Is The Theory of Party Decline Still Relevant? YES

Since the 1990s, the arguments of David Broder’s famous book “The Party’s Over”- essentially that political parties are no longer capable of fulfilling even their most basic functions- appeared for a time misplaced, as the centralisation of many crucial aspects of the parties, and a more apparent leadership structure emerged, particularly after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. However, in recent years, new events have evidenced a contrary theory; that perhaps Broder’s ideas are no longer dormant.

Until recently, we had observed a slight resurgence in the power of political parties. A lot of this was demonstrated by the increasingly polarised ideological stances of the Republican Party and the Democrat Party, because as the divide between the two parties became more apparent, ideological differences were more visible, with less policy overlap. The exploitation of primaries by the Republican Party over the last 20 years has also proved an effective deterrent for any Republican who dared to oppose the party line. In recent years, the Tea Party’s hijacking of the process has resulted in more extreme candidates being elected. The Democrats have in turned voiced their support for unpopular Republican social issues all the more readily, such as gay marriage or abortion. Therefore, it would appear that the parties have represented the core beliefs of their voters more successfully than during the 1960s, for example, when the New Deal Coalition comprised both the traditional support of white Southerners who had always voted Democrat, and the African American community that had gained employment through the construction of federally funded infrastructure. This draws a sharp contrast to the Republican Party that swept Bush to the White House in 2004, when the support was made up of almost unanimously social and fiscal conservatives, although Bush’s immigration stance won him a slice of the Hispanic vote as well.

​Moreover, the parties’ running of government has also generally appeared more successful than in “The Party’s Over’s era. Once again the prime example of this quasi-parliamentary approach to government occurs during Bush’s tenure, where close party links were cultivated in both the executive and legislative branches, meaning that policy was more effectively dictated from the White House to the Capitol. Since the 1990s, the Congressional leadership have defined themselves more as the leader of the Party, than solely the politicians in each chamber. This has extended to the 113th Congress, where John Boehner, having been elected to the Speakership of the House, is often seen to be the force behind the House’s lethargic responses to senate bills. This is shown by his flip-flopping over this issue of comprehensive immigration reform- several weeks ago, it looked to have been killed off for good, but this week argued that he still held hopes for it, but couldn’t give a date for a House vote on the issue. Crucially, Boehner has emphasised the fact that the bill depends on his decision- he sees himself as the definitive voice on a vote to the bill, and as the apparent representative of the increasingly ideological divergent GOP, he is therefore less willing to compromise with the opposition.

Another piece of evidence that supports the notion that party decline has become an outdated theory is, similarly, more effective collecting of ideologically similar voters. Thanks to the politicisation of social issues such as religion in schools, and the continued emergence of wedge issues, arguably the most prominent being abortion, more voters can see the disparity between both parties. The rise of more extreme political commentators, such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, and filmmakers like Michael Moore or the comedian Jon Stewart, as well as obviously agenda-driven national media outlets, primarily Fox and MSNBC, as well as just local ones, has enhanced this idea further. Often Fox in particular is susceptible for ignoring concrete evidence and giving airtime to extreme arguments without regarding the other side. A clear example was Fox’s coverage of the 2012 election outcome. Despite Karl Rove’s insistence that Romney still had a chance, ignoring Fox’s own data monitors, many panellists continued to align themselves with this view. When the Ohio result was declared Democrat, after a shell-shocked silence, Rove with others still tried to briefly convince viewers that Romney could still win. Another good example would be a FOX Michelle Bachmann interview, where her allegation that an Obama visit to India would cost the taxpayer $200 million dollars a day dominated the media for over a week. The confusion generated actually required a Pentagon spokesman to state that Obama was not in fact deploying 10% of the navy in case anything went awry on the visit, and pointed out that the war in Afghanistan actually cost less per day than Bachmann’s assertion of this week-long visit. Here one can see that the media has played a crucial role in evidencing, and in some cases, helping to perpetuate, political polarisation.

