Power to the party: Why political reforms can be bad for democracy

Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (3)
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (3)

The Democratic committee man from Michigan had something to say about punctuation.

“At the end of that paragraph,” said Barry Goodman, a member of the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee, “the P for public should be capitalized if party is capitalized with a P.”

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DNC members were slogging through the tedious work of refining a public statement at their March 8 meeting in Washington, D.C. Goodman, a personal injury lawyer from Detroit, wanted to make sure that both words were capitalized “just so we don’t look like public and party are different in terms of importance.”

Goodman meant well, but his sentiments revealed a common but profound misunderstanding about American politics. Most people think of political parties as powerful, when in fact they have been losing power for 50 years.

Populism is popular these days, and many Americans like Goodman want to make the political system more fair. They want to empower the average voter and reduce the influence of the wealthiest. But it’s become increasingly clear to many that anti-party reforms have gone too far and are now having a multitude of negative impacts on our politics, even as idealists push for still more reductions of party power.

“We like to believe that the fate of a government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, democracy will be safe,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the recent book, “How Democracies Die.”

“This view is wrong,” the Harvard government professors write. “What matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.”

The anti-party attitude, which is explored in depth in the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game,” is not exclusive to the left. Donald Trump and his supporters are just as anti-establishment, anti-elite and disdainful of political parties as many Democrats. The loud complaints on the left about party interventions in House primaries in 2018 come from the same sheet music that Trump sang from in 2016 when he criticized the idea of convention delegates and a “rigged” system.

And this anti-party sentiment draws from the same well that produces a disregard for institutions and norms, a big theme of former FBI Director James Comey’s warnings about Trump in his newly released book.

These attitudes reveal one of two things. People either don’t realize how much parties have been weakened over the last half-century, or they are ignorant of the evidence that ineffectual parties put democracy on a path toward instability and even authoritarianism.

But current party leaders also seem to lack this historical perspective. Former RNC chairman Reince Priebus did nothing to unite the GOP around an alternative to Trump in 2016. And now, DNC chairman Tom Perez is fully on board with weakening the power of the Democratic Party by reducing the number of superdelegates in the presidential primary. Perez spoke briefly at the beginning of the March 8 meeting, praising the group for its work. He talked of “rebuilding trust” after the 2016 primary, in which Bernie Sanders supporters complained that the DNC tilted the playing field in favor of Hillary Clinton.

“I’m confident that what’s going to come out of this is a bold report that addresses the compelling need for reform,” Perez said.

Perez’s sentiments are the norm. But the ongoing process of diminishing the power of parties is actually endangering democracy, according to a growing number of experts and political observers.

Democrats are resisting empowering their own party officials as they head into the 2018 midterms and toward a 2020 showdown with President Trump. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made moves to help congressional candidates in Democratic primaries who it felt had the best chance of beating a Republican opponent. This has sparked howls of outrage.

This attitude could leave Democrats vulnerable to a presidential primary in 2020 that splits the moderate vote among a number of establishment candidates and opens a path for a demagogue of the left.

“The unforeseen consequences are that it … increases the possibility that the Democrats get their own Trump,” Levitsky told Yahoo News.

Or else a nominee who appeals to hardcore liberal progressives but who cannot beat Trump, giving him another four years in office.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: ‘The Long Game” by Yahoo News

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In the 1968 Democratic primary, Eugene McCarthy got 3 million votes, Bobby Kennedy got 2 million, and Hubert Humphrey didn’t run in any primaries, and received only 110,000 votes as a result. Yet Humphrey was the nominee. Party bosses picked him over McCarthy at the convention (Kennedy was assassinated before the convention took place).

During the 2012 Republican primary, I got an education on how the delegate system worked in most states. I saw there were effectively two different primaries. Voters went to the polls and many of them thought that was it. But there was still a delegate process in place that required candidates to recruit supporters and organize to get them elected at three successive conventions, usually starting at the precinct level, then up to the county, then at the state convention the delegates to the national convention would be elected. Most people have no idea this system exists.

At first I was puzzled by how complicated the delegate world was. But upon reflection, I saw how that kind of organization could only be built by candidates who appealed to a broad swath of some of the most active, engaged and informed voters in each party. A demagogue who had lots of money and fame, but not much credibility or qualifications, could build a different kind of popular support through TV and social media exposure. But most party regulars would see through that type of candidate, and charlatans wouldn’t be able to build a credible delegate operation.

This remained true in 2016, when Trump arrived in Cleveland for a convention largely composed of delegates who had been recruited by other candidates. When I recently asked one of the most authoritative Republican rules experts, an attorney, what the chances were that the GOP convention delegates would have chosen someone other than Trump if they’d been freed to vote their preference, this person answered bluntly: Trump had a 99 percent chance of being replaced in that scenario, he said.

