Party clout con­tin­ues to di­min­ish

The Oklahoman - - OPINION - Jonah Gold­berg Jon­ah­sCol­umn@ aol.com

It is per­haps the cen­tral irony of our pol­i­tics to­day: We live in an in­cred­i­bly po­lar­ized and par­ti­san mo­ment, but our po­lit­i­cal par­ties have never been weaker.

As odd as it sounds, po­lit­i­cal par­ties in democ­ra­cies have an im­por­tant anti-demo­cratic func­tion. Tra­di­tion­ally, the par­ties shaped the choices put to vot­ers.

Long be­fore vot­ers de­cided any­thing in the pri­mary or gen­eral elec­tions, party bosses worked to groom good can­di­dates, weed out bad ones, or­ga­nize in­ter­ests and frame is­sues.

In the mod­ern era, the story of party de­cline usu­ally be­gins in the af­ter­math of the 1968 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The move to­ward pri­maries and the demo­cratic se­lec­tion of del­e­gates took power away from the bosses.

Af­ter Water­gate, there were more re­forms, curb­ing the abil­ity of the par­ties to raise and spend money freely. This led to the rise of po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees, which raise cash in­de­pen­dent of the for­mal party struc­ture. As Sen. Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky., said dur­ing the floor de­bate over the Mc­Cain-Fein­gold cam­paign fi­nance bill in 2001, “We haven’t taken a penny of money out of pol­i­tics. We’ve only taken the par­ties out of pol­i­tics.”

Out­side groups of­ten do more to ef­fec­tively or­ga­nize vot­ers around sin­gle is­sues or per­son­al­i­ties than the par­ties do. The Kochs, Tom Steyer, Ge­orge Soros and Shel­don Adelson serve as party bosses, only out­side the par­ties.

Tech­nol­ogy is an­other, less ob­vi­ous force si­phon­ing power from the par­ties. For in­stance, as po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian Michael Barone has noted, the tele­phone dealt a griev­ous blow to po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions, where in­sid­ers have out­size power. The tele­phone elim­i­nated the need for the faceto-face ne­go­ti­a­tions. To­day, po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions are lit­tle more than in­fomer­cials for pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

The in­ter­net and ca­ble TV have ac­cel­er­ated the eclips­ing of par­ties. Opin­ion web­sites and TV and ra­dio hosts now do more to shape is­sues and se­lect can­di­dates than the par­ties do.

The weird thing is that the Amer­i­can peo­ple didn’t seem to no­tice. The largest vot­ing bloc in Amer­ica to­day call them­selves in­de­pen­dents, but most of them tend to be as par­ti­san as every­body else, while “pure in­de­pen­dents” are less likely to vote at all.

And yet, Amer­i­cans keep talk­ing about par­ti­san pol­i­tics as if the par­ties are in charge, and base vot­ers on the left and the right keep rail­ing against the party es­tab­lish­ments like mobs un­aware that they’re kick­ing dead horses.

Among the many prob­lems with the rot­ting out of the par­ties is that the rot spreads. The par­ties are sup­posed to be where pol­i­tics hap­pens. McCon­nell’s point about money in pol­i­tics is anal­o­gous to the larger trend. When you take po­lit­i­cal power out of the par­ties, other ac­tors seize it.

When wielded by peo­ple who aren’t sup­posed to be in the pol­i­tics busi­ness, that power cor­rupts. This is why ev­ery Academy Awards cer­e­mony is pep­pered with asi­nine po­lit­i­cal je­re­mi­ads. It’s why peo­ple like Jerry Fal­well Jr., the pres­i­dent of Lib­erty Uni­ver­sity, act like so­cial-gospel ward heel­ers. It’s why the ca­ble news net­works spend so much of their time ral­ly­ing vot­ers in one di­rec­tion or an­other. And it’s why countless pun­dits and al­legedly ob­jec­tive re­porters serve as un­of­fi­cial po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants.

There are other, larger forces at work. The de­cline of strong in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions — re­li­gious, civic and fa­mil­ial — has peo­ple search­ing for other out­lets to find a sense of mean­ing and be­long­ing. Iden­tity pol­i­tics, pop­ulism and na­tion­al­ism are fill­ing that void.

That’s hap­pened be­fore, but when it did, the par­ties were there to fil­ter, con­strain and chan­nel those pas­sions in a healthy di­rec­tion. The Potemkin par­ties can’t, or won’t, do that any­more. The re­sult is a na­tion of par­ti­sans de­cry­ing par­ti­san­ship.

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