in California we will have really weak, formal parties. They aren’t well staffed and they don’t have a ton of money.
But California has the most polarized state legislature in the country. I started wondering what’s causing that. It doesn’t seem to be the voters. The voters are no more polarized here than in any other state. It seems to be a lot of informal party organizations that have arisen over the years that function at the local level.
There are these networks of donors, activists and office holders who work together to find candidates that they like, usually pretty ideologically extreme ones and give them the resources they need to win in a primary. This freezes out the moderate candidates and prevents them from winning.
So you teach at the University of Denver. How’d you get into California politics?
Actually, I grew up in Southern California. I did my undergrad at Berkeley and got my Ph.D at UCLA. I was studying California politics at a very local level when I was in grad school.
What did you do to research this book?
A few different things, some of it was very kind of quantitative. I was colleting a ton of roll call votes, basically every roll call vote ever cast in the state assembly from 1849 to the present day.
A lot of the book was also interviews. I went to a number of different local communities to talk to people about how parties are run there. I was in South LA, East LA, Orange County, Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Monica, just talking with office holders, candidates, donors, activists; all sorts of different people to give me a sense of how things are run.
To get the Democratic or Republican nomination from a certain area, who do you have to talk to, whose support do you need, how does it work? Those sorts of things. And the more people I spoke to, the more I just got this very consistent picture that emerged of this very small number of people who are really determining who got nominations in different areas.
Do you see these informal party organizations as a problem today?
Well, it really depends how you look at it. A lot of people complain about partisanship and, yes, the parties really are very strong, although I do spend a lot of time in the book talking about the time in the state’s history when it was much less partisan.
So the first half of the Twentieth Century, California had a pretty bi-partisan legislature, but it was also a very corrupt one. It was a time when the parties weren’t providing a lot of leadership, so a lot of lobbyists were. There was a lot of money changing hands in exchange for votes; there were lobbyists who were pretty much running the place. That’s not necessarily a better situation as far as I’m concerned.
My book more or less suggests that we live in a time of strong parties, and it makes more sense to think about building institutions that work well with strong parties rather than try to get rid of strong parties themselves.
What made you decide to write this book?
I had actually started this as just a little research project in grad school. I was interested in studying local politics, I was interested in parties and I was interested in voting behavior. My advisor at the time had encouraged me to dig around a little bit in California politics and see what I could find.
I was surprised just going back a few years how weird the state looked. You had a lot of races going uncontested for the state legislature, you had what looked like a pretty non-partisan place. The more I dug, the more fascinating the state seemed to become. It had really undergone this great radical shift in parties.
If there’s one thing people should take from the book what should that be?
Strong parties can be very frustrating but the absence of them is often worst.
So if you want to get elected in the state of California, what should you do?
Well the key is really to start locally. Get to know the people who are powerful in that party wherever you live. I have found that working on the staff of an office holder or somehow knowing an office holder or knowing these people who are involved can really give you an advantage if you want to run for office. People who are lawyers, prominent business people, they don’t really have much of an advantage, they don’t necessarily win more elections than anyone else.
What do you want to avoid doing?
Generally just making a lot of money and trying to buy your way into office, a lot of people fail at that and end up wasting a lot of money.