Less power to the people

Nice column on the importance of strong political parties (and the dangers of weak ones) in Yahoo.  Shared on FB by a friend that also teaches political parties:

Most people think of political parties as powerful, when in fact they have been losing power for 50 years.

Populism is popular these days, and many Americans like Goodman want to make the political system more fair. They want to empower the average voter and reduce the influence of the wealthiest. But it’s become increasingly clear to many that anti-party reforms have gone too far and are now having a multitude of negative impacts on our politics, even as idealists push for still more reductions of party power.

“We like to believe that the fate of a government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, democracy will be safe,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the recent book, “How Democracies Die.”

“This view is wrong,” the Harvard government professors write. “What matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.”… [emphases mine]

Parties are the best vehicle to sustain a set of beliefs. They outlast individuals, and they are built to perpetuate a general political point of view through the work of everyday people. “They are the only long-standing, durable actors in American politics. Individuals, politicians, movements all come and go, but the parties stay with us, and that’s what institutions do when they work is they transmit values from generation to generation,” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

People don’t believe in parties partly because the whole notion of establishment, hierarchical authority has been discredited. Anti-establishment thinking has been one of the most constant and dominant trends of the last half-century. Seismic failures like the Vietnam War and Watergate, then the Iraq War, the Catholic church scandal and the 2008 economic collapse have created cynicism and anger…

Institutions can protect us from the abuse of power by giving us a structure to work through, and to appeal to, when there are abuses. They are supposed to prevent authority from being concentrated too narrowly. Conversely, they also protect us from chaos by preventing authority from being dispersed too broadly.

Institutions can propel us to do and accomplish things we could never do on our own. They enable people to come together and act in a cohesive and coherent way. This kind of collective accomplishment does require lines of authority and for some people’s opinions to ultimately matter more than others. But it’s a balance between the extremes of everyone having an equal say (think Occupy Wall Street) and one person deciding everything (think dictatorship)…

Parties make it possible for politicians to deliver on the promises they make during campaigns. But they also can shape those promises and keep them from getting out of touch with reality. Trump’s promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it would have been one of the countless things a strong party would have pointed to as evidence Trump was not a serious candidate for president. But now that he is in office, his supporters are likely to be even more disillusioned and angry if the promise isn’t fulfilled.

But Trump, or any politician who doesn’t fulfill an outlandish promise, can always blame “the establishment,” and many voters will eagerly agree…

Rauch argues that a less directly democratic system, with stronger parties, would represent more people rather than less.

“The paradox of populism [is] if you have an election, not everyone turns up, and the factions that do turn up are gonna be the most motivated, or they’re gonna be the elites, or they’re gonna be the people who know how to manipulate the system,” Rauch said. “And so what’s really gonna happen is you’re gonna get narrow factions which are going to predominate.”

“You have to have a hybrid system. Yes, you have to have elections and direct participation. That’s essential to provide a check on government and a reality test. But you also need people who are there for the long term. You need experts and professionals, career politicians who will be around, who will be able to look at all this, and look around and say OK, who is not represented in that primary election?” he said…

A system in which parties put presidential hopefuls through a rigorous process, where party insiders with political expertise were given a significant place of influence, would be a way for a party to then submit a candidate to the whole nation.

“Party leaders will always have vastly more information about candidates — their strengths and flaws, their ability to govern and work with Congress, their backing among various interest groups and coalitions — than voters and caucus goers do,” Seth Masket, chair of the political science department at the University of Denver, wrote in the New York Times recently. “That information is useful, even vital, to the task of picking a good nominee.”

Masket’s study of political reforms in a number of states has shown that reforms that have weakened parties and given voters more input have counterintuitively made politics more opaque and less democratic.

Good and important stuff.  Though, maybe just “shouting into the void” as my friend suggested.  Well, I know at least 24 people this semester who have a better understanding of the importance of political parties in democracy.  Baby steps :-).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Less power to the people

  1. samhbrewer says:

    I am very conflicted about this topic. Any thoughts on this counterpoint article from Norman Solomon.


    would republican superdelegates have stopped trump? those office holders and elites who would make up the ranks of superdelegates did make prominent endorsements which were thoroughly disregarded by large swathes of the republican primary voters. had they been superdelegates would they have comprised enough delegates to veto his nomination. if they did constitute a large enough block would they have chosen to overturn a clear popular primary vote win? should they have?

    similar occurrence in the democratic primary but difference of degree of acuteness. sanders got few endorsements just like trump. if sanders or some other future candidate won a majority of primary votes would superdelegates use their votes to hand the nomination to another candidate even after their public endorsements failed to persuade a majority of primary voters to back their endorsed candidate?

    is it not more an issue of (both) party elites being out of touch with the electorate?

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