This is a strange and unnerving time for American democracy. Our government and politics have sunk to a nadir of caustic dysfunction. In a great nation of more than 330 million talented and diverse people, the leading candidates of both major parties are deeply polarizing and profoundly unpopular, even within their own parties. Estranged from traditional political processes and values, millions of disillusioned ordinary citizens in New Jersey and across the country are supporting populist candidacies that feed on anger and frustration but offer few practical solutions for governance. “Compromise” has morphed to “weakness” and “moderation” has become a mark of establishment elitism.
What’s going on in American politics? Here’s one hypothesis: What’s happening today is the logical product of the long-term decline of coalition politics as mediated by our traditional two-party system and the simultaneous rise of what political scientists call “candidate-centered” politics.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, the Republican and Democratic parties in New Jersey and many other states resembled two very large political coalitions that overlapped to some extent, rather like one of those Venn diagrams you remember from school. With the Democratic circle on the political or ideological left, and the Republican circle on the right, many Americans might have placed themselves somewhere in the overlapping shaded area. Depending on a particular issue or regional political culture, some Democrats were more conservative than some Republicans, and vice versa.
As a result, affiliation with one party or another often reflected the voter’s choice of, or self-identification with, a broad political coalition rather than a check-the-box decision based on a party’s positions on specific issues that neatly align along a left-right continuum. The basic question for many individual voters was “which coalition am I more comfortable in?” — a question that involves both ideological and cultural considerations. This is the only way to explain a Democratic party that at one time had plenty of fiscal and social conservatives, and a Republican party that at one time included both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, or Ronald Reagan and Tom Kean.
Rather than occupying a specific slice of the ideological spectrum, the two parties were the crucibles of coalition politics. They presided over the reliably messy, often ugly, and sometimes legally suspect process of favor-trading, log-rolling, and distribution of patronage that was necessary to assemble a large, ideologically diverse, and stable political coalition that, in turn, had the capacity to organize a stable governing coalition or function as a loyal opposition. With some exceptions, it was the party — not the individual candidate — that was responsible for recruiting and qualifying candidates for the ballot, raising money, and managing campaigns for elected office.
Most political scientists would agree that the parties have suffered a general decline since at least the end of World War II, roughly coterminous with the advance of “democratizing” reforms such as direct primaries, reduced political patronage, contribution limits, public campaign financing, relaxed ballot-access requirements, and constraints on pay-to-play political fundraising. Though most welcome these reforms, it’s important to note that the parties’ generally unlamented waning has coincided with the rise of candidate-centered politics, that is to say a form of politics in which candidates — not parties — are increasingly responsible for self-recruitment, qualifying for the ballot, raising money, and managing campaigns for elected office. Even New Jersey, with its still-powerful regional party bosses, has seen more candidates without deep ties to any party organization, such as former Gov. Jon Corzine and Rep. Thomas MacArthur.
The rise of candidate-centered politics has had a profound impact on our political process and culture.
First, candidate-centered politics obliges candidates to develop and market their individual “brand.” As anyone who has ever worked in consumer marketing knows, creating brand awareness and building market share is an incredibly expensive proposition, especially in crowded media markets such as the New York-New Jersey region. This, in turn, accounts for the relentless (and ethically compromising) emphasis on fundraising. Is it any wonder that we are seeing more self-funded candidates, more candidates leveraging celebrity or a willingness to shock in to order to garner (free) media attention, or more candidates arising from activist or special-interest backgrounds with their own resource base (e.g. Christian cultural conservatives or public sector unions)?
Second, the rise of candidate-centered politics has made winning or losing a competitive election much more of a high-stakes and personal experience than it is in other countries such as the United Kingdom. In the U.K., whether or not a back-bencher is returned to Parliament is mostly a function of her or his party’s overall performance, not whether the incumbent is personally popular, spends more money on building name recognition, performs outstanding constituent service, or is successful in highlighting a challenger’s personal foibles. Yes, politics in the U.K. can be plenty nasty, but for most candidates it lacks the element of direct personal conflict that turns many good people off from participation in the American political process.
Third, successful candidates now owe less to — and identify less readily with — party organizations and the broad governing coalitions they once maintained. At one level, this trend has led to a decline in party discipline that naturally makes it more difficult to build and maintain a stable governing coalition. At a higher level, however, this trend reflects a fundamental change in our political culture’s expectations with respect to democracy and government.
