Modern politics: Public partisan, parties more powerless

Bruce J. Schulman

In the latest strange turn in the relentlessly surprising campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, the candidates have threatened to abandon the scheduled series of televised debates organized under the aegis of the Republican National Committee.  That’s right, the contenders vying to win the Republican Party’s endorsement have thumbed their noses at the party organization even as they strive to be its standard bearer in the November 2016 election.

Unhappy about the format and schedule of the official debates, and about the questions and conduct of the moderators, the Republican candidates have declared a willingness to strike out on their own. Campaign representatives met Sunday to strategize about a new format, but their unified front collapsed Monday. Rather than discipline the rebellious campaigns, Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has gone out of his way to mollify them — going so far as tosuspend the party’s debate-production partnership with NBC News and to appoint a new staffer to manage the debates.

The ongoing kerfuffle over debates marks the latest in a series of blows to national party organizations. Donald Trump and Ben Carson have simultaneously become the darlings of the GOP’s most fiercely partisan rank and file even as they speak out against the party establishment and spurn much of its donor base. Trump has attacked Fox News, made life miserable for the Republican elite and seriously undermined the Republican National Committee’s efforts to reach out to Latino voters. Carson’s remarks about gays and Muslims have similarly complicated the party leadership’s strategy to expand the GOP electorate.

The collapsing influence of the party apparatus highlights a curious, historically unexpected development in American politics: the combination of fierce partisanship with weak party organizations. For much of the nation’s history, partisan attachments burned just as hot — if not hotter—than they do today, but strong party organizations disciplined their members and formed effective tools of governance.

As party organizations weakened and partisan ties gradually atrophied after World War Two, space opened up for the influence of a wide variety of interest groups and the emergence of different, but nonetheless workable models of policymaking. Now, fierce partisanship has reemerged — but without effective party organization or authority to police it.

During the Gilded Age, being a Republican or Democrat signaled more than Americans’ voting preferences on the first Tuesday in November. It defined their identity, their circle of friends, their social life. Family, neighborhood, ethnicity and region all shaped and nurtured partisan affiliations. In some parts of the country, a man could not expect service at a store counter unless he registered Democrat. In other areas, a Democrat immediately attracted suspicion.

Politics, one Republican wit suggested in 1888, “depends wholly on the mean annual temperature.” Returning from the overwhelmingly Republican Dakota territory, “where the air is cool and bracing,” he found a handful of Democrats in slightly warmer Iowa and a Democratic majority in hot, humid Missouri. In Texas, “where it’s blasted hot, the people are nine-tenths Democrats. And in hell it’s unanimous!”

Local party organizations orchestrated frequent community barbecues and torchlight parades, rallies and camp meetings. Working men congregated in party headquarters to smoke, drink beer and play cards, just as the wealthy gathered in high-toned gentlemen’s clubs. Local party ward leaders also assisted members and their families in times of illness or economic hardship; they covered funeral expenses after an untimely death and looked out after widows and children.

State party machines controlled huge resources. In New York, Republican Senator Tom Platt’sorganization employed more than 10,000 regulars, each of whom kicked back part of their salary in dues. Republican Senator Matthew Quay’s Pennsylvania machine numbered close to 20,000 employees. These organizations rivaled the nation’s largest corporations in the size of their workforce. Indeed, state parties continually monitored their members’ concerns, maintaining more intimate ties with their grass-roots supporters than most large corporations did with their workers or customers.

Candidates defying the party leadership, such as the current GOP candidates’ rebellion against the RNC, would have been immediately punished by the party bosses. Such defiance would have been unthinkable. With only a handful of primaries, professional politicians controlled the presidential selection process. In 1912, for example, Republican bosses denied former President Theodore Roosevelt the party’s nomination, though he had swept the primaries and was enormously popular among the rank and file. Fearful of his plans for reform and his longstanding disrespect for the party establishment, the GOP leaders blocked Roosevelt’s efforts to change the party’s rules.

Gradually over the course of several decades, the party competition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave way to the modern politics of organized interests, with the mass media supplanting the party organization as the principal intermediary between elected officials and ordinary voters. By the 1950s, the largely face-to-face politics of parties that had dominated 19th-century America had given way to the mass-mediated politics of interests.

No one factor propelled this shift. It reflected demographic change, especially the huge influx of immigrants that forced parties to recruit outside their natural bases, as well as the political mobilization of voters outside parties, particularly a large constituency of women involved in reform activities hostile to party politics.

But the shift also drew energy from the revival of anti-party sentiment. Deeply embedded in the nation’s founding, antagonism toward parties formed a key part of the reform agenda in the early 20th century. This sentiment, along with the mechanisms that reformers put in place to weaken the power of parties, really mattered.

Widespread adoption, for example, of a ballot format that permits ticket splitting and replaced ballots printed and distributed by the parties was one such change. Many municipalities also shifted from ward- or district-based voting schemes to citywide at-large elections that weakened local party organizations. So did the expansion of civil-service regulations for government employment and the expansion of the social welfare state. With fewer patronage jobs, and benefits increasingly the entitlement of every American citizen, parties no longer controlled the spoils of political victory.

At the same time, new technologies created alternate vehicles for political communication between politicians and ordinary citizens. They helped narrow the appeal of party affiliation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, politics functioned as a form of mass entertainment, as well as a tool of governance. The emergence of competition for amusement — movies, recorded music, radio and television — further undermined damaged parties’ appeal by uncoupling entertainment from politics.

By the late 1960s, parties seemed on a path to extinction. For the first time, independents began to outnumber voters identifying themselves as strong partisans. With few patronage jobs to dole out, less control over the nominating process, which opened to more and more primary voters, and reforms that weakened the congressional leadership’s power over individual members, experts began to mourn (or celebrate) the death of partisan affiliations.

Over the past generation, however, a remarkable new trend has developed. Partisan polarization has intensified. “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines,” according to recent studies by the Pew Research Center, for example. Pew found that “partisan acrimony is deeper and more extensive than at any point in recent history.” Mimicking the Gilded Age, partisan identities shape not just political behavior but also affect a broad range of attitudes about everyday life. By many other measures, from party identification among voters to party-line votes in Congress, partisanship has resurged.

But while groups like the Republican and Democratic national committees employ more people and spend far more money than they did a generation ago, party organizations remain weak. With little or no local presence, they resemble consulting firms or super PACs more than the mass-mobilizing machines of the Gilded Age.

Though rigid party-line votes define today’s Congress, they reflect the ideological sorting of the two parties into consistently conservative and liberal camps rather than party discipline. Legislative leaders like recently departed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have found it almost impossible to rein in their caucuses, while party leaders, despite their best efforts, have proved unable to suppress the insurgent campaigns of Trump and Carson, or impose rules that would favor candidates that hew closest to the party line.

This remarkable era of partisanship without party does make for exciting elections. Who could have predicted that more than a dozen candidates’ campaigns would make common cause against the very party organization they seek to represent? Yet though partisanship without party might produce fascinating political spectacle, it may well make effective governance all but impossible. No matter who wins the White House in 2016.


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