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September 10, 2013 11:51 AM Are American Political Parties Getting Weaker?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Alexander Burns and John F. Harris tell us that the Syria matter has exposed the “weakness” of several institutions…I’ll only pay attention to the one I know best: the parties. Here’s what Politico would have us believe:

The diminishment of the parties has been underway for years, fueled by the rise of outside groups and politicians who don’t depend on their parties for money and influence. 

This is…exactly backwards. The parties are very strong and have been getting stronger. The “outside” groups are mostly party-aligned groups, organized outside of formal party organizations but tightly connected to party networks; Members of Congress are far less independent of their parties than they were twenty or forty years ago. They are elected by mostly party-connected campaigns, with party-connected money and other resources.

This reality is the main reason Washington has been paralyzed in recent years — neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Obama has any confidence they could bring their own parties along on a deal over the budget, entitlements or other domestic issues.

The parties are so strong that individual politicians — including presidents and chamber leadership — are tightly constrained, and cannot do much freelancing.

But the very real possibility that these leaders can’t summon enough followers to produce a majority to authorize force in Syria - particularly in response to something as repugnant as the alleged use of chemical weapons - puts the reality of that weakness in a stark new light.

Syria is, at the very least, complicated…but there are at least two ways to look at it that show party strength. One: Syria shows the clear weakness of the apartisan foreign policy establishment when faced with the strength of the parties. Two: Syria shows the weakness of nominal leaders against their parties when they try to go against party priorities — on the Democratic side the antiwar priority, and on the Republican side the antiObama priority.

When George W. Bush asked the Hill to authorize the war in Iraq, only six Republicans in all of Congress voted against his request. On Syria, Obama lost two Democrats – Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico – in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alone (in addition, Ed Markey of Massachusetts voted present.)

It’s just not a comparison that means anything. Nor does “strong party” mean that the president’s party will automatically do whatever the White House wants. A better analogy was when George W. Bush sought to put a personal choice, rather than a party choice, on the Supreme Court; when his selection was laughed off by Republicans, that was a party victory, even though it was a presidential defeat. We simply can’t judge party strength by compliance with the president’s wishes.

It’s a stark illustration of how far party discipline has decayed that a measure supported by Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces such uncertain prospects for passage. Indeed, party leaders have almost emphasized their lack of leverage in pressing for passage of the White House-backed resolution.

Party cohesion in Congress is at record levels! Syria is, to be sure, different. But focusing on the odd dynamics of the Syria (prospective, remember) vote while ignoring all the other votes is a pretty odd way of determining how strong the parties are.

Look: the obvious thing about parties, which Burns and Harris surely must know, is that it’s absolutely impossible to discuss anything about the Syria vote in Congress without primarily thinking about the parties. We all know that. We all talk about it like that. If we’re thinking, say, about what Mitch McConnell will do (he declared against the resolution today), we’re talking almost completely about a party story. Every story you’ve read about the Congressional reaction is basically a party story — look at the way that reporters (quite rightly) separate out Democrats and Republicans, and discuss how they’re coming to decisions separately. Because most Democrats face one set of cross-pressures; most Republicans face a different set. Those are party stories, and they matter so much because our parties are so strong.

Or consider the big exception in those Congressional stories: John McCain. McCain really isn’t (primarily) constrained by party; he seems to be constrained mainly by his own whims and prejudices. Here’s the thing: when parties are weak, Congress is absolutely full of McCains. That’s pretty much what Congress was like in much of the mid-20th century. Indeed, it’s not just Congress; presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter often placed either their own personal whims or the consensus of “neutral” policy experts ahead of party positions (neutral policy experts aren’t actually neutral, but they aren’t particularly tied to political parties — just as the “neutral” press isn’t a partisan press, but has it’s own set of opinions and biases).

Syria has been an issue that confused the parties. It’s an issue which causes internal cross-pressures within both parties. It is not an issue that demonstrates party weakness. For better or worse, parties thoroughly dominate US politics right now. Syria very much included.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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