Parties are the best vehicle to sustain a set of beliefs. They outlast individuals, and they are built to perpetuate a general political point of view through the work of everyday people. “They are the only long-standing, durable actors in American politics. Individuals, politicians, movements all come and go, but the parties stay with us, and that’s what institutions do when they work is they transmit values from generation to generation,” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

People don’t believe in parties partly because the whole notion of establishment, hierarchical authority has been discredited. Anti-establishment thinking has been one of the most constant and dominant trends of the last half-century. Seismic failures like the Vietnam War and Watergate, then the Iraq War, the Catholic church scandal and the 2008 economic collapse have created cynicism and anger.

And technology has played a big role. TV and the internet have both undermined the value of expertise and elevated the place of image and emotion in public discourse.

Additionally, American culture has become so individualistic that most people probably couldn’t even describe what an institution is, or what they’re good for. Yet if and when they work properly, institutions do two basic things: They protect us, and they propel us.

Institutions can protect us from the abuse of power by giving us a structure to work through, and to appeal to, when there are abuses. They are supposed to prevent authority from being concentrated too narrowly. Conversely, they also protect us from chaos by preventing authority from being dispersed too broadly.

Institutions can propel us to do and accomplish things we could never do on our own. They enable people to come together and act in a cohesive and coherent way. This kind of collective accomplishment does require lines of authority and for some people’s opinions to ultimately matter more than others. But it’s a balance between the extremes of everyone having an equal say (think Occupy Wall Street) and one person deciding everything (think dictatorship).

Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs magazine, noted that when institutions work properly, they also shape our character.

“Individualism is essential to freedom. I think it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “But … we are not born ready to be individualists. To make use of our freedom in ways that are constructive … requires a person who is formed in a certain way to be able to use our freedom responsibly.”

“Our institutions turn us into human beings who are capable of being free men and women, who will choose to do the right thing, generally speaking, and so can be left free to choose, and don’t have to be coerced into being responsible,” Levin said.

But while all institutions can play a formative role, some do so in a more positive way than others. For example, the worlds of television and New York real estate shape an individual in a much different way than do the institutions of politics, government, law and the university.

Donald Trump is the first president to enter the presidency without being molded by the institutions and cultures that have shaped the character of every other president in American history.

And Trump illustrates the change in the way that many people now view institutions, not as something bigger than themselves, but as something to make themselves bigger. “We’ve come to think about institutions more and more as ways of providing platforms for individuals to be themselves, rather than creating molds that form individuals to be reliable and trustworthy,” Levin said.

To Trump, the presidency is not an office to be respected and preserved. Rather, it is a role to be played, with the goal being his own self-promotion, rather than service to the country and its citizens, Levin said.

“The presidency is part of a larger constitutional system, and it’s really when you take the shape of that office within that system that you become most powerful,” Levin said. “He’s playing this role that’s not the role of the president. That leaves the rest of the system missing the president. … But it also means everybody has to deal with this other thing at the heart of the system, which is just a kind of performance artist doing something else.”

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The changes to party primaries after the 1968 election took power away from party bosses and put it in the hands of regular voters. The changes were “well intentioned, but it took that power away from party regulars,” Rauch said. “So they’re no longer in a position to say, ‘If you’ll vote for me on this tough bill, this debt limit bill, I’m gonna help make sure there’s not a primary challenge in your district.’ Parties are no longer able to protect their people on the tough votes so that means it’s every person for themselves. That means [former House Speaker John] Boehner’s in a situation where he can’t go to someone and say, Look, help me with this deal, I’ll make sure you get some help in the election.”

Congress has also enacted reforms — like eliminating earmarks — that have reduced its own ability to achieve compromise and pass legislation. Congressional leaders are far less able to corral votes than in the past.

And so — despite the widespread belief in an all-powerful establishment — the political system is increasingly out of control, creating a negative feedback loop. People blame dysfunction on the establishment and call for more reform. The reform further weakens the ability of parties and party leaders and increases dysfunction and chaos. And public outrage grows, leading to calls for more reform.

Parties make it possible for politicians to deliver on the promises they make during campaigns. But they also can shape those promises and keep them from getting out of touch with reality. Trump’s promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it would have been one of the countless things a strong party would have pointed to as evidence Trump was not a serious candidate for president. But now that he is in office, his supporters are likely to be even more disillusioned and angry if the promise isn’t fulfilled.

But Trump, or any politician who doesn’t fulfill an outlandish promise, can always blame “the establishment,” and many voters will eagerly agree.

“You go from the deficiencies in the nomination system, to the myths that then dominate modern elections, to a government that then doesn’t deliver on those myths, and then a public that gets more and more unhappy about government,” said Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution. “That}s not the case when you have powerful intermediaries.”

