It seems banal to observe that Republicans and Democrats agree on very little these days. The responses of elected officials to recent political events, such as Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, predictably echo partisan talking points. Partisanship has risen to levels unseen in recent political memory, both among politicians and among citizens. This has implications for governance, of course; Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat, recently lamented that the job of legislating “sucks.” Partisanship influences the way citizens interpret information and consume the news, making facts subject to debate; there is increasing hostility in the way people of opposing parties talk to one another. There is even evidence that partisanship affects personal decisions about hiring, marriage, and friendship.
Partisan rancor has fueled distrust of government and disgust with our partisan system. During two bitterly fought presidential primaries in 2016, a plurality of voters—upwards of 40 percent—described themselves as independents. Most voters say that the two parties serve the interests of donors and lobbyists, rather than citizens. In surveys of voter confidence, parties rank lower than almost all other political and economic institutions, including the police, the bureaucracy, and big business. Nor is this problem unique to the United States. In 2016, the traditional parties in Europe faced a series of electoral challenges. Party membership has been declining in many countries, and new parties, particularly on the far-Right, mobilized large bases of support.
How can partisanship be at record highs while distrust in parties is also at historic levels? Commentators are flippant in their description of parties as strong or weak. When the Republican Congress blocked President Obama’s policies, parties seemed “strong”; when the 2016 primaries included 17 Republican challengers to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, they seemed “weak.” When parties can’t reach compromise on policy, we can’t seem to decide if this is because they’re too strong (and therefore too committed to their respective positions) or too weak (and therefore unable to put governance before mere partisanship or special interests). We live in a paradoxical time of party strength alongside party weakness. On the one hand, parties are stronger than ever before. They are well-financed, professional organizations that bring a mass of resources to bear on campaigns and candidates. On the other, there are also many indications of party weakness, with serious implications for the strength of our representative institutions.
First, what are some elements of party strength? For one, the parties are more ideologically cohesive than they have been in the past. Since the 1980s, Southern Democrats have slowly migrated to the Republican Party. When Republicans won a majority of seats to the House of Representatives in 1994 (after four decades of serving in the minority), Newt Gingrich and party leaders famously distributed lists to members recommending conservative texts to read, and appropriate words to use in policy debates and speeches. Party-line voting has become increasingly common in Congress, with polarization rising steadily over the past half-century. Contrast this with parties in the postwar period, when the Republican and Democrat Parties were composed of ideologically diverse factions. Bipartisan negotiation and compromise were more common when the parties were less divided, but at the time, scholars worried that there was too little, rather than too much, ideological differentiation between the parties.
Another element of party strength could be the hyper-partisanship of the electorate. Voters who identify as Republicans and Democrats are now more conservative and more liberal, respectively, than in previous decades. They also identify more strongly with party labels, and are more likely to say that members of the other party can’t be trusted or don’t have the country’s best interest in mind. But this sort of party loyalty seems more tribal than substantive. Partisan ties are beneficial when they motivate citizens to care about politics, to learn about policy, and to become politically active. But when partisanship sows discord or breeds hostility between voters—and when high levels of polarization also alienate many voters who once identified with a party—it can become counterproductive, or even toxic. Hyper-partisanship creates symbolic disagreement over marginal differences in policy and amplifies the stakes of political debate. It can exacerbate a coarsening of political discourse, and a reliance on ad hominem attacks or lies about the opposing party.
Finally, parties are strong organizationally. The Republican and Democratic National Committees manage millions of dollars for use in campaigns. An expansive network of consulting and public relations firms help both parties strategize and advertise. Donors, PACs, and super PACs raise vast sums for candidates and party activities.
Upon closer examination, however, trends in campaign finance reveal some of the ways that parties are organizationally weak. Parties once raised sums through party members and affiliated associations, such as labor unions or business and trade associations. While those groups still contribute to campaigns, the field of campaign finance has become much more decentralized. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2000 targeted “soft money,” which describes funds that the national party organizations used for electioneering activities. Parties lost a great deal of control in centralizing and administering finances; as a result, there has been a rise in extra-partisan organization. Wealthy individual donors can support whichever candidates they please and have played a large role in ousting incumbents in primary elections. Super PACs, which are technically unaffiliated with candidates and campaigns, can raise unlimited (and anonymous) funds and spend them on electioneering activities. While parties used to make many decisions about candidates and campaigns, outside groups now wield disproportionate influence over both.
Parties have also reduced their traditional ties to voters through intermediary associations such as local parties and community associations. National and state parties used to work together to mobilize voters and channel party resources; state parties helped to aggregate interests and inform policy. As the parties built up their national organizations, however, state parties languished. Again, extra-partisan organizations have stepped in to fill the void: The Koch brothers’ political organization has local offices, and ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, advances a conservative policy agenda in state legislatures. Neither is officially affiliated with the Republican Party. On the Left, there is greater fragmentation, but there is a similar effort on the part of liberal and activist groups to organize in the states or lobby on behalf of narrow, specific policies. Indeed, Barack Obama’s “grassroots” presidential campaign (a tech-savvy operation to solicit online donations from small donors) grew into Organizing for Action, which was not affiliated with the Democratic Party.
