The issue raised is whether or not the national culture in which our political system operates influences the agenda of our political parties, or does the agenda of the political parties influence our national culture? It is possible that both our national culture and the agenda of political of our major parties influence one another, but it is more likely that one has more influence over the other. This means that the overall issues we as a nation are concerned about make up the platform of debate between the two major parties, but it is more likely that we are more "politically" concerned about issues that have been established by the political parties' agendas. To a degree, this can be a "chicken and egg" question, though, so that it is not clear of an issue causes the political parties to take sides, or the philosophy of the political parties decides what issues will be addressed. Understanding whether political agendas set the national culture or whether the national culture sets political agendas is important in determining if our system truly is a "representative democracy."
Political institutions are shaped by the political culture to a great extent, and existing political institutions are shaped in terms of their performance by the prevailing political culture at any given time. The dominant force in political activity is the need to gain power and then to use it, which in part means using it to keep power. Elections only decide the issue for a period of time, after which another election comes along and requires action once more. The political parties respond to this reality by working to maximize the likelihood of gaining and keeping this power.
Different parts of the country show the influence of local culture on political action in various ways. David Lublin and D. Stephen Voss point out the way state legislatures in the South use racial redistricting to pack "black voters into majority-minority districts" in order to cripple "the Democratic party outside of the safe seats it creates for black representatives" (792). The issue of where political line are drawn is not an issue of particular interest to the voter except to the degree that the process might favor one party over the other, with members of that party pleased at the lines and members of the other party displeased. The way the Republicans in the south have been trying to shape these decisions suggests the degree to which the practical exigencies of politics color the agenda of the political parties even more than ideology, with the primary goal of being elected and of gaining the majority being the over-riding determinant of a number of factors, including shaping districts and even deciding on what message to use to appeal to the most voters. Ideology shapes politicians to a degree, influencing them on which party to join, for instance. In terms of fostering an agenda, however, the way an agenda is phrased becomes an exercise in finding the right words to appeal to the broadest constituency more than anything else. One might argue that the national culture thus sets the agenda because the parties want to appeal to the most voters, but both parties are adept at shaping their message to fit what they perceive the national culture to be or at expressing the view that the national culture fits with what they have already decided to pursue.
Actions such as those of the republican party in the South only strengthen the view of some groups that they are being excluded fro participation because of race, beliefs, political affiliations, or some other characteristic. Martin Duberman expresses this idea as he discusses his own sense of being excluded and finds that some groups in American society are marginalized, though even he finds that this is often a practical ploy more than a cultural statement as Republicans may seek to isolate black populations because they believe black voters are not going to support their candidates anyway. Such actions are a form of pragmatism more than a statement of ideology, though over time, the perception that there is an ideology involved only grows. To a degree, marginalizing a population because that population does not support you only becomes a reason for that population not to support you, in effect creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
William D. Berry, Michael B. Berkman, and Stuart B. Schneideman see the process as reflecting the power of professionalization, and they find that the effect of professionalization on the success of incumbents is high, reducing the effects of external forces such as political and economic forces. As the authors write,
We maintain... that professionalism does more than boost the electoral prospects of incumbents; it changes members' relationships with the legislature's political and economic environment. In particular, professionalization promotes legislative institutionalization by establishing boundaries that shield members from external shocks (Berry, Berkman, and Schneiderman 859).
In this analysis as well, the political agenda is shaped more by the demands of practical politics than by ideology.
Harry Basehart and John Comer examine and compare the issues of incumbency and partisanship for the effects they have on the outcome of races in state legislatures and find that both pertain to a degree, but partisanship tends to emerge more where the process itself is highly partisan, which is not always the case. Incumbency has a longer-lasting effect and operates more consistently than does partisanship to return legislators to office and to keep out challengers. If races were shaped more by partisanship, the effect might be similar if there were a given point-of-view that matched the national cultural consensus on major issues. While each party may talk as if this were the case, in truth incumbency plays a stronger role. To the degree that the culture of the political parties can be identified as seeking to be re-elected, the process is influenced by that agenda but much less by the sort of over-riding culture often described. Incumbents simply have too many advantages, from name recognition to the greater ability to raise needed money for a campaign. They also have the party apparatus behind them, and when they are the incumbent, that apparatus is as entrenched for that office as they are.
Roger Petersen notes the widespread use of game theory in analyzing political issues and states that the underlying assumption of rationality is "very unrealistic," and he adds that "the importance of social norms and irrational psychological mechanisms is so obvious and important that leaving these forces unaddressed would mean forsaking the goal of descriptive validity" (Petersen 61). At the same time, he states that game theory still provides a useful approach to these issues
John Fiske links the political parties to the media culture in which we all live today and finds that it is becoming more and more difficult to separate external reality from media reality, or the image the media offers of reality. He discusses this in terms of what he calls "media events," by which he means that "we can no longer rely on a stable relationship or clear distinction between a 'real' event and its mediated representation" (Fiske 2). He says that this means we can no longer hold the "real" to be more important than the media representation. This might be seen as another statement of the idea that perception is reality, but it is a two-edged sword. The Republicans in the South may want to hold out the idea that their ascendancy is a reflection of a cultural change in the country, but the fact that they deliberately isolate black voters and protect their incumbents above all bolsters the view that the process is driven by agenda and not culture, for all their protestations to the contrary. Democrats as well protect incumbents and perpetuate the idea that their views mirror the culture in those districts where they are in power, but it might also be just as likely that it is the practical process itself that is maintaining the status quo.
The fact that ideology does not precisely coincide with political action can be seen in what Fiske says about the ongoing abortion debate, perhaps the most contentious political debate of our time. As he notes, "Pro-choice and pro-life are positions that do not coincide with political party lines..." (54). Members of each party can be found on both sides of the issue, and what fuels political activity is the practical requirements of getting elected more than either ideology or a supposed cultural zeitgeist that shapes the debate.
Richard M. Merelman notes the prevalent view of how to analyze American politics in terms of political culture, considered advantageous because of "its concentration on the expressed attitudes of individuals responding to reliable survey questions" (Merelman 465). Still, Merelman finds this approach wanting and believes that such attitudes are only "surface elements of a deep cultural structure" (Merelman 465). Looking beyond the U.S. To political parties in other contexts, Gary Marks, Carole J. Wilson, and Leonard Ray find that while…