- The Talk of the Party: Political Labels, Symbolic Capital, and American Life
In The Talk of the Party Sharon Jarvis addresses the role of political parties in American politics from an alternate perspective. As she points out, there is a wide body of literature on the history, formation, strength, and vitality of parties, but Jarvis is interested in a different issue: how party labels have contributed to and shaped the role of parties in the American political system.
Based on her argument that "naming is critical in political life," Jarvis's project examines party labels over a 50-year period to see how the use of labels has affected party fortunes (11). She performs a content analysis on six terms found in four genres of elite political speech. Jarvis argues that elite discourse is important because it helps shape public understanding of political institutions, including parties. The six terms are Democrat, Republican, independent, party, liberal, and conservative. The different genres of speech examined are presidential campaign speeches, newspaper coverage, congressional debates, and civics textbooks. Specifically, the presidential campaign speeches and newspaper coverage come from the 14 presidential elections from 1948 to 2000. The coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives debate and civics textbooks content looks at civil rights issues.
Drawing on these sources, Jarvis is persuasive in demonstrating that party labels are important in helping to determine how parties are perceived in American society. As she says, "party labels are more likely to intersect with voters than other types of partisanship, are managed largely by elite voices, have considerable influence on individuals, and are politically dynamic" (55). One of the clear messages from the data is that, despite numerous reports of American ambivalence about parties, elites consistently use party labels, albeit for different purposes, which at the very least assures their longevity. Jarvis [End Page 132] found that party labels are "visible, potent and likeable," to borrow her adjectives. She also identifies three loosely defined eras of party: a monolithic time (1948–1960), a liminal time (1961–1979), and a fragmented period (1980–1996). In the first period parties acted as unified competing groups, while in the second, the party's role became more tenuous as candidates became more individualistic. Finally, the last period shows parties struggling with the divisiveness in party labels that conflicted with the need to unite. It would be interesting for Jarvis to compare her findings with those of John Gerring's work on parties (1998). He looks at party ideologies from 1828 to 1996 and finds significant continuity in party beliefs over time. The parallels between beliefs prompted by ideology and those prompted by labels would be an important comparison.
One of the insightful elements of The Talk of the Party is the way Jarvis draws from business language to describe political parties. Certainly, parties are increasingly consumed with marketing and advertising their candidates and policies, so it makes sense that these strategies would be relevant. Talking about the "brand strength" of, for instance, the conservative label rings true. Likewise, her data on the negative connotation of the liberal label is also persuasive. Part of Jarvis's project also involves an examination of possible strategies for revitalizing the left, or the liberal and Democrat labels in her study. According to her results, the liberal term has become synonymous with moral weakness and excess. She says that liberals need to change their brand image by using language that will prompt voters to think about the morality and identity of the liberal label. It does not currently have any brand consistency; rather, the liberal label is associated simply with a collection of issues. While this is sage advice, Jarvis should note that, while elites may be an important influence on the way the public thinks about parties, they do not control it. The best marketing and advertising strategies Madison Avenue offers cannot sell the public something it does not want to buy.
Studying the political parties from the...