The American Political Parties Are Breaking Down
Published on: October 31, 2011
show comments
  • John Burke

    Mead is very late in noticing the decline in the importance of party structures to elections and candidates which began to take speed in the sixties and had pretty much sidelined party organizations by 1980. At the same time though, the power of party identification became stronger, perhaps due to increasingly ideological separation of the parties.

    I submit that Mead is too heavily influenced by the deluge of Kennedys we have seen these past 50 years in suggesting we have more nepotism these days. Truth is we always had a lot of that as these, among many other family names suggest: Adams, Seymour, Lee, Bird, Clinton (as in DeWitt), Schuyler, Lodge, Saltonstall, Taft, Roosevelt, Rockefeller and scores more from the cradle years of the republic through the 20th century.

  • “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.”

    I think that may just about say it all. Plutocrats – why, perhaps even the “wealth-creating” kind! – seem to be no less tempted by power than the degenerate, unproductive remaining 99% of us. (And here I was thinking it was only the UNambitious who lusted for power over other people.) I doubt, too, that most entrepreneurs are wholly immune to the temptation to become plutocrats – at least so far as their PRACTICAL religion consists of nothing but entrepreneurship. “Not content with mere wealth . . .” But why should they be? “I feed, clothe and shelter these cretins – why shouldn’t I otherwise govern their lives? Haven’t I EARNED the right?” There really is, it seems to me, a certain inescapable character to this kind of logic. That is, unless we introduce a certain other Factor, which at once changes the whole nature of the equation.

    I suspect that not only was Chesterton right in his main outline of the problem, but that he might not resent even the following paraphrase: When intelligent, productive people cease to WORSHIP God – as opposed to thinking of Him as their main sponsor and financial backer – they don’t worship NOTHING. They worship Darwin (so-called), and Nietzsche.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The parties are not so much breaking down as the blue model consensus they rested upon is breaking up. The party memberships are casting about for a new model around which to build a new consensus. When consensus on a new model emerges, one of the parties, probably the Republicans because they are least invested in the old blue model, will have adopted it and will be the dominant party for the next 40 years. The other party, probably the Democrats, will be the minority and will cling to the old blue model until they finally find a critique of the new model that draws sufficient support to challenge it.

    In the meantime, it will be chaotic, if not chaos.

    And so it goes.

  • Oscar

    “Bringing coherence to the politics of a diverse country of 300 million is a difficult task.”

    False. It’s impossible. That’s the “problem”.

    “The populism of the Bay Area is not the populism of Cedar Rapids.”

    And there is the solution; Federalism. If Angelinos want to be taxed and regulated to death, so be it. If residents of Dallas want to limit taxes and regulations to attract businesses, let them.

    The Federal government should be strong enough to defend the country, make treaties with foreign countries and regulate trade between the States, but not so powerful that it even dreams of homogenizing the country.

    “Progressives” claim to prize diversity. Let them prove it by embracing Federalism.

  • Is Mead comparing the OWS and the Tea Party as different reflections of the same thing, citizen grassroots movements? If so, that is a most inept comparison.

    The Tea Party is made up mostly of citizens that are not typical protesters. Most have never done attended a political rally or public protest before coming out to a Tea Party event. They are motivated to protest against government growth and drunken-sailor spending because they see their children and grandchildren’s chance for a prosperous future being taken away from them. The Tea Party movement consists of citizens concerned over the runaway growth of government but probably don’t share the same positions on other issues. Social issues are not even mentioned at Tea Party rallies.

    Those who attend Tea Party rallies have shown themselves to be neat, orderly and law abiding. They clean up after themselves and leave the public spaces of their gatherings tidier than they found them. They honor and revere the Constitution of the United States and want their elected leaders to do the same. Ask why they came out to a rally and what they want, all can give a clear answer. They want what the Constitution guarantees, a Federal government of enumerated and limited powers. A republican with a small “r” form of government.