When political parties emerged in the mid-19th century in the United States and Britain, they evolved to take on many crucial roles as intermediaries between citizens and government. In postwar Europe, democracies developed “mass membership” parties, which aimed to socialize citizens into politics and to make the party central to their everyday lives. Political parties mediated among competing interests in order to develop policy programs tailored to the needs of their base. They were responsible for listening to voters, for crafting solutions to local and national problems. Parties then needed to do the difficult work of legislating and leading, and of selling policies—and indeed, selling the business of governing itself—to citizens. They frame how voters think about different types of policies; they set policy priorities and agendas; they educate and persuade voters. Historically, they also mobilized voters “on the ground,” through campaign activities such as rallies and speeches, through local chapters that distributed various forms of patronage, and through ties to local religious groups, civic associations, and community leaders.
While parties today are well-financed and electorally successful, their linkages with voters have grown weaker. This may be the inevitable result of the national parties’ focus on raising campaign funds and serving candidates (rather than serving voters). Parties are also quick to adopt new technologies; it is much more efficient to send emails to lists of citizens than it is to send party members door-to-door. Perhaps what we now observe is that while parties seem to embody many voter interests, they do not necessarily serve them. Political scientists now worry that the parties are “hollow,” “baseless,” “networks of policy-demanders.” This is difficult to square with the hyper-partisanship on display in Washington, since parties seem so ideological and so committed to their (also hyper-partisan) bases. This is largely because the hyper-partisan bases of parties are composed of donors, small and large, that are more ideological than average voters. Political science used to think of parties as emerging organically from societal divisions, along the lines prescribed by markets and states: labor versus business, agriculture versus industry, rural versus urban, and so forth. In our modern society, however, those divisions are drawn less sharply, with narrow interests determining the policy agenda of parties.
In Europe, we see glimpses of what happens when voters lose faith in traditional parties. A host of new parties have emerged in the past few years, buoyed by ideological extremism, rising populist sentiment, and Euroskepticism, among other factors. Some have narrow, specific goals (the United Kingdom Independence Party) while others have broader, and potentially darker, ambitions (Golden Dawn, Alternative for Germany). Some far-Right parties are longstanding, and have received renewed support (National Front, Lega Nord). Some parties began by winning seats in the European Parliament, where they received financing and training, before winning national elections. Other parties are difficult to classify; Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement lacks organizational coherence and began online. But these new entrants have shaken the party establishment.
France and Italy have responded by “reinvorgating” the political center. Young leaders like Matteo Renzi and Emmanuel Macron bucked the traditional party system by creating new parties (the Democratic Party and En Marche, respectively). These parties are avowedly centrist, embracing elements of neoliberalism, European integration, and social progressivism. These are the successor parties of the “Third Way” politics of the 1990s, when center-Left governments won elections by moving rightward on economic policy. While straddling the political center can help leaders win national elections, they do not necessarily create party loyalty: They lack ideological cohesion, and have largely been elite projects, disconnected from the ground game of party mobilization. Third Way politicians such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair left mixed legacies. At the very least, they revealed the Left’s inability to mitigate the effects of globalization and economic inequality. Today, given the renewed popularity of the far-Right, it seems unlikely that Third Way politicians will be able to enact policies that address the structural and economic roots of popular discontent. In 2016, Matteo Renzi was unable to pass an ambitious set of constitutional reforms; two years later, the League and Five Star Movement trounced his Democratic Party in Italy’s national election.
When voters lose faith in traditional parties, there are spillover effects. They lose faith in governing institutions; they perceive a gap in representation—that their elected officials respond only to the demands of special interests. As parties have become more professional, and more focused on national media-driven campaigns, they have shifted mobilization strategies away from local opportunities to interface with voters electronically. In the United States, the parties are more divided and competitive than ever, but not necessarily over policy. Processes of consultation, interest aggregation, and voter education are no longer the province of parties. Weakened parties produce a decentralized and diffuse policy landscape that leaves many voters and interests feeling marginalized, further worsening problems of voter discontent and cynicism.
A void in the party system provides opportunities for extremist candidates to push the parties toward extremes, and, as Donald Trump shows, to win national elections. When candidates from outside the traditional party system win, they have little interest in building or strengthening representative institutions; indeed, Trump’s candidacy was premised on dismantling them. The political scientist E. E. Schattschneider once claimed that democracy was “unthinkable” save for political parties. Trends in the United States and Europe may provide us with a chance to see if he was right.