Political Fragmentation with a Vengeance: John Boehner’s Resignation

I have been arguing for some time now that “political fragmentation” is a defining element of our political era.  The decline in the capacity and power of party leaders in Congress to bring along their caucuses to support leadership positions has now been brought home dramatically with John Boehner’s announced resignation.  As I put it in Romanticizing Democracy, Political Fragmentation, and the Decline of American Government, 124 Yale Law J. 804 (2014), 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.”

In my view, the decline in the power of party leaders is attributable to at least two related transformations.  One is the communications revolution, which now enables the most junior lawmakers to reach out to constituencies, including national constituencies, without being dependent on party support for building a national stature.  The second, related phenomenon is the fundraising revolution, which enables officeholders to raise money through social media in a way that also can empower even junior legislators and free them from overwhelming dependence on the political parties.  The power that Ted Cruz or Elizabeth Warren were able to marshal in their first year in office, which would have been unimaginable a few decades ago, is a result of these transformations.  In the House, the rise of extremely safe election districts further contributes.

In today’s online Washington Post, Karen Tumulty, who covers Congress, provides some historical perspective on the decline in the power of the Speaker of the House along similar lines.  As she puts it here:

The speakership itself no longer wields the influence it once did. Sam Rayburn’s old dictum to new members that they should “go along to get along” worked in an era where power within the institution was accumulated over decades, by climbing in seniority through the committee system. Now, even the most junior member can build a national base by stoking ideological fires through mass media. . . .

“It’s my job to look out over the horizon, make sure I know where we’re going,” Boehner once said when asked to define the role of speaker. “And to make sure the team is working together.”

In other words, a job that may be all but undoable in today’s politics.

Political fragmentation that empowers the more ideologically extreme wings of the parties makes the American system of separated powers all the more difficult to function.  The political figures who most strongly internalize the incentives to make their political parties appealing to a broad electorate are the party leaders; in the context of highly polarized political parties, it is these party leaders who are most likely to be the sources of compromise and deal-making that enable the separated powers system to engage major issues of the day.  But when party leaders lack the power to bring their recalcitrant members along, those forces of centrism inevitably diminish.

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