    OWS protesters cannot even articulate what they want but whatever it is they want it to be free. The make a filthy mess wherever they go. OWS is not a citizen grassroots movement; it’s a crime wave.

    If Mead thinks the two are similar enough to call them both citizen grassroots movements he doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

  • When party elites offend the rank and file activists and voters by insulting their ideas and priorities, with the result that those grass roots start focusing their support and money on individual campaigns instead of the parties’ funding clearinghouses, of course the parties themselves will lose importance.

    It’s possible the insulting elitists will be ousted in favor of people who share the rank and file’s priorities, but it’s also possible retail politics in the 21st century just doesn’t need a party system. Guess we’ll find out.

  • Steve C.

    American political parties have survived because they are extremely flexible. Principles? Yes, we have some. What are yours?

    Movements need a structure. Political parties are ready made to fill the role. It may take years, but the tea party ethos is going to come to dominate the Republican Party.

    The acute question is: Will the Democrats adapt?

  • Richard

    This is an old story going back 100 years ago to the Progressive Republican movement. Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin and Hiram Johnson in California got the direct primary, initiative, referendum, recall, and local nonpartisan office enacted specifically to destroy the party organizations. The Progressive movement failed nationally because it became divided over WWI, but it succeeded locally on the West Coast in the upper Midwest and their ideas spread across the country from there.

    It is true, because old Joe Kennedy was deeply distrusted (for very good reasons) by the Roosevelt liberals and the Truman moderates, that the Kennedys had to fight the party organization to get the nomination by setting up a rival organization. The difference between the Kennedys and their rivals is one of relentlessness. If they had to use the old politics, they paid off who they needed to. If they had to use television, they treated it as if they were making a movie. Long afterward, JFK’s rivals spoke about TV with dread and fear. He must have laughed at them because he had nearly died numerous times in his life, how did going on television compare with that? The Kennedys thought, if you need to be good on TV, you learn how to be good on TV. After 1960, others in both parties took note of how you could bypass the party organization. Of course, the Kennedys faded as all family based organizations do when the less capable junior members (Teddy) take over.

    The media has tried to fill the old machine politics king maker role left empty in the wake of the collapse of the parties, but in doing so, they have squandered their credibility as a news source. Their tacit endorsement of John McCain for the Republican nomination and their subsequent abandonment of him once he was nominated made their news reporting nearly laughable.

    Both political parties are a shambles right now, but in winning the 2010 election and gaining an edge in the reapportionment of legislative seats, I think the edge belongs to the Republicans. Those who have control of the the House Ways and Means and the Appropriations Committees will have the upper hand in the next ten years. Unless they squander their opportunity.

  • Walter Sobchak

    It is a choice that politicians themselves have made, through the structure of the laws they have enacted.

    If they wanted stronger party machinery, they would allow the parties to solicit and receive larger contributions.

  • Yahzooman

    However, political parties may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

    GEORGE WASHINGTON, Farewell Address, Sep. 17, 1796

  • tom beebe st louis

    I would hope to accelerate the irrelevance of the parties and, for that matter, all groups representing special interests. Let’s put the power with individuals.

    (Commentary in {..}, not part of proposed Amendment}

    No candidate for the Presidency or either house of Congress shall accept contributions in cash or in kind from any organization or group of persons for expenses incurred in a campaign for that office. All such contributions shall be made only by individual citizens who shall attest that the funds or other items of value are from their own resources and that they have not received, nor have they been promised, offsetting items of value from any other party in exchange for their contribution. The identity and extent of contributors to such campaigns shall be made public for a period of thirty days from receipt before being employed or used as collateral for a loan by such campaigns. Organizations of any type, {i.e. corporations, unions, gun rights advocates, environmental protection groups, even “Susie’s Flower Shop”, a theoretical small business cited in the Citizen’s United Case,} may, without restriction, expend money to advocate a position on any issue before or likely to come before the electorate insofar as no candidate’s name or description is included in their expressions of advocacy.

