Party Decline and Party Renewal

David Broder's book 1972 The Party’s Over: The Failure of Politics in America can be seen as the beginning of this debate. Later a book by  Ruth Scott :Parties in Crisis (1979) and  Martin Wattenberg’s The Decline of American Political Parties. All contributed to the theses that American parties were in decline.

And so began the Party decline party renewal debate.

Reasons it's happening

The parties have lost control over presidential candidate selection . 2016 and Donald Trump's take over of the Republican Party seen to prove this. How can this happen?  Until the late 1960s, presidential candidates were largely selected by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms, now they are chosen largely by ordinary voters in presidential primaries. This is a significant loss of clout for the parties.  So in 2016, both parties had much difficulty in controlling their presidential candidate selection process. The Democrats struggled find their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, because of unexpectedly strong opposition from Bernie Sanders. IN the days of party control Hilary would have been selected with little difficulty- although the fact that she did eventually win might suggest party insiders still have influence. However, the Republican party lost complete control with the hostile takeover by Donald Trump.

Set piece party rallies have given way to the age of TV and above all social media.   In this way Trump has been able to communicate directly with his base. 

But: From FDR's fire side chats, to Reagan's homespun folksy style or Jimmy Carter's 'man of the people' - politican have always reached over the heads of their parties and spoken direct to the voters.

3 Parties are pushed by external forces they do not control.

The evangelical churches and Christian right dominate many Republican state parties. The Tea Party movement and populist Trumpism have taken over the Republican party.  To some extent Occupy ‘movements’ and Black Lives Matter have pushed the Democrats towards a more left agenda. 

But: US parties are and always have been, structurally loose coalitions and so they have always been open to popular movements - in the late 19th Century and early 20th , the progressives and the populists changed the politics of the two dominant parties. This led to a renewed appeal and energy for both main parties.

8 Feb 2024

Most polls show Donald Trump is well positioned in the 2024 presidential race. "The Hill" panel discusses the former president's impact on the GOP.

4 Funding and fundraising meant that candidates no longer needed parties

Limits on party fundraising and expenditure have been introduced by the recent campaign finance laws. These have allowed presidential candidates to secure federal funding independent of the parties. Although the 2002 BCRA (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) placed a ban on soft money. However, the Citizens United and Speech Now cases in the Supreme Court have led to the creation of Super PACs.

2020 Michael Bloomberg financed his own campaign and no candidate took state aide 'matching funds' instead they preferred to raise their own money or rely on allied PACs.

But Parties have also found the new rules allow them to raised money easily- in effect they become PACs and while presidential candidates not longer rely on party funds many candidates in state election still do.

Pressure groups have replaced parties in communicating with the electorate, mobilising voters and developing policy.

 5 The rise of 527 groups and Super PACs, which are proliferating because of their ability to collect unlimited amounts of money, is one example of this. The Washington Post claimed that 80% of Romney's advertising spending in the 2012 presidential race came from Super PACs, such as the $104 million spent by `American Crossroads', Similarly, other groups have been established, such as the NRA Political Victory Fund and, to mobilise the electorate and encourage them to vote for certain candidates at election time. The Tea Party, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter are more effective at mobilising peopel to participate.

But. Obama's 2008 campaign raised most money from small donations and was seen to have 'won the ground war' ie mobilising thousands of volunteers to knock on doors, man phone banks and attend rallies. Trump also seemed to energise a new base of popular support which energised the Republican Party and increased turn out. 

6 Finally, pressure group 'think tanks' are also increasingly undertaking policy development and exerting influence on the policy direction of the main parties. In this way, the liberal Centre for American Progress has been claimed to be the keystone of the Obama administration, and a Time magazine article from 2008 claimed that 'not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan's transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway'.

Evidence of party renewal

The parties have attempted to recapture the nomination process through the  introduction of superdelegates, although the degree of influence they exert, in  comparison to pledged state delegates, is debatable. However, the close 2008 Democratic presidential primary race did lead the Guardian to refer to the 795 super delegates as the 'most powerful people in American politics'.

In addition, party control over the nomination procedures has been upheld in a series of Supreme Court rulings regarding the timing of primaries, as highlighted by the disqualification of Florida and Michigan in 2008 for violating Democratic Party rules. 2016 the Democrat National Committee excluded Florida delegates votes after the Florida Democrats moved the date of their primary against party rules-

Party structure and leadership

The parties have developed national party structures and leadership since the 1970s, which has served to strengthen their position. In particular, the Brock reforms (Bill Brock Chair of RNC) led to the establishment of a permanent headquarters for the Republican National Committee. More effective fundraising and policy formulation- and the Howard Dean Reforms for the Democrats (DNC)  Dean was Chair of the Democratic National Committee  from 2005 to 2009. Dean was a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential election. His implementation of the fifty-state strategy putting resources into building a Democratic Party presence even where Democrats had been thought unlikely to win federal positions, in hopes that getting Democrats elected to local and state positions, and increasing awareness of Democrats in previously conceded areas, would result in growing successes in future elections.  as head of the DNC is credited with the Democratic victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections.  

Fundraising involvement

Parties are still involved in important fundraising activities, particularly through the establishment of various campaign committees to assist the election of party candidates. The 2012 elections set new records for party spending, with the Democratic National Committee spending over $319 million, while the Republican National Committee spent more than $404 million.  The Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v FEC  has allowed parties to fundraise on the same terms as PACs by removing overall limits on donations to parties.

Parties have become more ideological   Polarisation and realignment have led to  more unified and coherently ideological parities Brock Reforms  

This has led to greater party discipline in Congress

Greater coordination of the party in Congress has given more power to the party leadership to control the political agenda. In particular, the House Speaker has increasingly managed to dominate the selection of committee chairs and membership. Beginning with Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America and continuing with Dennis Hastert and the Hastert Rule- Speakers have become more assertive in policy leadership. This was seen in December 2012 when House Speaker John Boehner conducted a 'purge' of Republicans who had failed to support his position on the fiscal cliff from key committee posts. However, this led to Boeher being forced out by Tea Party supporters. 

However, the emergence of the Tea Party on the right and a progressive liberal agenda on the left has led to some instability on party discipline- particularly in Congress. While cross party voting has declined internal party unity has been challenged. e.g John Boehner resigned as Speaker after criticism form the Freedom Caucus and Nancy Pelosi has seen support for her continued tenure of the Speakership decline. Libertarian Rand Paul has led filibusters against the extension of the Patriot Act- which was against his party policy.

The Tea Party have not contributed to greater leadership control. Paul Ryan's (Boehner's successor as Speaker) inability to deliver on Trump's American Healthcare Bill is further evidence.

Inherent Weaknesses of US Parties

Despite increasing partisanship and political polarization, US parties still demonstrate structural weakness. 

Several reasons contribute to this issue: