Are parties now weaker, or holding their own if we just see them in the right way? The question has engrossed political scientists, but more general interest is growing in direct proportion to the worry that healthy parties could play a constructive role in tempering polarized politics. Rick Pildes argues for the view that parties are struggling through a period of political fragmentation, defined as a “diffusion of political power” away from the political parties and their leadership, and he see them as in need of help if they are to contribute to the management of polarization. Seth Masket answers that parties still exert their power effectively, if in a new form, through a complex “network” composed of “candidates, officeholders, activists, major donors, media figures and others.”
Parties tend to be redefined as their changing roles and structure require. The mass party is behind us, most agree: gone are the torchlight parades of party members prepared to put deep, emotional and largely unquestioning loyalty first among their political commitments. Candidates run their own show. As John Aldrich has noted, the party of today is primarily, and at best, “in service” to their candidates—a source of funding, polling, training in campaign techniques and other support. John H. Aldrich, Why Parties: A Second Look 285-86 (2011). The party “in service” helps ambitious politicians achieve their goals, but the politicians set the terms of engagement, raise much of the money the parties distribute, and always feel free to go elsewhere if necessary for what they need.
Masket believes that networked parties are not “weaker” or “fractured”: they may look and operate differently, even to the point that it is hard to figure out “just who is in charge at any given point,” but they get the job done. Yet it is easy to see the sharing of power within a “network” as quite close to Pildes’ “ diffusion of political power.” And it is correspondingly hard to see how this diffusion has not left the parties weaker, especially when Masket concedes that parties must exercise what influence they have, as a party, through “dialogue (or a debate)” with their network allies.
One way to measure party standing is to examine how ambitious politicians appraise the importance of the party contribution to their political welfare. In 2002, Congress—most of them candidates for office—passed McCain-Feingold and, with this enactment, stripped hundreds of millions of dollars from party coffers. By one expert estimate, the soft money banned by law amounted to “as much as one third of the income of the national parties in the mid-90s and 40 percent of total national party income during the 1999–2000 election cycle.” If politicians voting for this bill were motivated at all by self-interest, then the decision to eliminate this bountiful supply of funds speaks powerfully to their assessment of party indispensability. This point stands whether one agrees or disagrees with the policy embodied in McCain-Feingold or with the majority or minority of the Court on the associated constitutional issues. National politicians de-funded a large portion of the their party budget, evidently concluding that they could manage well enough without it.
Of course, it is true that McCain Feingold raised the limits on hard dollar fundraising for both candidates and parties, but these increases could not make up what was lost in soft money. And it is also fair to note that the law contained some provisions reflecting a role for the parties: the “millionaire’s amendment,” for example, provided for increased party spending for a candidate facing a wealthy, free-spending opponent. But this Amendment only proves the larger point—the party in this instance was judged to be useful not so much in its broader institutional role, but as a means of moving money to candidates to defend them against a particular threat. In this respect, the parties were freshly equipped to operate “in service” to candidates. Contrast this with the law’s comprehensive reduction in party resources for traditional organizational functions and infrastructure—from the funding needed for office facilities, to the financing of voter registration and get-out-the-vote activity.
It has been argued that the parties have rebounded and adapted successfully to the new regime. To doubt the force of this claim, one does not have to take the position that parties did not adjust at all, or that they are no longer able to contribute to the welfare of their candidates. The question is whether they have lost ground to other political actors—weakened in that sense, in relative terms. Functioning within a “network,” they might reasonably be seen as operating alongside, in the vicinity and not infrequently in conflict with a number of organizations with overlapping interests, not as first among equals.
If there has been consistently effective adaptation, it has been mostly on the part of “outside groups” and candidates. They have crafted effective legal, political and public communications strategies for preserving and enlarging their theatre of operations under new rules and conditions. They have won major cases in court; kept the FEC at bay (granted, with assistance from one of the major parties); and proven surprisingly successful at changing the terms of the policy debate, such as in shifting their position on (and now against) mandatory public disclosure. The parties remain the much maligned partisans whose narrative has been written unflatteringly, and to lasting effect, by McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.
It would be a mistake to fix the blame for the parties’ condition on McCain-Feingold. Other factors account for their deteriorated competitive position. But certainly, at a time when parties were more vulnerable than many realized, the 2002 reform did little to help them—it was not, after all, passed to help them—and a fair amount was done to diminish their prospects. And this came about because candidates weighing the costs and benefits concluded that they could get along with a shrunken party structure.
Now the parties may be grasping for a firm hold within a network, as Seth Masket pictures it, that includes tax-exempt organizations and Super PACs. They remain, where they can, “in service” to their candidates, but not in all ways or consistently as a preferred provider. This did not happen overnight. In 2002, when McCain-Feingold came before the House and Senate, the parties were evidently already weaker, or the candidates supposedly reliant on them would have voted differently.