When I first became politically active, political parties were far stronger than they are today. (Granted, that observation is much truer of the GOP than the Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats, a far more diverse assemblage, have traditionally engaged in intra-party fratricide.)
There are a number of reasons for today’s weakened GOP. A prominent one is the ability of candidates to raise money via the Internet–they no longer have to depend upon the party elders to endorse and direct contributions.
Then there’s gerrymandering.
Thank to the Republicans very skillful and successful national gerrymander in 2010–a redistricting that created a large number of deep-red Congressional districts– a number of candidates who won those districts no longer saw any reason to cooperate with national party figures, or work for the party’s national priorities.. Those Representatives (dubbed the “lunatic caucus” by former Speaker John Boehner) knew that the only real threat to their re-election would come from being primaried by someone even farther to the Right, and that they would pay no price for ignoring the over-arching needs of the national party.
The significant erosion of partisan authority has had some positive aspects, but I want to suggest that the negatives have far outweighed the positives. For one thing, in the world I formerly inhabited, lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene and unashamed bigots like Paul Gosar (and so many others) would never have gotten the nod.
I thought about that erosion of partisan authority when I read a post-midterm essay from the Brookings Institution. The author was speculating on the lessons each party should have taken from those surprising results–if they retained the ability to learn and adapt.
Put bluntly, it is difficult for the contemporary parties to learn anything. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are not the coherent institutions they once were, with active local chapters that held meetings and powerful national institutions that held the purse strings. As political scientists have come to describe it, the parties today are “hollowed out”: amorphous ideological groupings populated by media organizations, consultants, issue advocates, and donors.
The hollowing of the parties is very bad for our politics, not least because it makes it hard for parties to learn from electoral experience—mistakes and successes—and shift gears to win more votes. The direction of the contemporary Republican Party is chosen to a meaningful extent by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, and those media are, in turn, driven by their bottom line. Outrage and conspiratorial thinking sell, whether or not they win elections. On the Democratic side, the preoccupation of the donor class with high-profile national races has long left down-ballot races desperately underfunded—even though a vast amount of our politics is determined in states and localities. These are obvious electoral liabilities, but because strategic decisions are not made within a robust party structure, it is very hard for the left or the right to adjust course.
So, neither party is actually well positioned to learn anything from the election, simply because neither party coalition is institutionally strong enough to act as a party. But, given this major limitation, what might the partisan coalitions learn this year?
The author went on to suggest what lessons ought to be learned: certainly, on the Republican side, the need to run higher quality candidates. (I would add to that the need to have a platform, rather than dispensing with policy preferences in favor of running only on a promise to “own the libs.”) The lesson for Democrats is the “need to continue the vital work of preserving election integrity– shoring up election administration and protecting voting rights.”
Parties should respond to an election by considering how to be the choice of more of the voters. But lessons are hard to learn in politics, and our parties today are exceptionally weak institutions. Under these conditions, the plausible but dangerously wrong lessons of 2022 may well be, for the right, a more palatable authoritarianism, and for the left, a new complacency.
Implicit in this analysis is an even more important lesson: a healthy democracy requires at least two respectable political parties run by grown-ups able to moderate the influence and prominence of the party’s whackos and bigots.
Including the influence and prominence of former Presidents…..