ELB Book Corner: Sam Issacharoff: “The Critical Role of Political Parties”

I am pleased to welcome Sam Issacharoff to ELB Book Corner, author of the new book, Democracy Unmoored. Here’s the second of four posts:

Previously I addressed the unique vulnerability of election systems in the face of populism.  Let me shift over now to the operation of democratic politics more fundamentally.  Here the frailty of political parties and the uncentered quality of politics forms a central part of the book’s analysis of the occupies much of my attention in this book.  Simply put, political parties have been the indispensable galvanizing force for democratic politics in the great periods of democratic ascendency in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Whether in a single-victor election or a proportional parliamentary system, some form of aggregation is necessary both to draw sufficient voter attention to issues and to shape a governing coalition. Parties emerged as the institutional mechanism for translating interest and ideology into governance, and their erosion has tracked that of democracy writ large.

Certainly, there was much to party politics of the 19th and 20th centuries that does not conform to today’s conception of a democratic society. American party politics of yesteryear were dominated by backroom deals, intertwined with funds of sketchy provenance, and reinforced by handing out patronage of oftentimes scant public interest. Yet these parties successfully operated in a complex environment defined by voter preferences, the needs of governing, and the maintenance of party officials to carry the work forward. If we understand voters to be the ultimate consumers, the task of governance to be the productive activity of the party, and the party officials to be the management cohort, the party begins to resemble an economic firm such as a corporation that similarly must navigate the need to produce something that the market will value.

By analogy to Ronald Coase’s seminal 1937 work The Nature of the Firm, firms must always decide not just what to produce but also whether to produce. While the market in theory sets the price for goods and services, and the ability to buy or make should be fairly interchangeable – again, in theory – reality triumphs. Firms themselves seek to control internally that which is within their core competencies and leave to market actors secondary activities. These assessments are not stagnant. Firms are constantly revisiting the decision to make or buy based on the costs of substitution of one function for another.

Starting from V.O. Key’s framework, the political party can be seen as an uneasy amalgam of the functions of electoral engagement, popular ideology, and governance. Like an economic firm, parties can prosper if they reach an optimal measure of coordination of these inputs and deliver a final product that the market values. Viewing political parties through the logic of a firm identifies why party leadership would have a historic advantage in the battle for control of democratic politics. The mass of the party-in-the-electorate is disabled by a collective-action problem in organizing for its interests. The candidates would historically have been weak without the endorsement and organizational resources of the party. And the party-in-the-government could not govern effectively, and deliver on its campaign promises, without the party providing coherence to the legislative agenda.

In the eyes of anti-institutionalist populist leaders, a formal party platform operates as a constraint – a structure in which either the organization or the ideology could displace the maximal leader. Absent such a coordinating role, activists and funders and candidates and even elected officials have no need to harness themselves to the inevitable constraints of the party. And weakened political parties do not have the institutional fortitude to withstand the impassioned campaigns of charismatic leaders fueled by an independent donor base and a harnessed social media that reaches voters directly.

While a host of formal reforms fostered the political party’s decline, one of the most telling in the American context is the impact of campaign finance reforms. Just as the fundraising function of political parties fueled their institutional height, the post-Watergate movement to drain their coffers plays a role in their demise. Lost in the rush to restrict money in politics was the fact that the integration of access to voters, candidates, and officeholders allowed parties a controlling role in the democratic sphere. Once the party was no longer able to raise money to support its candidates on any basis distinct from any other contributor and once the interaction between party and candidate was limited by a principle of non-coordination, it no longer made sense for candidates to coordinate their campaign within the realm of the party.

But artificially limiting political funding exposed the hydraulic quality of money in politics: like water, money will seek its own level and restrictions on its flow in one direction will soon generate other outlets. Or, returning to Coasean terms: once parties’ outsized ability to capture and direct funds was hindered, there was no longer a manifest advantage to making as opposed to buying from outside vendors. The winners? The aptly termed “shadow parties,” ranging from dark money outlets to the self-sustaining campaigns of individual candidates. Indeed, as was seen with the Koch brothers in 2016, outsiders could even hold beauty pageants to shop for suitable candidates. In other words: for all of political parties’ historical backroom flaws, the hole they left was filled by more nefarious, more polarizing, and more opaque actors that lack any of the tempering effect that political parties brought to the table.

Again this pattern is repeated across the democratic world, despite vast differences in party organization and financial support.  Something is clearly going on and the root cause of party weakness is that they are no longer rooted in mass organizations or labor unions, or churches, or small business associations, or civic groups, or any of the forms of intermediary organization of days gone by. 

Marry these evolutions with the era of social media and instantaneous connection, and the broad-based parties that once served as the point of first connection with ordinary citizens have crumpled. As parties fragment, a spiral ensues. In Coasean terms, our political entrepreneurs now find it better to buy, not make. Targeting specific groups of voters, activists, and donors requires more focused and generally more extreme messages. Broad-tent parties become an impediment to a new form of politics that channels passion rather than rewarding the necessarily limited returns from governance. Instead, we are left with the rise of the individual-centered definition of politics – and the rise of anti-institutionalist figureheads eager to ride the popular tide.

I leave off here with a modest proposal to slow the demise of political parties in the American context, and one that may no doubt ring blasphemous for many readers.  I suggest that the time has come to redirect money to political parties, not away from them as the last few decades of reform have tried.  The ensuing proposal is to eliminate caps on contributions to parties (not candidates) and to trade that for a more effective disclosure regime.  We already live in a world of uncapped political contributions, only to outside shadow entities whose polarizing agenda is not put before the voters.  Seems like the worst of all worlds.

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