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How to fix our polarized politics? Strengthen political parties.

- February 6, 2014
Boehner shakes hands with President Obama before the 2011 State of the Union address. (Kevin Lamarque / Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Richard H. Pildes, Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University and author of “Why the Center Does Not Hold:  The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America.”

The dramatic polarization of our political parties is here to stay.  It is primarily a product of long-term historical and structural forces that get set into motion in the 1960s when African Americans (and many previously-excluded poor whites) begin the process of becoming full political participants.  That process begins with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but takes decades to culminate, as it more or less now has (for the analysis backing that up, see the article above).  Thus, specific efforts to diminish polarization by one, or several, discrete changes in our electoral institutions (the design of election districts, for example) are not likely to make a significant dent – as many pieces in this series, such as this and this, confirm.  If we therefore accept polarization as a fact – as we should — our attention instead might better be centered on how to manage polarization’s consequences to promote more effective governance.
My suggestion is that, if we are looking for solutions, we should re-define the problem of effective governance in our era as one of political fragmentation rather than one of political polarization.  By fragmentation, I mean the external diffusion of political power away from the political parties as a whole and the internal diffusion of power away from the party leadership to individual party members and officeholders.  It is political fragmentation that makes it that much more difficult, in a political world that rests on polarized parties, for party leaders nonetheless to engage in the kinds of negotiations, compromises, and pragmatic deal-making that enable government to function effectively, at least in areas of broad consensus that government must act in some way (budgets, debt-ceiling increases).  And because of political fragmentation, party leaders in all our political institutions have less capacity to play this kind of leadership role than in many previous eras.  When political fragmentation that makes it that much harder for party leaders to command their parties is added to highly polarized parties, the mix is highly toxic to the capacity of our political institutions to function effectively.
Before turning to the causes and cures of this fragmentation, here is what political fragmentation means concretely.  In their first year in the Senate, and with little or no prior political career, Senators today, such as Ted Cruz or Elizabeth Warren, are able to have a political stature and independent base of power that would have been utterly inconceivable in the past, even for political figures as formidable as a Lyndon Johnson.  Without being beholden to, or dependent upon, the elected leaders of their parties, they can now reach large, intensely motivated audiences of potential voters and donors, in ways simply not possible before.  They can establish a personal brand that stands for a different version of “the party” than that of party leaders.  They have the capacity to raise vast amounts of money and act as free-lance entrepreneurs, without needing any help from the political party organizations or party leaders in government.  This fragmentation is more visible for now on the Republican side, but that is because having a same-party President still provides significant additional pressure to maintain party discipline.  But I’m convinced the forces of fragmentation are just as present, if more latent for now, on the Democratic side.
As a result, the party elite – the party’s leaders in the House and the Senate, and the President —  no longer have as much leverage over party members (even first-year Senators) as in certain past eras.  This reality is part of the broader breakdown of traditional organizational “power” that Moises Naim, in “The End of Power,” so well documents across an array of public and private institutions, from churches to boardrooms.  The irreversible revolution in communications and technology is a major cause; these changes not only enable otherwise isolated officeholders to reach out, they also enable more dispersed factional interests to be mobilized to reach in more easily.  In politics, these centripetal forces the communications revolution has unleashed are then further aided by the way our laws have structured the financing of elections (about which, more in a moment).  As much as we tend to be drawn to stories of “weak” political leaders, it is these larger structural forces – not the failed political styles and personalities of particular individuals – that have thinned the capacity of party leaders to command.
Ironically, then, for those searching for ways to make the political process function more effectively, the problem is not best defined as parliamentary parties within a separated-powers system. That description is partly right, but wrong in an important way too.  For excessive political fragmentation makes American parties today incapable of functioning as truly parliamentary ones; even with polarization, party leaders frequently cannot deliver their parties.   And instead of the quixotic pursuit of institutional changes that might end polarization, we should instead look for structural changes that might restore effective leadership within the parties.
That’s because political parties still remain the institutions that have the strongest incentives, through elections, to aggregate the broadest range of interests – even in (or particularly because of) an expanded sphere of democratic participation.  And within “the parties,” party leaders in Congress or the White House are the ones most likely to be responsive to these broader incentives – they have the strongest stakes in ensuring the broadest electoral appeal of the party brand.  In addition, party leaders are best situated to make credible commitments for their organizations in political negotiations, if they can forge and force agreement within their parties.  And negotiations between three to five leadership figures are easier than hydra-headed negotiations, in which new factions or individuals pop up to expand the issue dimensions at stake.  Political compromise and deal-making depends all the more on effective leadership in times, likely to endure, of highly polarized political parties.
So we should use law and policy to push back against political fragmentation and to re-empower party leaders — even if this runs against the grain of American disdain for political parties and distrust of “elites,” including party leaders.   This process might happen organically; there are suggestions that business leaders more closely aligned with Republican Party leaders might get more actively involved in primary fights in an effort to nominate candidates more likely to adhere to leadership positions.  But if a need remains to orient law and policy in the directions I suggest, we might, for example, change campaign-finance law to encourage more money to flow to the parties – rather than to outside groups or individual candidates – and to play a bigger role in their candidate’s campaigns.  But at this stage, specifics reform proposals are less important than recognizing the role of political fragmentation in the decline of our capacity for effective governance.