Political Fragmentation and Eric Cantor

I have been arguing (as in this Washington Post/Monkey Cage piece) that political fragmentation is a defining attribute of our political era.  Fragmentation is quite different from the partisan polarization of politics that has drawn far greater attention; polarization is central, too, but political fragmentation is crucial to understanding why governance is so difficult today.  The primary-election defeat of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader who was also strongly supported by the party “establishment,” now offers a prime example of the dynamics of political fragmentation.

Here is how I have described political fragmentation:

By fragmentation, I mean the external diffusion of political power away from the political parties as a whole and the internal diffusion of power away from the party leadership to individual party members and officeholders.  It is political fragmentation that makes it that much more difficult, in a political world that rests on polarized parties, for party leaders nonetheless to engage in the kinds of negotiations, compromises, and pragmatic deal-making that enable government to function effectively, at least in areas of broad consensus that government must act in some way (budgets, debt-ceiling increases).  And because of political fragmentation, party leaders in all our political institutions have less capacity to play this kind of leadership role than in many previous eras.  When political fragmentation that makes it that much harder for party leaders to command their parties is added to highly polarized parties, the mix is highly toxic to the capacity of our political institutions to function effectively.

In response, Seth Masket argued that our political parties are “networked, not fragmented.”  And Jonathan Bernstein endorsed Seth’s view that this networked view better characterizes our situation than the idea of political fragmentation I seek to emphasize.

After Cantor’s defeat, I want to push back harder on the political fragmentation point.  Conceiving the political parties as “networked” with various non-party actors presents a picture of concerted action and agenda setting that misses a significant element of our political reality.  It’s true of course that some SuperPacs that do not formally co-ordinate with campaigns nonetheless are, in effect, supportive elements of campaigns that work in conscious parallelism with the campaign’s goals.  Networking of that sort does go on.  But the communications and technology revolutions now enable forces outside the control of the party establishment and leadership to mobilize and organize outsider and insurgent support in ways far cheaper and more effective than before.

And these forces are not at all “networked” with the party.  On the contrary, they are able to upend and flatten the party hierarchy — whether it is formal party leaders or the previously dominant, “establishment” forces within the parties.  If we focus only on polarization, or only on the way some outside forces in the system do network with the party leadership, we miss the hugely consequential fact and forces of political fragmentation that are so central to understanding our era.

The forces of party centralization are, of course, struggling back against these forces of fragmentation, as we saw in the many successful incumbent efforts to fend of primary challengers.  But the defeat of the House majority leader in a primary is powerful further evidence, if any was needed, of the need to understand the forces of political fragmentation.

I discussed these issues of political fragmentation more in the 2014 Ralph Gregory Elliot Lecture I gave at Yale Law School, and I hope to post a public draft of that in the next month or so.

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