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”.
The weakness of political parties is one thing that foreigners often don’t grasp about the United States. Elected officials are usually much more worried about their popularity among voters than about their popularity with party officials. Party organizations are only one among many sources of funding; most US politicians raise pots of money on their own, rather than relying solely on subsidies from party HQ.
This makes American politicians much more independent of party control than are politicians in many other democratic countries. Members of parliament and representatives in many countries know that their careers depend on their parties and leadership; they vote against their parties much less often than their American counterparts.
The results can be paradoxical. On the one hand, American politics is more populist than politics in many countries, with politicians scrambling to respond to strong feelings in the public. On the other, money plays a greater role as individual politicians are more easily influenced by the prospect of campaign contributions than large party organizations would be.
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.
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.
At the same time, the absence of strong party structures (and the large war chests the parties used to command) means that candidates must seek out more donors on their own. This obviously provides many opportunities for alert lobbies, individual donors and others to impress their views on candidates.
Money and populism don’t always work at cross purposes. GOP money people boosted some Tea Party candidates and themes; big liberal anti-war and anti-Bush donors supported the center-left populist surge that delivered Congress to the Democrats in 2006 and put President Obama in the White House a year later. Nevertheless, a political system that is increasingly driven by both populist mobilizations and big money donations is not going to be particularly stable.
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.
Our weak party structures also contribute to one of the worst features of contemporary American politics: the rise of political dynasties. While these were not unknown in the country’s past, ever since the Kennedy clan made its bid for permanent political power, we have seen more sons and daughters of politicians try to carry on the family trade. In general, organized political parties try to fight that trend; advancement in politics is given to the loyal as a reward for long service, not to glamorous upstarts as a reward for their genes.
Family candidates flourish in an era of weak parties; the high name recognition and celebrity status of political heirs combines with a ready made fundraising network. Daddy can make the introductions and the calls.
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.
Plutocracy is traditionally seen as the result of a loss of restraint by society’s elite. Not content with mere wealth, plutocrats seek immense fortunes and then want to buy power and influence. Whether they enter political life themselves or stand contentedly off to one side, paying proxies to fight their battles, they corrupt and degrade the political process. The combination of the power of private wealth with the power of the state — something that Silvio Berlusconi has done so effectively in Italy — undermines the health of a republic.
Add dynasticism to that mix, and you have the potential for a serious erosion of republican values and institutions.
For these and other reasons, the Founding Fathers believed that populism and plutocracy were the enemies of republican government. In this, they were in the mainstream of world political thought; back to the ancient Greeks populists and plutocrats have been considered dangerous to the health of democratic societies — with plutocrats generally seen as the more insidious danger.
Historically, the common sense of the American people and the public spirit of American wealth have helped keep our politics on a relatively even keel. We still have plenty of patriotic and generous, spirited rich people, and the American people continue to have a healthy respect for laws and the limits of democracy.
Also, the diversity of the country means that no single “brand” of populism is likely to sweep the whole country at the same time. The anti-Iraq war movement, the Tea Party, and the OWS movement are all examples of popular mobilizations that the Founders would have considered populist, but none of them was or is likely to be strong enough to sweep the whole country. A populist demagogue in America would face soon learn that the stirring words that bring crowds to their feet in Alabama don’t have much impact in Vermont. The populism of the Bay Area is not the populism of Cedar Rapids.
Even so, 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.
Bringing coherence to the politics of a diverse country of 300 million is a difficult task. The answers to our problems are seldom obvious, and even when they are, the path to achieving them is not. And because the United States is on the cutting edge of world history, and our effort to build mass prosperity in a post-industrial era is something that has never really been tried before, we need political movements and leaders with the ability to imagine new ways forward and to inspire faith.
Business as usual isn’t good enough; our next cohort of political leaders need to think harder and engage more deeply than the current crop. When that happens, and our parties start to stand for something less superficial and knee-jerk, party structures may regain some importance — not as channels for patronage and influence-peddling, but as living movements seeking to bring vital changes into the world.