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The Complicated Truth About Political Parties

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Black and white? More like gray.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Who should pick a party's candidates?

The obvious answer is, well, the party. But that just raises the question of who "the party" is -- especially when they're decentralized and consist as much of loose networks of party actors as they do of formal party organizations.

That's the context in which to understand some excellent reporting from McClatchy's Alex Roarty about efforts by Democratic House leaders to pick nominees in certain districts, and complaints about those efforts by activists who believe the party "establishment" is wrong on policy and on electoral politics. 

What we should understand about these fights is that they are natural struggles to define the party -- fights, that is, between party actors (some of whom have won more of these battles in the past and thus are seen as "establishment") and others who are trying to reorient the party along new lines. In theory, these fights are perfectly healthy. Each participant brings resources to the contest: money, of course, but also enthusiasm, energy, policy and electoral expertise, and more. And each nomination and set of nominations (such as the up to 435 nominations for House seats) is a fresh battleground.

New participants are welcome; the parties are permeable. It can seem that things are rigged against them. But mostly it's the fact that the past exists, and it carries over to the present in the form of alliances and understandings between the thousands and thousands of party actors -- politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan news media. 

As long as new actors are allowed to fully participate, then the frustration of those previous arrangements is just a challenge for them to learn, understand and attempt to overcome. That's incredibly hard -- not because of some conspiracy against new people, but because the United States is an enormous nation. Decentralization cuts both ways: On the one hand, local groups can be relatively easy to influence, and there's no hierarchical nationalized party to rebuke the locals if they stray off course; on the other hand, there's no obvious organized structure at the national level to infiltrate and, therefore, change. At the same time -- and unlike in most of American history -- national parties now exist, and they compete and coordinate with state and local parties over nominations, at the same time various actors within the parties at each level are competing and coordinating with each other. 

In other words: Our parties are complicated. Very complicated. 

It is true that over the course of U.S. history not all parties have been permeable and not all new participants have been welcome. Bossed parties locked out anyone who might threaten them, and many local parties rejected interested citizens because of their ethnicity, gender and more. They used party rules -- and even the power of government -- to keep internal affairs closed to outsiders. But even when some might be tempted to revive those habits, the nature of contemporary parties made up of loose networks tends to make it harder to shut anyone out. 

So should Nancy Pelosi attempt to influence House nominations in Arizona or North Carolina or wherever? Of course. Should Democratic activists who disagree with her choices attempt to defeat them? Of course. Or they might find ways to agree; or, at the very least, those committed to the party can agree to move on together after the nomination process concludes. After all, what parties must guarantee is the right to full participation for those who choose to do so; they obviously cannot give all citizens and groups the right to win party battles. And sometimes the battles are so fundamental to the nature of the party that the losers exit -- as Dixiecrats did when bigots lost influence in the Democratic Party during the 1940s and 1950s, and as liberal Republicans did when they lost influence within their party in the 1960s and 1970s. But most of the time, the new groups and old come together during or after nomination battles and find ways to work together, no matter how painful that may be. 

1. Brendan Nyhan and Yusaku Horiuchi at the Monkey Cage on an incredibly difficult problem: how to stop "fake news." 

2. Julia Azari at Mischiefs of Faction on the state of democracy in the United States

3. Molly Ball on Third Way

4. An excellent Matt Yglesias item on one of the latest demonstrations that Donald Trump just isn't fit for the office he holds

5. My Bloomberg View colleague Tyler Cowen on populism

6. I tend to agree with Ed Kilgore that parties should avoid older presidential nominees

7. And David Leonhardt on driverless, or nearly driverless, cars. Yes, this is a huge story, with lots of implications. All I can think about, however, is that if we can make automated cars, surely we can implement an automated strike zone and relieve umpires of a responsibility the human eye and brain weren't designed for.  

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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