Well-intended reforms have made the national parties weak and ineffective—and unable to resist their most extreme elements.
In the summer of 1968, while anti-Vietnam War protesters roared through the streets of Chicago, Hubert Humphrey was inside a convention hall accomplishing something that would be unthinkable today: He won his party’s presidential nomination without ever having entered, much less won, a single presidential primary.
How? As the sitting vice president, Mr. Humphrey simply exerted control over the Democratic Party stalwarts who traveled to the party’s national convention to serve as delegates. Under the direction of political aide Larry O’Brien, his forces used rules and connections to beat back challenges, allowing Mr. Humphrey to claim the nomination on the first ballot. He then promptly made Mr. O’Brien the party’s national chairman.
In retrospect, that convention marked the high point of power for a national party organization. Democratic foot soldiers, outraged at the control exerted by insiders, compelled the creation of a reform commission that instituted changes to democratize the party, significantly reducing the power of its leadership.
Paradoxical as it may sound, the decline of the parties has led to more ferocious partisanship.
Today, the movement to weaken the national party structures that began in 1968 has reached its logical result: The power of the two national party organizations has declined so dramatically that they sometimes appear to be bystanders to a political system in which they were once central actors.
This trend, some in both parties believe, is too much of what once seemed a good thing and is now contributing to the polarization and dysfunction of America’s political system. The decline of party organizations has opened the way for the rise of more extreme voices and, crucially, turned much of the financing of campaigns over to less-accountable players. The extremes of left and right have been strengthened in the process, and the center hollowed out. Paradoxical as it may sound, the decline of the parties has led to more ferocious partisanship.
“The party organizations are so damn weak,” laments Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Donna Brazile, a former Democratic national chairwoman, says that “over the years, the parties have been weakened by the new landscape where super PACs and other dark money forces have a stranglehold.”
Changing this situation won’t be easy. It would require a bipartisan effort to reverse some well-meaning reforms of recent decades.
Few advocate a return to the old days when a handful of party insiders made key decisions in smoke-filled backrooms. That process often shut out actual voters.
But in an ideal world, the two national parties still would function as the adults in a more open political space—vetting candidates, providing transparent funding for campaigns and making sure responsible leaders are heard. They would give a voice and a home to millions of Americans in the center of the political spectrum who are neither activists nor ideologues but who nonetheless want a seat at the table.
Traditionally, political parties have provided three big M’s for candidates and campaigns: mobilization, message and money. Today, a combination of technology and legal changes has sapped the parties’ power in all three areas.
The parties’ role in mobilizing foot soldiers at the local level has been taken over to a large extent by social media, while their role in vetting candidates has been supplanted by primary elections in which the barriers to entry are low and extreme candidates often stand out.
At the same time, the parties’ traditional role in laying out a governing agenda has atrophied. On the Republican side, Donald Trump ran almost as an independent in 2016, by using his personal megaphone rather than the party apparatus to define a candidacy that jettisoned traditional GOP positions. In 2020 he simply dispensed with the traditional practice of having his party write and approve a platform at its national convention. Democrats wrote a platform, but for many it was soon forgotten as moderates and progressives moved ahead on sometimes divergent paths.
Most important, the parties’ critical mission of providing money to candidates has been eclipsed by independent outside groups, ultrawealthy individual donors and online fundraising, all of which are as likely to reward extreme candidates as centrist ones.
Data compiled by the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org illustrate the trend. Over the last 20 years, spending by party organizations has risen 24%, to $2.5 billion per two-year election cycle. Over the same period of time, spending by outside groups has shot up 70-fold, from $27.7 million in 2002 to just under $2 billion in the 2022 cycle. The once-enormous gap between party spending and outside spending is disappearing.
The flow of outside money, frequently so-called “dark money” from undisclosed donors, has resulted in “extremist candidates and a complete undermining of the political-party process,” says Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, another former Democratic chairwoman.
The decline of the parties is particularly evident at the state and local level. As political debates have become more nationalized in the modern media age, the resources the parties do retain increasingly flow up to Washington and not down to local parties. That leaves the parties “organizationally weak, with nonexistent engagement at the local level, which deeply hinders their ability to recruit and train party workers and candidates,” concluded a recent report in the Columbia Law Review.
As a result, even while activists of the left and right rail against the “political establishment,” there’s no real establishment to speak of. In the last two presidential campaigns, the most prominent candidates at points were Mr. Trump on the Republican side and Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, even though Mr. Trump had spent as much time as a registered Democrat or independent in prior years, and Mr. Sanders wasn’t technically a Democrat at all but rather an independent. In both parties, moderates hoped “party leaders” might devise a strategy to stop them, only to discover there were no leaders with the clout to do so.