Specifically, fewer voters and elected officials accept and value the notion that working in coalition is both an appropriate and necessary part of governing. Naturally, if many of our elected leaders win their offices with zero expectation of working in coalition, compromise on even basic issues becomes much more difficult and the governing process defaults to resentful stasis. Consider today’s Washington, D.C., filled with “leaders” whose electoral success rests largely on their rigid opposition to compromise of any kind.
Fourth, candidate-centered politics reduces accountability to the broader electorate. To understand why, consider the voter experience. Whereas ordinary voters could once reasonably use party affiliation as a convenient proxy for a candidate’s ideology and likely coalition partners, candidate-centered politics presumes that voters will have the time and inclination to monitor the performance and issue positions of every individual candidate, from president on down to town councilmember. This expectation is ludicrous. Most people have little or no idea who represents them in Congress, the State House in Trenton, or Borough Hall, let alone an informed clue as to performance. As candidates scramble for attention in an increasingly crowded political marketplace, voters are bombarded with conflicting, shifting, and increasingly hysterical messaging that all too frequently turns negative and alienates middle-of-the-road voters from participation, leaving the field relatively open to the most active and extreme.
Finally, candidate-centered politics exists in symbiotic relationship with the growing fragmentation of our society’s cultural and political communication networks. Beginning with the launch of CNN’s 24-hour news channel in 1980, continuing with the Internet revolution of the 1990s, and accelerating with the explosive growth of social media in the 2000s, most voters now live, work, socialize, form political opinions, and organize inside self-selected and self-reinforcing communications networks. At the same time, the modern communications framework is generating huge amounts of data that supports ever more precise profiling and micro-targeting of individuals, both as consumers and as voters.
I believe this fragmentation and related micro-marketing is at least partially responsible for the growing popular frustration and disillusionment with traditional politicians and political processes. Once again, it’s a function of how political expectations are formed and managed.
As consumers, we accept and expect that companies spend huge sums to stimulate our demand for their products. We might even welcome pop-up ads that magically anticipate our interests or needs. We have come to expect self-service tools and on-demand service offerings.
It should come as no surprise that many individuals in our society have brought their consumer expectations into the political space. Indeed, brand-building candidates and issue-oriented pressure groups bombard voters with highly targeted communications that are meant to stimulate (or suppress) demand for a “product” — that is, a particular candidate or issue position.
The challenge we face is that these techniques are highly effective at the product level but a disaster at the process level. Specifically, micro-targeting is demonstrably effective in moving money and votes with respect to a specific candidate or issue, particularly at the most extreme ends of the ideological spectrum, but it is totally incompatible with sustaining a broader political dialogue that supports coalition-building, compromise, and thus governing. By rejecting any expectation of coalition politics in favor of peddling a stream of utterly unrealistic but ideologically “pure” goals designed to energize a narrow slice of the electorate, modern political communication creates a cycle of cynicism and rising frustration. If you think voters are angry and frustrated now, how will they feel once a President Cruz proves unable to “abolish” the Internal Revenue Service and “repeal every word of Obamacare” or a President Trump is unable to force the Mexican government to build a border wall?
In sum, the decline of our two-party system has created an organizational and procedural vacuum. Candidate-centered politics is exploiting, rather than filling, this vacuum and tearing at the fabric of common political culture. As our cultural expectation of coalition politics declines, our Venn diagram’s shaded area grows ever smaller, portending a fundamental, and I believe unwelcome, shift in our historic system of representative government.
What to do? One option would be to try to rebuild the role of our two great national parties in supporting coalition politics. Steps to enhance the role of the two parties might include: relaxing financing restrictions with respect to party organizations while strengthening them with respect to individual candidates and issue advocacy organizations; directing public campaign financing to political parties rather than to candidates; tightening ballot-access rules to favor “regular” organization candidates; and requiring run-off primaries to weed out fringe candidacies.
Although I favor boosting the role of party organizations, many thoughtful observers will strongly disagree with this back-to-the-future approach, noting that the good old days of strong party organizations weren’t always so great. True enough, machine politics often resulted in conflicts of interest, inefficiency, waste, and outright corruption. And, as New Jerseyans can attest, it still does. Yet I believe it’s possible to strengthen the role of our two major parties without returning to the days of Tammany Hall or Jersey City under Boss Frank Hague.
Whether or not you value a return to coalition politics, or agree that we should strengthen our two-party system, the plain truth is that no one really knows what will happen in this unpredictable presidential cycle, or whether the current turmoil will ultimately yield some form of lasting political realignment or reform. But at least you may now have a better understanding as to how we got here.
Fasten your seatbelts; we anticipate turbulence ahead.