Party Decline

lthough the Republic's Founders dreaded the divisiveness of
"faction," political parties have proved essential to the promise of American
democracy. Parties bridge the structural bias against government activism in the
constitutional separation of powers and allow ordinary citizens who lack
economic influence to aggregate political power. Hence, a strong party system is
more crucial to liberals than conservatives.

Yet parties have long been in decline, supplanted by media, money, interest
groups, and candidate-centered politics. The party platform, once the fulcrum of
great national debates, scarcely matters today. And, paradoxically, some of the
very reforms that progressives designed—to clean up politics, empower ordinary
people, and buffer the excesses of a market economy—have weakened parties, thus
making it harder to elect durable progressive governing coalitions. It remains
to be seen whether parties can recover, or whether liberals can thrive without

A century ago, procedural reformers attacked the crude, often corrupt
populism of nineteenth-century parties. Civil service reforms, such as the shift
from party caucuses to direct primaries and the direct election of senators,
weakened the role of party bosses and party discipline. Beyond ridding politics
and government of graft and corruption, progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt
and Herbert Croly sought to use the power of the national government to improve
the lot of ordinary people. To progressives, strong, professionalized government
and cleaner politics went logically together.

ith the New Deal, federal income support programs such as Social
Security, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage replaced the bucket of
coal and Christmas turkey with which the ward boss rewarded the party faithful.
By vastly expanding the scope of the executive branch, FDR further eroded
parties. "In Roosevelt's view," according to Brandeis University political
scientist Sidney Milkis, the party system was built on state and local
organizations and interests. It "was thus suited to congressional primacy," and
"would have to be transformed into a national, executive-oriented system
organized on the basis of public issues."

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Roosevelt faced not only a recalcitrant Supreme Court but the reactionary
wing of his own party in Congress. In 1936 FDR succeeded in killing a Democratic
National Convention rule requiring presidential nominees to get two-thirds of
delegate votes, which had given southern Democrats a near veto. By the middle of
his second term, Roosevelt sought to nationalize party politics, hoping to make
Democrats the nation's explicitly liberal party and the Republicans the
conservative one. FDR's failed purge campaign of 1938 sought to rid Congress of
conservative Democrats unwilling to support his reforms. It took half a century,
punctuated by a civil rights revolution led by Democrats, Nixon's Southern
Strategy, and the dying off of incumbent Dixiecrats, before Republicans became
the natural conservative party in the South. By then, Democrats had been
weakened as the national liberal party.

Truman and Kennedy were government activists but party regulars. In contrast,
Lyndon Johnson, like Roosevelt, strengthened the executive branch, expanded the
welfare state—and weakened the party. Though Johnson took full advantage of a
large partisan majority in Congress, he nonetheless viewed the institutional
Democratic Party as a rival power base, curtailing the budget and activities of
the Democratic National Committee. His antipoverty program funded grassroots
political activism in inner cities, which deepened the rift between insurgents
and Democratic elected officials. The two most recent Democratic presidents,
Carter and Clinton, were outsider candidates and often explicitly anti-party
presidents. Carter disdained the Democratic party machinery in favor of personal
campaign strategists. Clinton, both via "triangulation" and in his campaign
fundraising, has often been a rival of the party-as-institution.

Ironically, too, even reforms explicitly intended to strengthen parties often
backfired. The shift toward primaries, begun by Progressive Era reforms,
decreased the sway of party regulars but without increasing mass participation.
Two generations later, in the wake of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 campaign for the
presidency and Mayor Richard Daley's heavy-handed response to protests at the
Chicago Democratic National Convention, reformers sought to take the nominating
process out of the hands of party bosses. Before the 1972 election, state
parties and state laws had determined the process. Delegates were selected
through a combination of primaries and conventions; the latter were often
controlled by regulars in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. With the new system
devised by the party's McGovern-Fraser Commission, almost four-fifths of
delegates to the Democratic National Convention were selected through direct
primaries, and even the remaining slots were opened to mass
participation. As a result, more women, minorities, and young people could
participate in the process. Such reforms were necessary and admirable, but they
gutted the institutional party and unwittingly contributed to the rise of
candidate-centered campaigns.

n the past two decades, politics has become increasingly a process of
raising money to pay for polling and TV commercials. The candidate speaks
directly to the public, and the party is scarcely in evidence. To some extent,
the nineteenth-century mass party was doomed by twentieth-century mass media.
But parties might have played a stronger role had presidents and procedural
reformers chosen a different course.

For example, the creation of super-delegates and multistate primary days like
Super Tuesday were intended to strengthen party unity by restoring a role for
regulars and allowing a nominee to lock up delegates early. But this reform also
misfired, by signaling candidates to redouble efforts to raise early money for
media buys in key states—further empowering media over party. Perhaps the
ultimate case of a reform backfiring was the "party building" loophole in the
1974 Federal Election Campaign Act amendments. In practice, the unlimited
exemption for funds raised by parties enabled presidential candidates to use
parties as fronts to raise "soft" money for their own campaigns rather than to
build genuinely stronger parties.


A related source of party weakness that afflicts Democrats more seriously
than Republicans is the interplay between party and interest group. The labor
movement's phone banks and canvassing operations help Democratic candidates but
at the expense of the institutional party. Other liberal single-issue groups
typically expect the Democratic candidate to support their agenda, but do little
in return for the party. Moreover, as organized labor has gone into relative
decline, so has its value as a surrogate Democratic Party.

A final influence on the erosion of partisanship is the recent era of
cohabitation, in which one party occupies the presidency and the other controls
Congress. Under Reagan this division was more polarized. But under Bush and
Clinton there has been more convergence, collaboration, and a blurring of party
differences. Clinton's embrace of some Republican themes may have been brilliant
defensive tactics but came at the expense of weaker Democratic Party identity.

Because our system of government is not parliamentary, America begins with a
relatively weak party system. Yet throughout the nineteenth century [see Bruce
Ackerman, "The Broken Engine of Progressive Politics"], stronger
parties and social movements enabled presidents to achieve large-scale change.
That brand of party activism may be doomed in part by a media age, yet parties
today still could play a significant role. To become important political
players, parties will have to make themselves useful to the political process.
Candidates and officeholders could help by acknowledging the value of parties
and working to strengthen them.

A system in which parties clearly stood for divergent worldviews and policy
alternatives would not only make parties relevant to governance; it would hold
parties, rather than individual candidates, responsible for policy outcomes.
While many politicians seem loath to work for such a system, they might
reconsider if they understood that strong parties work in their favor. As Martin
Wattenberg notes in
The Rise of Candidate-Centered Politics, "the
candidate with the most unified party has won every presidential election from
1964 to 1988."

As often seems the case today, Republicans have adapted to the new political
landscape better than Democrats. In the 1980s, Main Street and Wall Street
Republicans coalesced behind unified themes, and Reagan blended a strong and
personality-centered presidency with a commitment to party building. Despite
tensions between its socially conservative and libertarian factions, the
institutional Republican Party is managing the strains. On the other hand, while
Democratic factionalism today appears quiescent, the existence of a nominal
Democratic Party serves only to mask the dangerous weakness of the Democratic
political organization. If Democrats are to rebuild as a party, it will take a
combination of grassroots issue activists who recognize the value of the party
[see Jason Zengerle, "Old Party, New Energy"] and Democratic
officeholders from the president on down who link their own political fortunes
to a stronger party.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)