And while it’s true that lawmakers in Congress often vote in lockstep with one another, they seldom do so because of some coherent set of party principles. The more powerful motive is fear of crossing the most strident activists back home.
This state of affairs exists in part because of the law of unintended consequences: A series of well-intentioned reforms brought about some desirable changes, but their boomerang effects have contributed to undermining the parties.
The commission that Democrats set up after the 1968 election—called the McGovern-Fraser Commission, after its chairmen—effectively stripped party leaders of the power to steer presidential nominations and turned the process over to primary elections. While that succeeded in giving more voice to voters, it also dramatically weakened state and local party organizations, which had played a big role in screening candidates and choosing delegates to attend the presidential nominating conventions.
In the decades that followed, a series of legal changes intended to take big money out of politics made matters worse: Instead of stemming the flow of money, they simply diverted it away from party organizations. Most dramatically, in 2002, the McCain-Feingold finance-reform law eliminated the parties’ ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money—so-called “soft money”—for party-building activities. The theory was that such money was being used to indirectly support candidates as a way around legal limits on campaign donations.
The law tried to stop that money from finding other avenues into campaigns by limiting the ability of corporations, unions and independent organizations to make direct expenditures on behalf of candidates. But then the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case declared that such restrictions on outside actors were unconstitutional.
With that, the undermining of the parties’ financial power was complete; they were shackled by law and court decision, while outside groups were unshackled. Into the void have stepped outside advocacy groups such as the conservative Club For Growth, which pumped $81 million into campaigns in the last cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org data. Meanwhile, wealthy individuals wield their checkbooks as they see fit. Liberal financier George Soros put $176 million into campaigns in the last election cycle.
There also has been an explosion of candidates raising funds online from small donors, many of them activists who back candidates not because they live in their states or districts but for ideological reasons. This online fundraising power has fueled the rise of young members on the outer wings of both parties—including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among Democrats and Rep. Matt Gaetz among Republicans—and in the process weakened party leaders.
Polls show that, in the aggregate, Republicans and Democrats are more moderate than the activist voices currently at the forefront.
How to fix the parties?
The most important changes would bolster their power to finance campaigns and curb the influence of outside groups. “You’ve got to reverse the current system, where outside groups have money throughout the [election] cycle and set the agenda,” says Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican elections lawyer. “I would make parties the main source of funding.”
Two changes to existing laws could make that happen. The first would be to reverse the reforms of McCain-Feingold that stopped parties from raising large amounts of money and spending it on programs to build the party and indirectly help campaigns. To prevent outside money from finding another route into the system, Mr. Ginsberg suggests stipulating that individual candidates could only raise money from within their own state or congressional district.
Second, the law could be changed to significantly lift current limits on so-called “coordinated spending.” Coordinated expenditures are funds a party committee pays for goods or services needed by a campaign, without giving money directly to the candidate. Current federal law limits a party’s coordinated expenditure for most House nominees to $59,400.
A report on strengthening the parties from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law several years ago agreed with those changes but also advocated using public funds to match small donations made to the parties.
In addition, the parties themselves could reduce the power of candidates to sway presidential primary elections by winning only a small share of the vote. That would require Republicans to do what Democrats already have done: Switch from winner-take-all presidential primaries, where a candidate who wins only, say, 30% of the vote in a state primary can get 100% of the state’s delegates to the nominating convention, to a system that awards delegates proportionally.
Republicans also could follow the Democrats’ example and have party leaders appoint a substantial number of “superdelegates”—mostly current officeholders—to the nominating convention (though Democrats moved in the opposite direction in the 2020 cycle by reducing the power of such delegates).
Would such reforms make a difference? Would empowering the party organizations produce more moderate or mainstream campaigns and candidates? Probably not, if control of the Republican power structure was seized by Trump supporters and the Democratic structure by Sanders supporters. But these outcomes may not be so likely. Polls show that, in the aggregate, Republicans and Democrats are more moderate than the activist voices currently at the forefront.
The big question is whether the two parties could come together to agree on changes. Mr. Ginsberg thinks it’s possible. “Nobody thinks the current system is working,” he says. “There is universal agreement about that. You’ve got to look at some solutions and trade-offs.”
Mr. Seib retired last year as the Journal’s executive Washington editor and weekly Capital Journal columnist. He has served most recently as a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
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Appeared in the April 22, 2023, print edition as ‘Well-intended reforms have made the national parties weak and ineffective—and unable to resist their most extreme elements. By Gerald F. Seib