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May 07, 2014 2:29 PM Catch of the Day: Parties Are Alive and Well

By Jonathan Bernstein

A Catch to Josh Huder for pointing out the absurdity of a column by Eliza Newlin Carney that begins:

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling to overturn limits on aggregate campaign contributions has revived a long-running debate over the demise of the nation’s political parties, and what could bring them back to life.

Josh says:

Political parties exercise immense power and US is as polarized as ever before. Obviously, parties are dead.

That second sentence is sarcasm, in case it doesn’t come through. He’s right. It’s amazing that people who follow politics could believe that U.S. political parties need to be brought “back to life” in 2014.

How do those people get that idea? By mistakenly believing that “parties” are fully embodied in formal party organizations, such as the Republican National Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It’s true that those components of U.S. parties only have limited importance. But it’s also true that those components of U.S. parties have never been all-powerful.

They don’t have to be for parties to be strong. As it turns out, informal party networks do much of the work of contemporary political parties. Party actors are in party-aligned interest groups and the partisan media, among the professional staffs of elected politicians, in candidate campaign organizations, and, speaking of money in politics, in the political action committees and other donor vehicles set up under campaign finance law.

This doesn’t make for a strictly hierarchical set of political parties, but that doesn’t mean the parties are weak. Indeed, all of this activity can allow for far more dynamic, active and innovative parties than a centrally-planned, one-organization model. The easy permeability also makes the parties more democratic. Don’t like your party’s direction? Set up a new Tea Party group or issue committee or Super PAC to change it!

The results are unmistakable: Very little happens in U.S. politics outside the political parties. Look, for example, at North Carolina’s Senate Republican primary yesterday. What’s most notable isn’t that the “establishment” candidate won, it’s that each of the three main candidates were backed by a recognizable group within the Republican Party. It was pretty clearly a intraparty fight, and the winner would act on behalf of his group if he wound up in the Senate. That’s very different from the candidate-centered model that was common in the 1960s and 1970s, when candidates often represented no one but themselves and built candidate organizations based on personal loyalty. That’s a dead-end these days.

Whether it’s in Congress, at the White House, in campaigns, in policy formation or even in the media, the strength of political parties is obvious. Even if it’s usually not associated with formal party organizations.

So: great Catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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

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