    {The intent of the above is to bring “transparency” to campaign financing by removing any group from the process whereby that group may conceal the identity of an individual contributor as well as limiting the influence of such groups or “special interests”. It further prevents an organization from making such contributions when an individual within that organization, such as a union member or corporation stockholder, may oppose the candidate. Considering the large equity position in certain corporations that the federal government has recently taken in response to the economic crises, this is particularly important in excluding such influence. The money from “special interest” groups will then go to promote that for which they exist, their “special interest”. The media and the political parties will be directed to expositions on the issues facing the electorate, thus enhancing discussion and hopefully understanding of issues, bereft of personalities.}

  • Kris

    From reading Mead, I learn that: The decay of American political parties results in populism and plutocracy. The Founding Fathers believed that populism and plutocracy were the enemies of republican government. Yet the Founding Fathers also all hated the idea of political parties.

    Political philosophy sure is tough.

    Besides that, according to many “true conservatives,” the past several GOP candidates (and possibly Romney, this time) were selected by the “party establishment” and imposed against the wishes of the “base,” which disproves the premise of this post. [/sarc]

  • Eric F

    I am a big fan of Mead’s, as he is generally insightful and original.

    However, he seems to be late to this idea – that both parties are intellectually and morally bankrupt.

    His writing seemed to be infused with the assumption that the Republicans were less evil or more smart, and that that was all we could or should want.

    It is great to see someone as influential and impressive as he is coming to this view.

    Republicans are beginning to wonder whether all these wars actually make us less safe, just as Democrats are beginning to wonder whether all this welfare actually make us poorer.

    Good progress!

    Next thing you know, he might be respectful towards the only conservative around – Ron Paul…who actually called it all right…

  • batman

    There is no solution without problems. The only choice is between which set of problems you think is better and which worse.

    Ironically nearly every “reform” (eg. California) has made things worse because the environmental impact reports progressives demand for cutting down a tree or building an addition to your house are never done with regard to sweeping social experiments.

    The mushiness of American political parties has saved us from the wild swings that European more ideological parties inflict when they come to power. In fact, the discipline and cohesiveness of the Democrats between 2008 and 2010 was very European. Party discipline surpassed anything I can remember despite the lack of a landslide for the President, whose victory was decisive but hardly enormous. (Compare Reagan in 1980 for example.)

    In the past American political parties have been structured so as to pull toward the middle. Individual candidates may be loose cannons these days, as the article suggests. But now the two parties are increasingly pulling away from the middle with impressive (if you like it) and troublesome (if you don’t) zeal.

    Is this better? Once Eugene McCarthy could start his campaign based on the generous support of a single donor. Now candidates, in the name of reform, have to spend a considerable amount of time soliciting contributions.

    Once campaigns were by platforms and speeches heard or read, then by radio, then television, then internet. They used to be less expensive when there were no contribution limits. Paradoxically they are more expensive now that we do have contribution dollar limits. If we have public funding, lesser known candidates will not be able to become known as easily as they are today. And is it a good thing that the budget for Coca-Cola ads would be greater than a government mandated limit on political advertising?

    There are no problem-free solutions. Which set of problems do you think offers the better choice?

  • Might this phenomena bear some relation to a shift of mission within the parties from incubators, supporters and defenders of ideas/philosophies into a labor union type mission?
    Maybe the public rejects the mission. the fracturing of the two party system into myriad special interest groups and even the larger umbrella groups like the Tea Party and OWS are idea based.

  • Mark Michael

    Oscar with Comment 4 has an excellent point: our Founders set up a federalist system. Many of our states are large enough to be countries on their own. They should be able to handle most of the domestic functions done today at the federal level. Why not move in that direction? Let states decide education policy, welfare support, housing policy rather than the U.S. Dept. of Ed, HHS, and HUD, respectively, for example?

    Further, most of these functions were not done in government before the 1930s FDR New Deal. I suspect many of the poor and downtrodden were better off before then on a relative basis. (We are much richer, today, materially, than back then. So take that into account when you think about this!)

