Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Too Strong? Too Weak? Or Obsolete? Looking at the Power of Political Parties

Created: 14 April, 2021
Updated: 14 August, 2022
10 min read

Demographics in the American electorate are shifting, the needs and priorities of voters are changing, yet politics in the US hasn't changed much in the last half century. In fact, the only thing that has changed is that the government has gotten less and less responsive to voters.

I discussed some of the driving forces behind this in a previous examination of what it means when reformers refer to the US political system as a two-party duopoly. Two private political organizations, the Republican and Democratic Parties, have all the advantage in the US electoral process and have made themselves the gatekeepers to public elections and public office.

Yet, if you ask members of the parties or academics who view the US political structure within the box of a two-party system, they will argue that political parties need to be stronger. They might argue that the Republican Party, for instance, needed more power to prevent Donald Trump from gaining the party’s nomination. 

However, the notion that they didn't have this power is inaccurate.

To quickly explain, National Republican and Democratic Parties ultimately control the nomination process by which a presidential candidate is chosen. If they wanted to usurp the will of their own members and name a different nominee at the party's convention, they could, and the Democratic Party successfully argued this point in court in 2017.

For many independents, advocates in the reform space, and civic engagement activists, there is no question the parties have too much power. Some would go so far as to say the party system has become obsolete because it now only gets in the way of fair and accountable representation.

However, the dominant view in Washington and among political scientists and journalists is that the parties need to be stronger. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the GOP needs to be saved. HR 1, supported by Democrats in Congress,  strengthens the position of the two major parties in the electoral process even more.

So, do the parties need to be stronger? Are they too strong? Or, are they obsolete? These were questions examined in Open Primaries’ latest virtual discussion, featuring Open Primaries President John Opdycke and former US representative and author Mickey Edwards.

“The reason people are looking for an answer -- some are saying parties need to be stronger, more controlling, whatever --  is because [the system] doesn’t work. There is not much disagreement in the country that there is something seriously wrong,” said  Edwards.

“A lot of people say it is dysfunctional. “It’s not dysfunctional, because it is functioning exactly the way it is designed to function.”

Edwards has quite the resume. He served Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District from 1977 to 1993. He then expanded his career in higher academia and public policy, teaching at Harvard, Georgetown, and Princeton. He also led projects at the Brookings Institute and the Aspen Institute. 

His work has had a profound impact on the pro-voter reform movement because 10 years ago he wrote an article for The Atlantic titled, “How to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.” In it, he went into extensive detail on how the two major parties had taken control of elections. He also wrote the book, “The Parties VersusThe People” in 2013.

Do Political Parties Need to be Stronger?

In her op-ed. Peggy Noonan says it would be a “civic and political good in America” to revitalize the GOP in 2021.

“Some Republicans the past few years have talked of breaking from the two-party system and starting a third,” she writes. “But that’s not the way to go. Better to strengthen the system that for more than a century and a half has seen us through a lot of mess.”

She added that the two-party system acts as a “unifying force, “ essentially because it forces people to associate with one team or another. A third party would just get in the way of country unification, she adds.

This may seem like a strange argument to many since the structure of the manufactured two-party system has led to the hyper-polarized, extremely divided, and unresponsive political environment we have today. This goes back to what Edwards said about how the system was intended to function.

Edwards said that on the question of whether political parties need to be stronger or not, we have to consider the purpose of it, and the purposes of government. Do we want a system that empowers voters or stifles their voices by allowing parties to put limitations on their vote?

“When they say ‘strengthen the parties’ they mean the party leaders -- they mean that the people who run the party ought to be able to tell members what to do,” he explained. 

“Imagine when I had run for office in Oklahoma City in my first election, I went around and talked to people in town meetings, speeches, and interviews, and I said here’s who I am. I introduced myself. They got to know me as a person. They got to know what I believe, and decided whether I was articulate, whether I was intelligent. Then they vote for me. They say ‘Ok, we’re going to send you to Washington.’ And I say to them, ‘Great! I’ve listened to you. You put your trust in me. And I am going to go to Washington, and I am going to do whatever Kevin McCarthy or Nancy Pelosi tells me to do.”

This is the system we have today. The argument that parties need to be stronger essentially makes the case for more instances in which elected officials have to serve the interests of party leadership first, regardless of what voters say they want.

“If you want top-down, that is fine if you believe in a system that is not designed for the people to speak,” he added.

Is The Party System Obsolete? 

