Whose party is it anyway?

Coauthored with Joseph Fishkin, University of Texas Law School

In yesterday’s post, we described how major functions once performed by official party organizations are migrating instead to what we call shadow parties—groups situated outside the official party apparatus, but clearly aligned with one party or the other. The Koch brothers are at the leading edge of the trend. Their fundraising network and complicated array of “outside” groups are increasingly developing the capabilities to provide most of the services one would previously have expected the official party to provide to campaigns—from fundraising networks to television ads. Now the Koch brothers are even offering a voter database with a software interface that many campaigns prefer to the RNC’s.

As we noted yesterday, some people describe this as a fight between “the party” and “outside groups,” but that frame conceals a lot of the real action. The Koch brothers are almost as deeply intertwined with the Republican Party as the RNC itself is. But there are differences. The Koch brothers represent a faction within the party, rather than the party as a whole. Their shadow party groups answer to the people who write the checks, not the rest of the party. This fight is an internal struggle for control of the party. And it’s starting to be clear who has the upper hand in that struggle. The big winners are likely to be those intra-party factions with the enormous resources necessary to rival and sometimes beat the official party at its own game.

So, a skeptic might ask, isn’t this basically a case of what Sam Issacharoff and Pam Karlan call the “hydraulics” of campaign finance reform, where money blocked from one channel (the official parties) flows through another (the shadow parties)? Yes and no. Here, when the money flows through a different channel, the party ends up with a different center of gravity. It means some voices count more inside the party than they did before—and other voices count less.

These shifts raise a fundamental question: who ought to be in control of the party, anyway? In the paper we just published, we imagine three models of who should control a party:

1. The equality model: On this model, each party member should have equal influence over the direction of the party. If you think of the party as a democratic arena, this model is analogous to one-person-one-vote.

2. The elite-driven model: On this model, the parties are not democracies; they are more like firms, competing in the broader democratic arena. In this analogy, party elites are the executives; the donors are the shareholders; and ordinary voters are like consumers who can accept or reject what the elites are selling. This model has its roots in a Schumpeterian conception of democracy.

Neither of these models, we think, is adequate—either positively or normatively. We think parties both are, and should be, both internally democratic and actors in the broader democratic arena, selling their policies to the general public. As we discuss in the paper, we think there are good reasons to depart from the equality model, while not embracing the elite-driven model either. So we propose

3. The pluralist model: This hybrid model takes into account the party’s multi-layered role in our politics. On this model, the party stands in part for ordinary voters who make up the base of the party, in part for the party elites who run it, and in part for the activists in between—the party faithful, who knock on doors and show up at rallies and caucuses and provide much of the party’s energy.

The party faithful are much more heavily involved in the party than ordinary voters, but much less influential than the Koch brothers. One major worry we have about the shift from official parties to shadow parties is that the party faithful may get squeezed out, leaving us with a politics that is more centralized and broadcast-like. This kind of politics leaves little room for the vibrant, unruly, participatory sort of democracy that is driven by large numbers of people who feel strongly about their politics but don’t have an extra few million dollars lying around.

For more see the paper. Cross-posted on the Balkinization.


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