    In fact, voluntary, private organizations were the dominant organization up until the New Deal. They were much more efficient at providing goods and services than any government agency ever will be. Government agencies tend to strive mightily to gain monopoly status, if they don’t already have it. They tend to focus on driving out any private-sector competition. Witness our education system: public universities today educate 80% of students. They only educated half in 1950. They relentlessly have driven out private schools via growing subsidies from government.

    Coercive monopolist organizations are never as efficient as voluntary competitive organizations over any sustained period.

    We need to get back to government doing the unique things it is proper for it to do: defend the country, protect the borders, police the day-to-day behaviors of the citizenry and its organizations. The court systems. etc.

  • Richard Treitel

    Being a Brit may give me an unfair advantage here, but I noticed decades ago that the US barely even has political parties. It has political brands, whose meaning varies depending on where you live and who your parents were. Knowing that a politician chooses to belong to party X or party Y telss you little in itself about their stand on any one issue. The groupings that other countries call multi-party coalitions inspire allegiances which are, in practice, stronger than those of American so-called parties.

    I conjecture that this can be traced to separation of powers. In Britain, or even in federal countries like Germany or India, when the voters give party X a majority, party X can implement its policies and usually does so. This gives voters a clear reason to vote for a party if, but only if, they like its policies, and parties a clear reason to develop policies that most voters will like. In the USA, there is no guarantee that the policies (if it has any) of the winning party (if there is one) will have any consequences at all, so voters can just vote for the candidate who sounds, or looks, most like them, without worrying about the consequences of their votes, because there probably won’t be any.

    I cheerfully grant that separation of powers has prevented some (but not all) ghastly mistakes. However, it does seem to have emasculated the process of representative politics.

  • Thucydides

    The TEA Party movement is probably the most visible manifestation of this trend, I believe there are some rumblings here in Canada as well, but not anywhere near the critical mass the TEA Party movement has achieved in its short existence. The idea of political parties as “flags of convienience” is important; the Ontario election was essentially a contest between OPSEU (the Ontario Public Service Employees Union) and the taxpayers, where the taxpayers, being less organized, lost. The other end of the spectrum is the Libertarianism as a social movement meme; politics is about allocating scarce resources but people are finding new ways to access resources without the traditional gatekeepers, hence the decreasing need to be involved with the politcal process at all.

    The frightening thought is the situation as described has some resemblance to the late Res Publica Roma before the civil wars and the establisment of the Imperium. We will live in interesting times.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The Blue Beast must DIE! You know this, and the Blue Beast is made up of Big Labor, Big Business, and Big GOVERNMENT. The Establishment, which is a part of the Blue Beast, must be replaced with a new Establishment willing to KILL the Blue Beast. So, it seems to me that what is happening is healthy, and is just the normal things that occur when a people seek a new road into the future.

  • jono39

    Welcome to the 1850s.

  • teapartydoc

    Both parties are shells of their former selves. They have become less relevant in concert with the widening realization that they are both cut from the same cloth (they are both progressive era relics). It does not appear that one or the other will emerge as the instrument of change that will produce the necessary antidote for the ills that the progressive era has wrought, although it may be possible, if a coalition of Tea Partiers and libertarians and conservatives are able to co-opt the Republican branch of the progressive party that is both Democratic and Republican. The changes that are needed amount to a revolution. Whether this is possible without a major disruption is yet to be seen.

  • JMH

    Like many other areas of our society, it’s a conundrum. On the one hand, political parties serve a valuable, perhaps essential, role and we should be concerned about their weakness. On the other hand, the actual parties we have today are so corrupt and incompetent it’s hard to imagine them ever being much good at all.

    But one great advantange of a political party is the need to forge a coherent message before the election. In Europe, with many parties to choose from, a coalition government is common, but the exact form of the coalition is something party bosses negotiate behind closed doors after the election. In the traditional US two-party system, that negotiation happens within the party itself before the election, so the voters get to choose which combination of compromises they prefer. In Europe, the party big-wigs present a fait acompli afterwards.

