The End Of America’s Political Parties?
Are America's political parties become irrelevant?
Walter Russell Mead looks around and sees America’s two major political parties at a crossroads:
The decay of American political parties continues as the real money and power in politics shifts inexorably away from party organizations to informal and ad hoc groups. The combination of citizen grassroots movements, decentralized party structures and the vast sums of money short-circuiting the official party structures is changing the way politics works. As this story in the New York Times details, the real conversation among Republican-affiliated power brokers now takes place outside party structures.
American political parties are increasingly being reduced to flags of convenience; party organizations and party institutions have little influence over events. That didn’t use to be true. Party leaders and officials once exercised significant power over the choice of nominees, over the careers of aspiring pols, and over patronage. These days, outside Chicago and a handful of other places, we no longer think of party “bosses”.
To some extent, there’s a phenomenon that’s been going on for many years. Neither political party is as centrally controlled as it was in the past and, except perhaps in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, the idea of an old-style party machine that holds a tight leash on voters, party members, and officeholders is largely a thing of the past. Several factors seem to be accelerating things now, though. Technology is certainly one factor, but so is the rise of independent groups outside the major parties with the ability to raise huge amounts of money and spend them on behalf of candidates:.
At a time when the Republican National Committee remains weighed down by debt, outside conservative groups, freed from contribution limits by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year, are playing an ever larger role and operating in an increasingly coordinated fashion. In the coming months, the conservative groups will consult among themselves as they open pre-election advertising barrages against Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats.
They have begun conversations about how to divide up the swing states where each group is likely to focus its energies, with some like Americans for Prosperity expecting to shift chiefly to Senate races and the White House. Others, like the new Congressional Leadership Fund, will look to preserve the Republican hold on the House.
Groups that have made defeating Mr. Obama their top priority expect to invest heavily in some of the new swing states where Mr. Obama made inroads in 2008, like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Other groups, operating in concert, will target Democratic senators they believe are ripe for unseating, like Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
At a time when the Republican presidential primary race has featured increasingly tough stances against illegal immigration, the independent groups have begun an aggressive program of outreach to Hispanics, hoping to offset Democratic gains among a critical voting bloc.
And they are planning to coordinate offensives in states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where money and organizing could pay dividends simultaneously in the presidential, Congressional and local legislative races.
They have recruited some of the Republican Party’s best-known officials, like Speaker John A. Boehner and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, to help raise money. And in a shift from 2010, when the groups focused largely on television advertising, they plan to put far more money into voter contact, social media and grass-roots outreach, hoping to buttress the party’s own get-out-the-vote work.
Such heightened coordination is the latest development in the growing role of the outside groups, which operate free of many of the legal restrictions that govern the official parties.
Some of these groups are the so-called Super PACs that nearly every Presidential candidate has had formed on their behalf at this point. Not only do they allow people to donate on behalf of the candidate’s election outside of direct contributions to the campaign, they also operate wholly independent of the RNC, which probably isn’t a bad thing considering that they’re still trying to figure out how to pay off the debt that Michael Steele left them with. In any even the ability of insiders from either political party to influence party politics seems to be deteriorating at a faster rate. In a prior era, you never would have seen nominees like Christine O’Donnell, or party frontrunners like Herman Cain. Both cases, Mead argues are a result of the decline of party structure and the rise of populism:
The appearance of unconventional figures in politics is one reflection of this trend. Strong party machines tend to produce dull and forgettable candidates. A candidate selected by a party machine might have to tell voters that “I am not a crook;” such a candidate would probably not need to make a television commercial to explain to voters that “I am not a witch.” Populist politicians tend to be more flamboyant; they have to be able to mobilize their followers. From Jesse Ventura to Al Franken and Sarah Palin, we are seeing more politicians whose ability to command attention and mobilize the base counts for more than their ability to rise patiently through the ranks of a party machine.
Mead also argues that weak political parties also mean that money becomes more important to political success. Without the support of a strong party structure, candidates must rely more and more 0n donor networks, PACs, and, now, SuperPACs in order to raise the money that they need to win elections. It’s also the kind of system that makes it easy for people to achieve political success based on familial ties or celebrity status (in some sense the pseudo candidacy of Donald Trump was the perfect example of that last fact).
All of this, Mead contends, poses a serious problem:
While I cannot call the age of Boss Tweed a golden age of American political virtue, populism, plutocracy and dynasticism have traditionally been seen as signs that a republic is in trouble. The rise of populism means that a gap has opened up between the leadership elite of a society and ordinary voters. Alienated from a system that is no longer seen to be working, populist voters believe that the system and the establishment are the enemy. Clearly, an establishment which allows such a climate to flourish is an establishment without the skills or the character to lead.
The decline of party structures leaves our politics less coherent and more subject to rapid mood swings. There is not much to be done about the underlying trends driving the process; Americans are becoming more individualistic and more enamored of direct democracy all the time. But our political institutions have a lot that they need to accomplish in the next few years; as the old forms of political organization wither away our society needs to find new ways to make the political process more coherent.
Otherwise we risk something like a national version of California’s political death spiral: dissatisfaction with the status quo leading to populist interventions that make the political system more dysfunctional, increasing voter dissatisfaction, and so on down the chute.
Frankly, I’m not sure what we can do to reverse that course. As Mead notes, American voters are becoming more independent and individualistic than ever before, the idea that we’d be able to return to the generally unified party discipline of 40 or 50 years ago seems unlikely. Additionally, public dissatisfaction with government in general suggests that it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before either political party commands the kind of credibility it used to. A recent New York Times poll found, for example, deep economic pessimism and distrust in government institutions. Three quarters of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, a number nearly as high as it was at the height of the 2008 economic crisis. Recent polls indicate that the public has the same generally negative opinion about President Obama and the Republicans in Congress. Taking all of that into consideration, it’s hard to see the pubic regain it’s faith in the major parties any time soon.
Mead doesn’t seem to know what the solution is here and, honestly, neither do I. Our problems run deeper than the fact that the major political parties have been weakened. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that this is a symptom of wider problems for which there may be no cure. The ironic thing about it, though, is that our political culture seems to have become more partisan and poisonous. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the populism and the influence of independent entities that don’t give a whiff for the good of the party. Whatever the cause, though, it’s the primary thing that seems to be destroying us right now.