Last weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Northeastern Political Science Association and participated in a panel discussion of the “Future of the Political Parties.” It is my contention that for parties uncertainty and flux are the orders of the day, both for partisans and political scientists. The political and institutional environment in which American political parties operate today looks to me like a 21st Century version of the “wild west.”
Traditional political parties, the variety that political scientists have long considered vital to the effective organization of the masses, were transformed in the mid-to-late 20th Century by the rise of the mass media, which gradually replaced parties as the primary intermediary between voters and government. Driven by the need to attract audiences, not to organize the electorate, the news media accelerated the onset of “candidate-centered” elections and the politics of personality (a.k.a. the politics of personal destruction). In the first decade of the 21st Century, the mass media itself has been transformed by the internet’s massive democratization of information and mass communication, rendering the professional news media (or “mainstream media, if you like) both amorphous and ineffective in both organizing the electorate as traditional parties had and even in providing the American people with a consistent and widely trusted political narrative. Adding fuel to the fire, recent decisions by the Supreme Court have by effectively declared “every man for himself” when it comes to financing elections in America.
All of this has left political parties in a state of panic, disrepute, and even disrepair. Ironically, the judicially created campaign finance “free-for-all” doesn’t really include parties, which remain one of the few institutions still hamstrung by campaign finance restrictions. The actors competing with the parties for power and influence, such as special interests and even candidates themselves, now have unprecedented direct access to our electoral and policy processes thanks to unregulated money in the age of “super-PACs,” the gangs and gunslingers of 21st Century politics. Though parties haven’t monopolized the recruitment of candidates or the conduct of campaigns for decades, the explosion of internet communications and unleashing of special interest money in politics have transformed our already “candidate-centered” politics into candidate-centered politics on steroids. “There’s a new sheriff in town” has been replaced by “Elvis has left the building” in American politics. The mass media decentralized the function of organizing the electorate and the internet radically decentralized the function of informing the electorate. I’m not sure this is what politicians mean when they extol the virtues and vitality of America’s “frontier spirit.”
The sad reality is that there isn’t any discernible trust in institutions capable of effectively mediating between the electorate and the government. The displacement of parties by commercial media outlets as the primary vehicle for organizing and informing the electorate was a serious blow to the parties’ ability to aggregate public opinion and thereby facilitate democratically responsive governance. The incentives of the modern news media steer them toward the disaggregation of the electorate, which by definition decreases the clarity of the public will-to-governance nexus. The onset of 24-hour cable news and then the internet have done to the mainstream news media what the news media did to political parties decades ago; rendering the Fourth Estate incapable of policing itself in terms of traditional journalistic ethics and norms of conduct. The 21st Century media environment is not only hyper-competitive; it’s a “no holds barred” contest that incentivizes “narrow” casting, style over substance, and “fast before facts” to a degree few could have anticipated.
In 2013, American voters have a seemingly infinite (and certainly unmanageable) number of choices for their political information (not to mention civic education) needs. Neither political parties, nor anything resembling a unified national news media, have the wherewithal to provide the broad electorate with a common narrative. It’s no wonder that political parties are perceived in radically different ways by political scientists, partisan political actors, and the general public respectively. Political scientists stand alone in their admiration for parties as the only institutions capable of bringing mass constituencies under the same umbrella for effective political action. Only broad philosophical sympathies can unite mass constituencies in a country as large and diverse as ours, but unfortunately this function once performed efficiently by our two major parties has now been farmed out to other actors, none of whom possess the same degree of long-term perspective or incentive to mobilize the masses. Contemporary political partisans, forced to compete with various others for political influence are forced into a short term tactical mode and the need to disguise their “partisanship.” The general public’s media-fueled distain for parties and “partisanship” is why partisans must camouflage their motives, and why efforts by scholars to rehabilitate political parties as essential engines of responsive democratic governance fall on deaf ears outside of the academy.