“What you have is you have presidents, governors coming in without the institutional backing of a political party. Surprise, surprise, they can’t get anything done. When politicians can’t get anything done, it breeds distrust. It breeds anger,” Kamarck said. “The weakening of parties has meant the weakening of government. People don’t like that, but very few people see the connection between political parties and government.”

Kamarck, one of the leading experts on primary politics and an influential DNC member, has proposed a new pre-primary process through which a party could signal to its members who it finds acceptable and who is not. That could take place through a convention that precedes the primary elections, or through a requirement that party elders make endorsements before voters start going to the polls. The party could even decide that candidates who did not receive a certain percentage of a pre-primary convention vote would not be on the ballot.

Of course, the objection many raise is that this would be undemocratic. But parties are private organizations. They aren’t obligated by the Constitution or the law to run their candidate selection process a certain way.

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Rauch argues that a less directly democratic system, with stronger parties, would represent more people rather than less.

“The paradox of populism [is] if you have an election, not everyone turns up, and the factions that do turn up are gonna be the most motivated, or they’re gonna be the elites, or they’re gonna be the people who know how to manipulate the system,” Rauch said. “And so what’s really gonna happen is you’re gonna get narrow factions which are going to predominate.”

“You have to have a hybrid system. Yes, you have to have elections and direct participation. That’s essential to provide a check on government and a reality test. But you also need people who are there for the long term. You need experts and professionals, career politicians who will be around, who will be able to look at all this, and look around and say OK, who is not represented in that primary election?” he said.

The United States Constitution created a “hybrid system.” The House of Representatives was directly democratic, with voters picking candidates every two years. But the Senate was much more removed from the people. At the founding, senators were elected by state legislatures, not voters. This changed in 1913 with the ratification of the 17th amendment. But senators still have longer terms to insulate them from the passions of the moment. This is intended to give them the ability to do things sometimes that may not be popular, but which might be needed, in the recognition that many voters have short memories.

And as Levitsky and Ziblatt explain in “How Democracies Die,” the Electoral College was originally designed to be a buffer between “the will of the people” and the presidency. But the rise of political parties in the early 1800s transferred the responsibility “to keep dangerous figures out of the White House” from the Electoral College to the parties.

In other words, the American Constitution created a “rigged system” in a positive sense. It was rigged to prevent too much power from being concentrated in the hands of one person, and it was also rigged to make sure “the people” did not have too much say over who would govern them.

Too often, Americans discuss the political system microscopically. Trump’s criticism of delegates ignored that whoever emerged from the party primary would have to compete in the general election, where the people’s votes — filtered through an electoral college that distributed power among all 50 states evenly — were the final word.

A system in which parties put presidential hopefuls through a rigorous process, where party insiders with political expertise were given a significant place of influence, would be a way for a party to then submit a candidate to the whole nation.

“Party leaders will always have vastly more information about candidates — their strengths and flaws, their ability to govern and work with Congress, their backing among various interest groups and coalitions — than voters and caucus goers do,” Seth Masket, chair of the political science department at the University of Denver, wrote in the New York Times recently. “That information is useful, even vital, to the task of picking a good nominee.”

Masket’s study of political reforms in a number of states has shown that reforms that have weakened parties and given voters more input have counterintuitively made politics more opaque and less democratic.

“Each attempt to drive parties from the political sphere exacts a price on democracy, decreasing transparency, accountability, and other things we claim to hold important in our governing systems,” he wrote in his book, “The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How They Weaken Democracy.”

Parties, in fact, fill a gap between the realm of what there is to know about politics and what is actually known by voters.

“We know from a great deal of public opinion research that most voters do not follow politics closely,” he wrote. People are busy, they have jobs, responsibilities, children, hobbies, health concerns and the like. And for many, voting is not a big enough reward for all the work required to become truly expert about politics.

“They have little idea which legislator voted for which bill, calling into question the whole concept of elections as moments of accountability,” Masket wrote. “Parties, however, make such accountability possible. They serve as a convenient cue for voters, allowing them to make informed voting decisions.”

Parties, Masket wrote, are “the greatest instruments for organizing elections, turning out voters, running government, and developing policy ideas and seeing them enacted that we’ve ever produced.”

In December, Perez told Yahoo News that one of his two biggest goals for the 2020 election was that voters and candidates felt the Democratic primary was “fair.” What would that mean? “Nobody had a thumb on the scale,” he said.

In other words, Perez wants the party to be secondary, maybe even an afterthought, to how the party decides what ideas and policies it stands for. Voters will be the primary driver. The problem with this is that it makes it very hard for politicians to take unpopular stands that might be necessary in the long run, such as endorsing a need for painful fiscal reforms.

If the 2020 Democratic primary goes off the tracks, Perez and others in the Democratic Party will likely say that the voters expressed their will, and there’s nothing a party can do. But history shows that’s not the case.

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