But in the last few years, party influence appears to have actually declined once again. The increasingly extreme views of the Tea Party are only accepted by mainstream Republicans out of fear of a primary challenge from the right in their next election. It takes extreme events to uncover this, such as the recent government shutdown. It was only a small minority of extreme Republicans that genuinely wanted to see a shutdown, and yet Boehner, fearing for his speakership, refused a vote. This would contradict the earlier argument that policy decisions are made by Boehner; in reality he is effectively held ransom by his own love of power- a power that ironically is not really his, but the TEA party’s and the threats they pose. During the shutdown, Boehner was cast aside by the extreme Congressmen such as Chuck Fleishmann, who appeared to be taking their orders from Cruz, not the leadership. Furthermore, political figureheads such as Jim DeMint, de facto leader of the TEA party, are no longer elected officials, but appointed heads of powerful interest groups such as the Heritage Foundation. Nonetheless, we did see some mainstream resistance in the Senate– Bob Corker of Tenneseee laid into Ted Cruz during a Senate debate, accusing him of being “confused” of what the American people really wanted. The Congressional leadership certainly does not have the power it once enjoyed during the Bush tenure- the influence of majority and miniorty whips nowadays is virtually non-existent- it is the extreme wing of the party that wields the power of primary challengers, not the centralised mainstream election committees such as the DCCC and the RCCC. These organisations would have until recently be seen as evidence of a more effective election funding aspect of the parties, but the rise of enormously wealthy interest groups mean that they can only identify winnable elections, but not really help to win them, other than streamlining campaign donations. After Citizens United, the playing field has irrevocably changed. Super PACs mean individuals can now pour millions into PACs rather than directly to the candidate- which would be corruption. Allowing PACs to simply pass on the funds however, is crucially not, as tracking the finances of Cruz’s senate campaign all the way back to the Koch brothers shows.

The notion that parties are now successfully representing voters is also invalid. The 113th Congress is arguably one of the most unrepresentative Congresses in recent time. Boehner actually stated that the purpose of the House in the current congress was not to pass as many laws as possible, but to that “we ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal” in June of this year. A perfect example of Congress’s unrepresentative nature was Obamas proposed gun control measures. The first round of reforms, which were universal background checks and tighter scrutiny of purchasing processes at gun shows, failed at the first hurdle. Yet a nationwide subject revealed that 91% of the country supported these measures. The politicians had been strong-armed by interest groups, particularly the NRA, into voting against the proposals. Later, it turned out that even the NRA leadership was acting in an unrepresentative fashion towards its own members. A poll conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz in July revealed that 74% of NRA members supported criminal background checks on anyone intending to buy a gun, and a slightly smaller majority (71 and 65%, respectively) supported barring people on the terror watch list from buying a gun, and that gun owners should be required by law to alert the police to a theft, or loss, of a firearm. The NRA offices in Washington opposed both of the above. The “gang of 8” immigration bill that passed the senate with bipartisan support has been indefinitely refused a House vote, not because it wouldn’t pass- it probably would- but because Boehner fears for his job. Are the people responsible for this gridlock really representative of the average American? Of course not- after all; the average American is not a super-wealthy lobbyist. Democrat pressure groups are now responding too, as last month it was declared that for the first time, Democrats had outspent the Republican in campaigns, identified as a contributing factor in McAuliffe’s victory in Virginia. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a PAC set up by Gabby Giffords and her husband in favour of stricter gun control, raised $6.6 million in the first six months of this year, whose biggest funders were Marc Benioff, whose $500 000 donation towards Obama’s campaign has bought him virtually unlimited access to the White House, and then-New York Mayor- Michael Bloomberg. It would appear then, that both parties have accepted their own decline, and the ever-rising power of interest groups.

​To conclude, the theory of party decline is certainly not outdated. If anything it has become even more relevant. Although efforts taken by the parties after the Republicans retook the House in 1994 to make the party leadership a more powerful authority, even then party policy came second to people such as Grover Norquist, whose Wednesday breakfasts allowed his interest group, Americans For Tax Reform, more access to both politicians and lobbyists. Despite several refusals to honour his tax pledge recently, especially during the fiscal cliff fiasco last winter, Norquist continues to exert a powerful hold on tax policy in Congress. Overall, the party has merely become better at streamlining what funds they have, and communicating from Washington to key districts. They remain reliant on the funds of others, however, and as long as they continue to do so, they will never fulfil all of their functions. Parties are not currently very representative, as explored above, nor are they particularly adept at running the government (it shut down), shown by Boehner’s balancing act in face of a divided party. The party’s organisation of campaigns is dependent on interest groups, their communication with voters is dishonest, their selection of candidates is ever more misplaced- just look at the Republican presidential hopefuls in 2011, where Romney had to align himself with policies he completely opposed. They arguably even fail to draw together ideologically similar voters- less tham 20% of people asked in a recent poll agreed with the political views of grassroots TEA party voters, despite the enormous influence of TEA party politicians in Congress. In short, while there may have been a brief respite from Broder’s arguments before around 2010, it remains obvious that America’s political parties hardly fulfil any of their functions.

© Finn Maunder and “Finn.” 2013. This content is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Finn Maunder and “Finn.” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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