Political Parties & the New “Wild West”

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.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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One Response to Political Parties & the New “Wild West”

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Duquette –

    Thank you for writing this excellent piece and sharing what you saw at the meeting. (Despite being a political science graduate from UConn, I doubt I would ever attend such a gathering.)

    I have a different take on the same bleak political landscape as you, but I appreciate some of the concepts you describe quite usefully, such as the “will-to-governance nexus.” (I will probably re-use that with attribution!)

    So just the other night I was at a restaurant on Beacon Hill with a fellow political technologist and a very wealthy conservative donor. We were discussing the decline of the political parties. I explained what I have seen in some states: parties have been captured by narrow interests, private organizations are performing campaign activities previously performed only by the parties, and there is broad confusion about what a party should stand for. The donor was unware of the extent of the shift in power, or the consequences. Especially in light of the impotence of our Massachusetts Republican Party, he was curious what the long-term solution was, which men like him are capable of funding.

    (He was dining with me because my views are often different than most political types, as I have been a computer programmer for most of my life and I am very involved in the startup world. This doesn’t mean I have the answers, just a different take.)

    I told him that yes, the SuperPACs and their ilk were taking over more party functions, and while I was uncomfortable with this, I was not convinced this had to lead to a bad ending. I also described a re-organization at a lower level, thanks to very powerful new organizing tools (like NationBuilder) that are allowing small groups to compete with the SuperPACs and parties.

    For instance, NationBuilder created the first national, free voter data file – free to be decorated and expanded with a new app store. The release of that file in the Summer of 2011 was one of the strongest tremors in the political earthquakes we are seeing, though few noticed it.

    I see the small and large groups forming alliances to get behind candidates, and I hope that a political information commons (the voter file being a good start) will create many opportunities for better politics that are not yet visible. My long experience in the open source movement calms my fears about the future, as long as the evolution plays out in similar ways and promotes similar shared values. (Yes, we had large commercial interests that we worried would sabotage the movement, but they largely did not because we had a good strategy.)

    But what about the will-to-governance nexus? What about providing a common narrative? I see the parties withdrawing from many of their organizing activities and serving as mediators between many of these groups in order to create that narrative. I am already seeing some signs of this, though they are few.

    I am also very worried about what is happening to political journalism as it is a major factor in our political problems, as you say. There are a few good signs (the rise of fact checkers) but partisan media continues to do great damage. We need to build a new political knowledge architecture – part of the commons I hope to see come about – in order to keep partisan information in its place.

    The hope for this new, technological commons is not wishful thinking. Most of the technology already exists, but is not being used for this purpose… yet. (For instance, Google’s new semantic and language technologies – I know the men who built it – are well-suited to the task of addressing the epistemological problems we are seeing in the media. Some efforts are underway. It will take several years.)

    Ultimately, our political problems are information problems. But we are living in an information revolution. We merely need to articulate the problems – as you have – and then figure out how we harness the technology to rebuild our politics for a better republic. A Herculean task for a set of very dirty stables, but my donor friend said he was interested and there are computer programmers who could help. :-)

    p.s. I did not address the campaign finanance system we have, which has problems all its own. I am not naive about them. We need a lot of changes, which will have to be some new laws, some new ethics, and some new technology.

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