Open Primaries President John Opdycke began the call by explaining that he personally believes the party system is obsolete. He said the parties erect too many barriers to equal and meaningful participation in the political process.

Edwards explained that he believed there was a time when the country needed parties. He said we needed them because people could not get information, or find out about candidates running for office or the issues, and they had no way to marshal groups of people to take an action.

“The world has changed. We don’t need that anymore,” he remarked.

Consider how great changes have emerged in recent history. The source is generally from organized civic engagement or a massive social movement that began and existed outside the parties (Edwards gave the examples of Black Lives Matter and Mothers Against Drunk Driving). 

In the modern age, people are organizing without the parties.

So, the question that needs to be answered is, can a fair, equal, accountable, and responsive system “of by and for the people” be done without the parties? It certainly isn’t being done with the parties. But, are parties needed to govern effectively?

Consider any organization or group that a person may be a part of, whether it is work, church, an association, etc. To make decisions on operations or funding or actions, these groups do not have to first split into two parties.

“It is not the way we do anything in our lives, except the way we try to run our government,” Edwards said. “That’s why it doesn’t work.”

When politics is dominated by the interests of two parties, the system becomes solely about those interests. It becomes more about winning. It becomes more about maintaining and gaining political power. Voters don’t matter in this system.

Changing The Mechanisms By Which the Political Machine Works

There are some who will make the argument that the system wasn’t always this bad. They will argue that there were “magic days” where cross-partisan alliances and a willingness to compromise led to historic policy changes. Names like Tip O’Neill might come to mind.

Yet, Edwards had first hand experience with how politics worked at that time, and he says those who argue that factionalization within the parties has come about because the parties are weaker, and thus need to be stronger to return to the “magic days,” are relying on short-term memory.

“I was there at the time,” he said. “It was more a question of dominance and submission.”

Edwards explained that the country in the 70s and 80s looked drastically different than the country today. Congress, today, is evenly divided. Back then, one party -- particularly the Democratic Party -- had huge majorities.

“I think the year I was elected, Democrats had 100 or so more members than Republicans,” he said. 

“So there was no problem for them, the Democrats, to go along with something we (the Republicans), wanted to put in [legislation] because that gave them the veneer of bipartisanship, and Republicans would say ‘If I can get this one little thing in there, I will support it.’”

There was one-party dominance. So those wanting a return to the “magic days” are arguing for a return to that scenario, where one party has such overwhelming numbers that they could offer the “other side” crumbs and call it bipartisanship.

And since this time, there has been less and less cross-partisanship between members of the major parties. Today, that overlap doesn’t exist and the gap between the parties gets wider and wider each election cycle. In Edwards’ opinion, there is no going back to the "magic days."

The problem with the US political system is not weakened parties. The problem is an incentive structure in which the parties, particularly their leaders, have so much control that elected public officials in those parties put the will of their leaders over the will of voters.

One might argue, “what about Donald Trump?” He was rejected by party leaders and still got the GOP nomination in 2016. It is a fair point, but there is something important to consider with Trump:

Aside from the nearly $3 billion in free marketing he got from the press, making him the most visible candidate in the race, think about what happened after he got elected. Republicans that once ridiculed him and said he would be a detriment immediately came to his side.

Donald Trump is a case-in-point to how the incentive structure under the current party system is skewed in the favor of party leaders, which as president he became for his party.

The nation’s biggest problems, including a government that is completely unresponsive to voters, will not be solved until the incentives are shifted to put voters above parties, and more specifically party leaders.

The knee-jerk reaction from some is to immediately say, “So you want to get rid of parties?” This is not an anti-party message. Parties will always exist, and they have every right to exist.

However, what voters must ask themselves is: Should parties be the gatekeepers to our elections and our political process? Is the current party structure working? If a person’s answer is no, then they need to examine the way we elect our public officials, starting from the onset.

Partisan primaries immediately divide the electorate into two sides, while giving party leaders the biggest advantage in deciding who ultimately gets elected in low-turnout elections that are paid for by taxpayers, but disenfranchise tens of millions of voters nationwide. And, since most seats are safe for one party or another, the primary is critical to deciding who ultimately gets elected.

This, of course, isn’t the only problem with US elections. There are a myriad of problems that will require their own solutions. But this is a good place to start, because partisan primaries, particularly those that restrict voter access, is the primary factor that drives the incentive structure to favor party leaders over voters.

We have to change the way we elect our public officials, and give voters a process that empowers their voice and treats them equally.