    But today in the US, the parties have been captured by flacks who, like Mrs Davis mentioned, relied upon a status quo that could afford huge inefficiencies, which the flacks used to skim profits off of. They’ve run their parties into the ground, and the current weakness of the two parties is mostly the result of those parties failing to provide any value. They’ve just become yet another middle-man sucking a percentage out of society without contributing.

  • Toni

    This essay doesn’t credit the role of telecommunications. New ways to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are handing more power to average citizens than they’ve had in decades. If this is populism, hurrah to populism.

    And it’s weakening the parties by giving citizens more power over the parties. That includes rich citizens, whether George Soros or the Kochs. So much money is awash in the American political system, for both sides, that I can’t get exercised over plutocrats. It was ever thus. George Washington used his wealth to fuel his rallies with alcoholic drinks.

    The new populism is returning the parties to their roots. MoveOn and its ilk pulled Democrats to the left in 2006 and 2008. The populist right arose in response, through the Tea Party, which advocates a return to limited government and fiscal rectitude. In 2010 it helped elect new conservatives to Congress.

    (When even Barack Obama has to mouth concern about federal debt and deficits, one has to conclude that the populist right is winning the argument. Only 2012 will tell.)

    The upshot is that average voters are taking their parties back from the old encrusted establishment(s). This is closer to the world of the Founders than to the recent era of plutocrat-establishment control. The America electorate will be offered a clearer choice between the two parties in 2012 than they’ve had since 1980–and back then, Reagan’s ability to connect to average voters overrode plutocrat-establishment control. Today voters themselves are overriding–and overriding the similarly weakened MSM.

    This is a bad thing? “Populists and plutocrats” are abstractions. The new freedoms of speech and assembly have concrete effects that we’re watching in real time. I haven’t been this excited since Berliners created their own concrete effects by taking down the Wall in 1989.

    Power to the People!

  • Wrecktafire

    WRM certainly nailed the disease afflicting California, which we disgusted Californios refer to as “ballot box budgeting”.

    We have met the enemy, and he is us.

  • Pete Dellas

    The surreptitious rise of a Tea Party favorite like Herman Cain and the ominous failure of the Republican elite “home boy” Mitt Romney to easily accede to Republican primary prominence, staying at virtually the same poll numbers through this campaign, certainly lends credence to your assertion that the power and influence of the political parties are faltering.

    As always, very insightful!

  • richard

    Im conservative, albeit a curmudgeonly ancient type. Conservative as Adam Smith was conservative. A little research shows that the Tea Party was not grassroots, if by that term one means starting from the ground up. The Koch Brothers , in 2004, created Americans for Prosperity. many TP activists were members, the Kochs have funded the TP and affiliated groups. So, in reality the TP is not grassroots—it is faux. The populism of its members consists of a one note song and dance:deficit reduction. Where did they hear this? Talk radio. Let us be honest, there are two conservatives, there is the intellectual conservative movement and the doltish group, the underlings. The intellectuals are Bob Conquest, Buckleys ghost, Fukuyama and very few others. The left intellectual movement is larger, but larger doesn’t nec. mean smarter or more cogent. Usually, the left act and think like cattle, exactly like the plebes of the conservative movement. Talk radio sets the agenda, they react. Chomsky and Moore blather on and the left is agitated.We can do better. A rightist movement shorn of its monied locks will still be strong, I foresee a crisis on the horizon: the corporitization of politics has reached a breaking point, the right must denounce their funders, the money or they will perish in the next elections.Only Roemer discusses this.Why?

  • hondr

    Good discussion here.

    Federalism holds the key. Let the states decide most things, and we’ll be fine.

    The federal government can focus on war and peace, national defense, foreign policy, balancing the budget, effectively and efficiently raising revenue… and should look to shed many other duties back to the states.

    Let the political parties argue over the best way to do that.

  • Smaller government.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.