Polarization Without Parties

Polarization Without Parties

THE SOURCE: “The American Political Parties Are Breaking Down” by Walter Russell Mead, in Via Meadia (blog), Oct. 31, 2011.

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Partisanship may have reached scorching levels, but even partisans don't have much use for actual political parties these days, argues Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College. The parties “are increasingly being reduced to flags of convenience,” he writes. At a time when the United States faces serious long-term challenges, American politics is becoming “less coherent and more subject to rapid mood swings.” Politicians are more likely to buck the party line, making it harder to reach agreement and get legislation passed.

Republicans particularly are choosing to meet, strategize, and raise money outside of the party apparatus, the Republican National Committee. (The Democratic National Committee has retained its primacy, as President Barack Obama’s success as a fundraiser keeps its coffers full.) American Crossroads, a political action committee founded by former Republican presidential adviser Karl Rove, plans to spend $240 million during the 2012 election season, according to The New York Times.

The Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case in 2010 partly explains the move away from party structures: Groups such as American Crossroads are now able to spend unlimited amounts without disclosing their sources of financial support. Another factor is simply that fewer Americans identify with political parties. Politicians have little incentive to heed party leaders and every reason to play to public opinion, and they have the cash to go it alone.

Two kinds of politicians thrive in this environment, Mead argues: “insurgency candidates” who command grassroots support regardless of their political experience (including populists such as Republican representative Michele Bachmann and celebrities such as Democratic senator Al Franken, both of Minnesota), and office hopefuls who have access to especially deep pockets, whether their own or someone else’s. (If you’re not a Bloomberg, in other words, you’d better have the connections of a Kennedy.) The politicians who lose out? Those who plan to “rise patiently through the ranks of the party machine,” and perhaps care more about the public interest than personal power.

The country’s size and diversity mean that when populism flourishes, as it does today, it’s likely to come in many varieties. Fortunately, that means that no single populist leader is likely to get very far. Still, if politicians don’t figure out a way to assuage the current discontent, according to Mead, “we risk something like a national version of California’s political death spiral: dissatisfaction with the status quo leading to populist interventions that make the political system more dysfunctional, increasing voter dissatisfaction, and so on down the chute.”

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