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Those “Withered” Parties

- August 30, 2010

In Sunday’s _New York Times_, Marc Ambinder “writes”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/opinion/29ambinder.html?_r=1:

bq. Indeed, conservatives and liberals alike will continue to insist on nominating unadulterated candidates and will become more successful in doing so. And those candidates are likely to distrust their own establishments as much as they ideologically oppose the people at the other end of the political spectrum. In such an environment, the parties will be useful to help raise money, set the presidential nominating calendar and organize conventions, but that’s about it.

bq. Whither the national parties? They’re already withered.

I asked Hans Noel, a co-author of “The Party Decides”:http://www.amazon.com/Party-Decides-Presidential-Nominations-American/dp/0226112373/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1283189403&sr=8-1, to respond. He writes:

bq. Marc Ambinder is the latest commenter to find evidence of “withered” parties in the small recent spate of “outsider” upsets in primaries. Ambinder predicts that new technology spells the death of parties, as more and more independents will use it to beat the establishment. In _The Party Decides_, we argue that party insiders have much more control over presidential nominations than some might think.

bq. In short, this parties-are-dead diagnosis makes three mistakes. First, it extrapolates from a small number of cases, forgetting that such cases happen all the time. Second, it assumes that party insiders are incapable of learning from outsider challenges, despite all the evidence that they do. But most importantly, it misunderstands what an “intra-party squabble” really is. Today’s outsider is tomorrow’s insider.

bq. On the first two points, recall that “outsider” Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination by exploiting a new technology — the sudden increased importance of primaries and caucuses. But the Democratic Party quickly figured out how to respond, and no one since Carter has done the same. In 2004, Howard Dean (then also an “outsider”) came close, exploiting the Internet, but again, the party quickly learned how to use that technology. Now, everyone is doing it. You can see this pattern repeating itself since long before Franklin Roosevelt sent phonograph records of his speeches to important players in 1932.

bq. But the more important problem is that such challenges to one authority in the party are coming from another power center in the party. Parties are not strongly hierarchical organizations to begin with, so the way in is just to start playing. Whatever else she is, Sarah Palin is the party’s most recent nominee for vice president. That’s not an outsider position. And so neither are the candidates she backs. And these candidates are contesting party primaries. But “outsiders” like outsider rhetoric, but they are in the tent. The Tea Party’s agenda — as well as the agenda of a diverse group can be defined — is indistinguishable from the Republican agenda of the last decade.

bq. In fact, this particular intra-party tension is the most common, between the impatience of activists and the complacency and risk-aversion of elected officials. But it tends to work itself out. As “outsiders” win office, they quickly become insiders. If we want to extrapolate from today’s events, the right thing to expect is that the parties will _continue_ to nominate ideologically consistent candidates, which they’ve been doing for decades. And these ideological partisans will quickly play their typical role in the party.

bq. Both of these phenomena are so well know that they were given names ages ago. John May in 1973 called the first the “law of curvilinear disparity”:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9248.1973.tb01423.x/abstract, while we’ve know the second as the “Iron Law of oligarchy”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_law_of_oligarchy since Robert Michels spelled in out in 1911.