Party Decline: A Primer

By Burke, Amy D. | The American Prospect, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Party Decline: A Primer


Burke, Amy D., The American Prospect


Although the Republic's Founders dreaded the divisiveness of "faction," political parties have proved essential to the promise of American democracy. Parties bridge the structural bias against government activism in the constitutional separation of powers and allow ordinary citizens who lack economic influence to aggregate political power. Hence, a strong party system is more crucial to liberals than conservatives.

Yet parties have long been in decline, supplanted by media, money, interest groups, and candidate-centered politics. The party platform, once the fulcrum of great national debates, scarcely matters today. And, paradoxically, some of the very reforms that progressives designed--to clean up politics, empower ordinary people, and buffer the excesses of a market economy--have weakened parties, thus making it harder to elect durable progressive governing coalitions. It remains to be seen whether parties can recover, or whether liberals can thrive without them.

A century ago, procedural reformers attacked the crude, often corrupt populism of nineteenth-century parties. Civil service reforms, such as the shift from party caucuses to direct primaries and the direct election of senators, weakened the role of party bosses and party discipline. Beyond ridding politics and government of graft and corruption, progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly sought to use the power of the national government to improve the lot of ordinary people. To progressives, strong, professionalized government and cleaner politics went logically together.

With the New Deal, federal income support programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage replaced the bucket of coal and Christmas turkey with which the ward boss rewarded the party faithful. By vastly expanding the scope of the executive branch, FDR further eroded parties. "In Roosevelt's view," according to Brandeis University political scientist Sidney Milkis, the party system was built on state and local organizations and interests. It "was thus suited to congressional primacy," and "would have to be transformed into a national, executive-oriented system organized on the basis of public issues."

Roosevelt faced not only a recalcitrant Supreme Court but the reactionary wing of his own party in Congress. In 1936 FDR succeeded in killing a Democratic National Convention rule requiring presidential nominees to get two-thirds of delegate votes, which had given southern Democrats a near veto. By the middle of his second term, Roosevelt sought to nationalize party politics, hoping to make Democrats the nation's explicitly liberal party and the Republicans the conservative one. FDR's failed purge campaign of 1938 sought to rid Congress of conservative Democrats unwilling to support his reforms. It took half a century, punctuated by a civil rights revolution led by Democrats, Nixon's Southern Strategy, and the dying off of incumbent Dixiecrats, before Republicans became the natural conservative party in the South. By then, Democrats had been weakened as the national liberal party.

Truman and Kennedy were government activists but party regulars. In contrast, Lyndon Johnson, like Roosevelt, strengthened the executive branch, expanded the welfare state--and weakened the party. Though Johnson took full advantage of a large partisan majority in Congress, he nonetheless viewed the institutional Democratic Party as a rival power base, curtailing the budget and activities of the Democratic National Committee. His antipoverty program funded grassroots political activism in inner cities, which deepened the rift between insurgents and Democratic elected officials. The two most recent Democratic presidents, Carter and Clinton, were outsider candidates and often explicitly anti-party presidents. Carter disdained the Democratic party machinery in favor of personal campaign strategists. Clinton, both via "triangulation" and in his campaign fundraising, has often been a rival of the party-as-institution.

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