Monday, 31. October 2011 10:42
It began a century ago with the onset of the Progressive movement and the reforms that rested control of the electoral process from political parties and reached its nader with the death of the party machines in the 1970’s and 1980’s…but have we entered a new ear of party decline?
Walter Russell Mead argues that the two political parties are breaking down. The story should be a familliar one after our discussion about political parties and interest groups:
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”.
Meade’s argument is well-taken as far as party organizations go, but he misses the increasing discipline of parties in the legisluature…and those “flags of convenience” can become particularly inconvenient election after election…yet party switching is extremely rare. Why is that? Clearly party commitment still matters…if party organization increasingly does not.
Plutocracy and populism are often thought to be polar opposites. In American politics today they are two sides of the same coin. The same forces that allow insurgent candidates and movements to rise up in our politics also create the conditions that allow donors outsized influence. With a few exceptions, voters today are no longer content to think and vote in blocs; they are less likely to belong to one of the two major parties, are more likely to split their ballots, and they are not easily swayed by endorsements from powerful political figures. That works for two kinds of candidates: insurgency candidates with strong and committed grass roots support, and candidates who can buy the advertising time to make an impression on the voters.
Fair enough. But those candidates still, for the most part, operate within the party structure. As we have seen with the Tea Party movement, which made a conscious choice to pursue political change from within the Republican Party rather than from without.
American politics today occupies a space that is institutionally weak. A candidate with a lot of money (his own or raised from donors) can make an instant name and reputation; a movement that energizes the public can push aside established party figures to anoint its own candidates for public office. President Obama’s victory in the 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination was a triumph over the pro-Clinton party establishment as surely as the surprising Tea Party victories in GOP senatorial primaries showed the weakness of the Republican establishment.
But is that a bad thing? Even if money increasingly dominates in political choices (and I’m not convinced that isn’t more about the technological revolution rather than a political one), was it any better when old men in smoke-filled backrooms chose who the people could choose from?
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.
Yes we have seen some unconventional political figures in the past few decades. But there were quite a few prior to that as well. And the above examples don’t provide strong evidence that a weakened party system produces unconventional politicians. Of the above, Ventura won a 3-way race in Minnseota and only served one term. Al Franken, again Minnesota (what’s with Minnesota?), won a 3-way race and is in his first term. Sarah Palin was a one-term governor and was *selected* by McCain to be the VP nominee. She hasn’t run for anything since. The candidate who had to say she isn’t a witch, lost. So it isn’t at all clear from these examples that the system is producing unconventional politicans…it might be more correct to say it has done a good job of punishing them for their unconventiality.
Anyway, it’s an interesting essay. Read the whole thing. H/T Instapundit.