Seemingly every day, we are told that American political parties are fragmented, divided, and weak. Many recent journalistic accounts describe the Republican Party, in particular, as “badly divided.” Matt Bai, at least, also sees an ideological war going on within the Democratic Party, which has, in his words, “veered back toward its more populist and pacifist instincts, venting its suspicion of the emerging military-digital complex, along with outright contempt for the wealthy and for conservatives generally.”
Recently on this blog, Richard Pildes also argued that American political parties have become dangerously fragmented. Junior members of Congress, he wrote, were once dependent upon congressional leaders for funding and stature; now freshmen like Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz can just affiliate with outside groups and get that funding and stature on their own. The solution to polarization, fragmentation, and general government dysfunction is, then, to find ways to strengthen party leaders relative to their rank-and-file members, giving the leaders greater power to broker compromises and govern.
I think this characterization isn’t quite right. Today’s Democratic and Republican parties aren’t so much fragmented as networked. Here is what that means.
It used to be pretty easy to figure out what a party was and who its member were. In the age of the classic urban party machines, local leaders like Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago or Mayor James Curley in Boston headed an identifiable and hierarchical urban organization, with lieutenants, ward bosses, and precinct captains beneath them. They managed hundreds or thousands of municipal employees who would donate their money and labor to the party in campaigns in exchange for lengthy government careers. You could understand who was part of the party and what their place was in it simply by reading an organizational chart.
American political parties have become much more complex in recent decades. The demise of those political machines and the rise of the civil service meant that party leaders couldn’t just hand out public jobs to their supporters; they had to attract volunteer labor from ideological activists, which became easier as the parties moved toward the ideological extremes. Campaign finance laws prevented prominent party leaders from handing sufficient funds to their preferred candidates. Money is now raised in small amounts from a wider range of donors and coordinated across many different organizations.
The modern American party is a network in this sense: It is a collection of different sorts of political actors — candidates, officeholders, activists, major donors, media figures, and others — working together to determine who gets nominated for office and thus what direction the government moves. These different actors are connected to each other in a variety of ways, including the exchange of information and the transfer of campaign money, all of which involve picking candidates and backing them at the presidential, congressional, or local level.
The network structure makes it difficult to know just who is in charge of the party at any given point, or even who is a member of it. Is the tea party part of the Republican Party right now? Probably. But what about Rush Limbaugh? The Club for Growth? Megyn Kelly? Karl Rove? Any one of these individuals or groups may be influential over whom the party nominates for office, but determining the chain of command can be very challenging, especially when they battle each other for influence.
Are the formal party leaders, such as congressional leaders or the chairs of the DNC and RNC, as powerful as they once were? Probably not, because the parties don’t have the sort of top-down organizational structure that they once did. But that doesn’t mean that the parties are weaker or fractured. It just means that their organizational decisions occur as more of a dialogue (or a debate) than a diktat.
Moreover, parties can still reach consensus very rapidly and effectively. Even in this age of networked parties, the parties organize very quickly behind candidates and are able to deploy a stunning array of resources to help them out in a nomination contest. Yes, a lot of fringe candidates appeared in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination cycle and made a great deal of noise in the debates, but the broader party network had converged early on for Mitt Romney, and despite the occasional bump, it was hard to see him failing to secure the nomination. And this same party network unified nearly seamlessly in the general election to support their nominee.
Now, it is entirely possible that a party network may be more prone to extremism than a party hierarchy. Ideological activists play a much larger role in the modern party system, and many candidates now come from their ranks.
Yet just because a networked party may be more extreme doesn’t make it any less effective. What’s more, trying to fix a party by running more resources through the traditional leaders isn’t likely to change much. Routing campaign money through the formal parties instead of outside groups, as Pildes suggests, may well help to improve the traceability of money, but it won’t disempower the outsiders.
Right now, groups and individuals seeking influence channel campaign donations through complex funding networks because that’s the only way the law allows them to do it. If the law allowed them to donate vast sums directly through the formal parties, they would do so that way. The resulting party networks might give the appearance of less fragmentation, but it’s not like the groups and individuals driving polarization would be removed from the equation. In general, the network structure is highly adaptable to changes in rules, and the groups and activists that are part of the network today aren’t likely to surrender their influence very easily.