No Republican in the United States will be surprised to learn that the American Civil Liberties Union is moving into the political campaign realm on behalf of liberal Democrats. In fact, it will come as a shock to most Republicans that the ACLU hasn’t been doing so for decades. Yet in his piece last week for the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells made it sound as if the ACLU’s foray into Democratic politics is a dramatic shift.
According to Wallace-Wells, “as a kind of experiment” last year, the ACLU invested in a district attorney’s race and a sheriff’s race — and both ACLU-backed candidates won. Now, Wallace-Wells writes: “The group has plans to spend more than twenty-five million dollars on races and ballot initiatives by Election Day, in November.” Ask any Republican governor or pretty much any elected Republican official anywhere if they have ever thought the ACLU supported the GOP cause and I think you will find near-unanimity that such a thing has never happened.
In an echo of the ACLU’s move, George Soros is spending millions to mobilize voters in local prosecutors’ races and in support of liberal candidates. According to The Post, Soros’s Open Society Foundations “spends $150 million a year financing groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood,” and he continues to “invest in district attorney races, saying prosecutors are ‘the linchpin of the judicial system’.” Interestingly, while the New Yorker piece describes the ACLU as “newly flush,” there is no mention of Soros’s relationship with the group.
The ACLU is doing what a political party should be doing. And that’s the bigger story here, especially for what it says about the Democratic Party. The Democratic National Committee has suffered the political equivalent of “failure-to-thrive syndrome.” Few look to the Democratic Party for leadership or resources, and contributors are going elsewhere. The DNC has just $8.7 million in cash on hand and $5.3 million in debt compared with the Republican National Committee, which has $43.8 million in cash on hand and no debt.
The Democratic Party is not functioning as an umbrella organization or even a coalition. Instead, activists from Tom Steyer to George Soros to Planned Parenthood are operating independently, doing things a political party otherwise would. These independent actors are pushing pet causes. Traditional party building isn’t one of them. Campaign finance reform and communication technologies have empowered wealthy individuals and collateral groups while at the same time inhibiting parties and individual campaigns.
I say this not to kick the Democratic Party while it is down but because I believe in the two-party system. By any measure, the two-party system has served the United States well, and its demise is something that should cause real concern. I don’t mean to say the Republican Party is without its challenges. We have our captive groups, starting with the National Rifle Association. But the Republican Party still provides an umbrella function and can act as a coalition despite some reorientation that President Trump has created around issues such as trade.
Trump ran as an outsider to the Republican Party, but he didn’t seek to dismantle it. Even now, as the 2018 primaries are ending, an army of Trumpkins hasn’t invaded the Republican primaries. Instead, Republican officeholders have become Trumpkins themselves. Nobody running in a GOP primary wanted to be attacked as being insufficiently supportive of Trump. The president’s popularity within the GOP is at 87 percent, the second-highest intra-party approval rating of any president at this point in his first term since World War II — behind only President George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks. That story has gone mostly unreported, and it makes Trump stronger than a lot of people in the former GOP establishment and mainstream media want to believe.
In the meantime, the Democratic Party appears to be dismantling itself. Outside groups are fighting their own fights, donors are being pulled away, and potential Democratic presidential candidates show no sign of being party-builders. If you believe in the two-party system, you know this isn’t good. Party discipline has eroded, and that makes it harder to govern once a party is elected to power. We need reforms that empower parties and candidates and diminish the influence of deep-pocketed plutocrats and narrowly focused interest groups.