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March 04, 2014 10:39 AM Are the Parties Devolving?

By Seth Masket

Nicholas Confessore had an interesting piece in the Sunday New York Times about the changing approaches of major Republican donors. As he writes, some of these donors are increasingly dissatisfied with just forking over money to party consultants and hoping for the best, as they haven’t generally gotten the best lately. More donors, it seems, are trying to follow a model pioneered by the Koch brothers, which involves coordinating their spending patterns in-house rather than trusting a formal party source to do it. This is very much consistent with the idea of donors as policy demanders — they want the candidates they back to do things once in office, and they’ll look for new ways to keep those candidates faithful if they think they’re being ignored.

But several sources — incorrectly, in my opinion — depict this shift as a sign of the dissolution of the Republican Party:

Parties have “lost the ability to control the process,” said Jim Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, partly because of legislation that cut the flow of money to party committees. “The party can’t coordinate with these super PACs and neither can the campaigns, so there’s a lot more chaos and disequilibrium in the campaigns. And the party structure clearly has a diminished role because they don’t have the resources they used to have.”
Rob Stein, a founder of the Democracy Alliance, one of the largest clubs of donors on the left, agreed.
“The devolution of the two-party system has begun,” Mr. Stein said. “Money is leaving the parties and going to independent expenditure groups. These now are fracturing the ‘big tents’ of our old two-party system into independent, narrow and well-funded wings.”

What we’re seeing here as not the devolution of the two-party system. On the contrary, the two-party system is about as strong as it’s ever been. Any candidate who wants to have even a chance at achieving office has to pick one of the two major parties to run with, and any policy idea needs an affiliation with at least one major party in order to become a law.

What we are seeing, rather, is evidence of the network structure of modern American parties. As I mentioned previously, the structure is less hierarchical than it used to be, but it is no less strong or efficient. Those strongly party-aligned donors who are building their own campaign strategy capacities are part of the party, just as the chair of the RNC is. And if there are multiple “narrow and well-funded wings” operating within a party network, how is that any different than multiple factions operating within the “big tents” of yesteryear?

Yes, from the perspective of a former RNC chair, this trend probably looks like dissolution. But looked at more broadly, we’re just seeing parties shift their structure somewhat. There may be factions within the parties with their own agendas, but that has always been the case, and indeed today’s parties are probably a good deal less fractious than they were a few decades ago. If major GOP donors seem dissatisfied with the way things are, that probably has less to do with sharp ideological divisions within their party and more to do with the fact that they spent billions of dollars in the 2012 cycle and don’t have much to show for it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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