Stronger Political Parties needed

Really enjoyed this from Seth Masket:

I’d like to suggest that this year, more than any other in recent memory, is the time to make an affirmative case for undemocratic political parties. This is because this year, more than any other in recent memory, is demonstrating the downside of letting the people decide…

Some political observers like to spin out dramatic scenarios in which under-appreciated elites essentially get to save the people from themselves. Jeff Greenfield famously wrote a novel about a faithless elector saving the country from a bad president-elect. Others have pined extensively for things like brokered conventions, in which the masses’ input is simply no longer relevant, and party leaders have to hash out solutions in smoke-filled rooms.

Guess what? We’re there. The Republican Party is actually facing one of those crises that almost never happen in real life. It is on the verge of nominating a candidate who appears hostile to many of the party’s longstanding beliefs and to many of the country’s basic principles, and who demonstrates no serious understanding of government or politics. This would make a great trashy novel if it weren’t actually happening. Why is the party doing this? Because it has thus far failed to do its job this year.

The parties have long histories of quietly saving the republic. In any given election, there’s often some half-crazed demagogue who thinks he’d make a good president and who makes populist appeals to gin up support. The parties are usually quite skilled at keeping that person off the ballot, even if they think they could win with him. They use their control of party machinery, money, endorsements, campaign expertise, and other key resources to steer voters away from such candidates and toward people whom they view as good for the party and the country. This mostly occurs behind the scenes; by the time voters notice what’s going on, the election has boiled down to just a handful of candidates.

The Republican Party very much failed this task in 2016. By being unwilling or unable to concentrate its support behind a champion, it allowed a wealthy populist with little fealty to party principles to put together a winning campaign. The party has remained divided in its opposition to Trump, essentially allowing a factional candidate to cruise to victory.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

13 Responses to Stronger Political Parties needed

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    I agree!
    Joe Biden helped prevent this fiasco in the Democratic primaries by staying out. Praise due!

  2. rgbact says:

    I agree. The problem is, voters are entrusted to understand that just because you like someone, doesn’t make them electable in a general election. Once they toss that aside, they are worthless to the process. People are now just voting for ideological avatars. Look at how awful the pragmatic governors did this year. Why bother, when you’ve got purity with Bernie Sanders.

    The Democrats were only saved by black voters. Else, the whole primary process would’ve been a total failure

    • Jon K says:

      You’re forgetting Super Delegates. The GOP would be well served to copy the Democrats and get itself some Super Delegates. I actually wouldn’t mind doing away with primaries and going back to having the party bosses pick the candidates. That would solve the problem of the extremist primary voters preventing reasonable candidates from emerging. Political parties aren’t necessarily democratic organizations. They are, of course, private organizations, and they are free to set whatever rules for selecting candidates they wish. I think people forget that basic fact, and they forget that is how it used to work, and it worked well.

      I’m also of the opinion we should go back to having state legislatures pick Senators. Under Federalism the state legislatures were supposed to have their views represented in the upper chamber. I know it will never happen, but I believe it would be worthwhile to return to that system.

      • rgbact says:

        I agree 2. I’m hoping SuperDelegates are added once this fiasco is over. Never understood the flack about them Not sure how much it’d help though. Nearly everyone got behind Rubio this time and he was polling well vs Hillary too….and it didn’t influence the primary voters a lick. They went with the guy with 65% unfavorables instead.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    I’m mostly of the persuasion that the strong undemocratic parties solution is a ship that has sailed. Our national political values in the U.S. simply won’t support it. Other approaches are available.

    For example, consider the non-partisan, majority needed to win and runoff between the top two if no one wins a majority system used for example in Louisiana elections and in Denver municipal elections. This is basically the ultimate unified open primary. This system tends to produce far more centerist candidates than a first past the post with two dominant parties system.

    Mostly, however, a key strategy involves reducing the substantive importance of the people whom we do elect.

    Another home grown solution (which certainly has flaws as well as benefits) is to shift towards direct democracy via voter initiatives – at least for some kinds of decision making.

    For example, in Colorado, a key factor that made democratic party elected officials more attractive to voters is the fact that any tax increase must be approved by voters. This deflates tax and spend political attacks on people who actually believe in making government work who run for office, and weakens the impulse to vote for drown it in a bathtub conservatives in order insulate voter pocket books from foolish tax and spend initiatives.

    Another approach is to further insulate the civil service from the politicians, following the example of the judicial branch’s independence from the rest of the government. In France, for example, the civil service bureaucracy is considered a separate branch of government pretty much from the elected leadership, that buffers the public from incompetent elected officials. Strong courts and strong independent civil service bureaucracies to deny bad politicians the capacity to act on their worst urges. Merit based judicial appointments can produce better judges and prevent nomination process deadlock and could be used more widely for positions that are now political appointments in the executive branch.

    One way to secure this insulation is to provide particular bureaucracies with secure, independent funding sources. Public radio and TV have donor networks. Public institutions of higher ed have donors and tuition. The TVA, the civil courts, the FAA, the FCC and the FDA all have users fees. Social Security and Medicare have a payroll tax that works on autopilot. Highway departments have gas taxes. When legislative budget deadlock idles only a small percentage of government employees, you know that the systemic adaptation of the civil service bureaucracy to elected official incompetence is well advanced.

    In the same vein, term limits can reduce the impact of any particularly bad elected official.

    Many countries take this approach to its logical extreme by granting the head of state (usually with the title of President) little more than symbolic power in the tradition of a constitutional monarch. We wouldn’t have to be nearly so dramatic to secure harm reduction from bad choices made by the electorate.

    • R. Jenrette says:

      A runoff between the top two GOP presidential candidates wouldn’t save that party…two very different candidates but neither an establishment choice. It’s at least a 3 way split in that party.
      Term limits give way too much power to staff people. I’d prefer elected officials have that power. Rational districts would solve the problem term limits is supposed to solve without limiting voters’ choices and empowering staff.
      Centrist government can get too satisfied with the status quo. Social change usually starts from the fringes. Make it easier for third parties to get on the ballots.

      • Jon K says:

        I’m also against term limits. Experience and seniority is important for elected officials. It takes time to become familiar with how things work, build up the necessary relationships, and master the back channels of power. It happens regularly that we see ambitious politicians elected that believe they are going to walk in and be the agent of change that does big things. (Marco Rubio, Jim Webb come to mind.) They quickly discover that isn’t how things work in the legislature, and they realize it isn’t for them.

        The last thing we need is an entire legislature that lacks experience, and an understanding and appreciation of the way the legislature operates. The Congress isn’t a business and it isn’t the executive. It operates the way it does for good reason. One isn’t simply elected and then automatically becomes an effective legislator. It takes time and often more than one term to become effective.

      • Mika says:

        Talking about strong independent civil service bureaucracies:

        Two gentlemen talking are permanent secretaries.

        I think that one good thing about term limits is that the congressmen who are in their last term don’t have to think about re-election and so are liberated to work for the best of the country.

      • Jon K. says:

        I don’t think that term limits have that benefit. A congressman in his last term is either looking forward to his obscenely large pension, or he is lining up lobbying or consulting work based on his connections as a former lawmaker. People, in general, don’t just put their personal goals and opportunities away like that. It is wishful thinking.

      • Mika says:

        Jon K, you might be right. I have a feeble memory of a polisci article that examines how retiring members of Congress behave but I can’t find it right now so I have no solid opinion about the matter 🙂

    • rgbact says:

      These are pretty good ideas. The independent entitlements and the election of a head of state/national celebrity….that doesn’t actually run government….are two ideas Ive had too. .

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