Do they know what they're doing? Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg News

Do We Know How to Reform Political Parties?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The best thing you can read about political parties this week is from Seth Masket, writing over at the Monkey Cage, about networked political parties and how they work. It's an excellent primer on an absolutely essential topic.

You can't begin to understand just how central the parties are to U.S. politics right now unless you understand that formal party organizations such as the Democratic National Committee or the Senate's Republican Conference are only some of the components of a networked party. What I call the "expanded party" includes not just formal party organization officials and staff but also politicians, party and campaign professionals, activists, party-aligned interest groups and the party-aligned media.

Virtually no one shows up in Congress (or, for that matter, at the White House) with all that much independence from their party. While only a small percentage of campaign funding comes from formal party organizations, the bulk of it (except for the self-funded) comes in various forms from the party network. Most campaign staff and consultants and even many volunteers similarly have stronger, longer term attachments to the party than to any particular candidate. We lack the hard research to nail down anything perfectly, but it's fairly clear that forty years ago candidacies were far less tied to the parties and a much smaller percentage of campaign resources were party-integrated.

This also explains how parties can be both very strong (in the sense that much of what happens in elections and government runs through them) but also not particularly hierarchical. There are struggles between party groups, and the winners will emerge with more influence. But neither Republicans nor Democrats have a top-down structure in which any particular person or central committee can tell others what to do.

I do take issue with one point Seth makes. He asserts that formal party leaders "such as congressional leaders or the chairs of the DNC and RNC" are "probably powerful as they once were." That's not correct. The national formal party organizations weren't very important back in the days of strong old-style parties, mainly because there weren't really national parties to speak of. As for congressional leaders, reforms in the House and Senate have made party leaders in both those bodies far more important than their mid-20th century predecessors.

What I mainly agree with, however, is that reformers (Seth is discussing a particularly wrong-headed piece by Richard Pildes) aren't going to accomplish what they intend unless they thoroughly understand the strength of the networked parties.

Frankly, I have no idea what consequences would ensue from running more campaign dollars through formal party organizations, as Pildes recommends. Presumably that would strengthen those organizations within their overall parties. But there's no easy way to figure out what the consequences would be. For example, right now, to the extent that formal party organizations specialize in providing technical support and expertise for candidates, there's relatively little reason to fight over controlling them. Make them more central to nominations, however, and the incentives change completely; perhaps instead of organizing new outside groups, strong ideologues would instead mobilize to win control of formal party organizations. If they won, would party responsibilities moderate their ideological appetites? Or would the battle sharpen ideological and other fault lines within the parties -- lines that don't need to be so clearly drawn when subgroups set up their own shops?

We've learned that parties in democracies can be amazingly resilient. They find ways to adapt to restrictions against selecting nominees as they see fit, or against using campaign money and other resources as they see fit; they even find ways to adapt to forced nonpartisanship, as they have in the Nebraska's unicameral legislature. But knowing the parties would surely adapt to changed ground rules doesn't really help us know whether we would get better or worse parties after the adaptations. It also doesn't tell us whether the post-reform parties would be better for democracy. In my view, strong but permeable and non-hierarchical political parties are absolutely critical to strong democracy, and networked parties come close to that ideal. Running more resources through formal party organizations could help with some of today's problems, but it also could produce bloated parties that respond more to internal bureaucratic incentives than to voters or even party members.

At any rate, it's worth trying to understand the parties, in all their networked complexity, before trying to reform them. Read Seth's piece. It's very good.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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