Party Decline

A 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 them.

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.

W 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."

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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.

I 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.

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