Thursday, 29 July 2004

Parties versus interest groups

Chip Taylor solicits comment from political scientists on last weekend’s New York Times Magazine piece on the efforts to create a Democratic-leaning interest group infrastructure to rival the similar arrangements on the right. He writes:

That made me think about the Reform Party. After Perot was done dabbling in presidential politics, the Reform Party infrastructure was left with no real leader or agenda. It did have state and local party officials across the country, ballot access in many states, and eligibility for at least one more round of public funding for its presidential candidate.

Consequently there was a struggle between Buchanan and his organization and (if memory serves) the Natural Law Party apparatus (such as it is was). Neither was exactly committed to the principles of the Reform Party (to the extent that they existed); they were after the political assets of the Reform Party organization.

Now, I’m not saying that the Democratic Party is anywhere near the empty shell the post-Perot Reform Party was. But it seems that to the extent it is composed of coalitions of disparate interest groups, it is more vulnerable to a “hostile takeover.”

I wrote about this topic late last year:

With the institutional power of American parties in rapid decline relative to both candidates and interest groups (witness George Soros’ large donation to, rather than the Democrats), thanks to the incumbency advantage, widespread adoption of open primaries, and McCain-Feingold, it seems likely that the United States will see more of these fights for the heart and soul of the party, as candidates and interest groups try to gain control of the remaining institutional advantages of the major parties—their automatic access to the ballot and their “brand recognition.” Why build a third party from scratch when you can just hijack the Republicans or Democrats?

More broadly, I think American politics has moved away from the system of parties articulating voter preferences (articulated in part here by James Joyner) to a system in which interest groups are the primary vehicle for public influence of the political process—with electoral competition something of a vestigial sideshow, necessitated more by constitutional requirements and the need for some elected oversight of the bureaucracy than it is required for functioning representative government. I don’t know that the central thesis here is anything too original—go read Schattschneider or Dahl—but I think political actors have finally come to recognize this reality in a way that they didn’t before, prodded largely by the search for loopholes in campaign finance laws and continual weakening of the institutional position of political parties in the system.