A few weeks ago, the Republican National Committee issued a 100-page report aimed at reviving the GOP after its poor showing in last November’s elections. It was remarkably blunt about the specifics of the party’s shortcomings — its lack of inclusiveness, its hapless data initiatives, its poor grassroots organizing. What it did not take on, however, was an issue the RNC can do little about: the diminished influence, if not irrelevance, of both major parties in American politics.
In the early years of my political career, the parties were pretty much the only game in town. If you wanted to be a candidate, there was no one else to turn to for help with building a campaign organization, finding volunteers, making contact with activists and donors, or creating a network of supporters. People could and did win elections without official party support — but not often, and not easily.
The parties also registered voters, turned them out on Election Day, and provided much of the campaign funding. They not only articulated policy and kept the other party honest, but also served to forge a policy consensus among the disparate coalitions that made them up, striving to make themselves as inclusive as possible.
All this is much less evident these days. At the very top, once the nomination is sewed up, presidential candidates run independently of the party. They have their own staffs, do their own fundraising, and build their own organizations. I’ll be stunned if we don’t see future presidents take a leaf from President Obama’s playbook and form their own grassroots organizations outside the party apparatus to pressure Washington lawmakers.
The rise of increasingly influential outside players has done much the same thing for candidates lower down. They can now hire their own signature-gatherers for petitions, their own pollsters, their own consultants and specialists in virtually every aspect of modern campaigning. Scores of groups representing various factions within a party have emerged as significant players in the political process. The parties are simply outmatched in resources and organization. They’ve even lost control of campaign funding, as special interest groups with their own organizations — the NRA, say, or the Club for Growth — not only put money behind or against candidates, but also turn out voters on behalf of their favorite issues.
The parties’ loss of influence is especially obvious when you look at primaries. Where party approval once was tantamount to nomination, today it’s anything but. In last year’s elections, any number of party-approved candidates were beaten by well-funded outside challengers. It’s one of the reasons that building consensus on Capitol Hill has become so difficult: with congressional districts drawn to favor one party or another, incumbents live in fear of taking a stance that might draw a challenger with special-interest backing.
At the state and local level, party organizations are finding it harder than ever to recruit volunteers interested in building the party itself, rather than in promoting a favored cause by trying to take over its apparatus. Where volunteers once put in many hours licking stamps, walking the streets to identify and register voters, or getting people to the polls, today far fewer people feel they can justify the time unless it’s on behalf of a particular candidate or issue.
Obviously, the parties are not entirely out of the game. Some roles only a national party can play, as with the presidential nominating process. But where they once were able to exert control, now they can at best hope for a bit of influence.
I favor strengthening the role of political parties in our system. They once played a central role in identifying candidates, articulating ideas and positions, and identifying talent for government; today, those jobs often are not performed at all. Robust political parties might even help break the impasse in Washington. They used to bring a wide array of Americans together under one banner, and pressed their members to learn how to build consensus on behalf of a larger cause. This was a skill that carried over to Capitol Hill. Independence from the party may be a fine thing for self-expression, but it carries a cost to the country.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.