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Parties are not the problem — they're the solution


With Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Lawrence Lessig, and Carly Fiorina in the 2016 race, the media trope about the "year of the outsider" has made a reappearance. American politics never strays very far from the outsider theme, regardless of the candidates. But this year the field really invites us to start diagnosing why Americans hate politics and politicians so much.

Most of these answers are wrong. Some of them rely too much on candidate characteristics — we have outsiders because Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy or Jeb Bush is, well, Jeb Bush. Nope — candidate characteristics just aren't the main factors. A bigger problem is the diagnosis that blames society without looking at the big picture.

David Brooks takes that approach this week with a piece on the "anti-party men." Like many commentators, Brooks is eager to extract a lesson from Donald Trump's rogue candidacy. Bernie Sanders and, hey, a British politician, Jeremy Corbyn, are along for this ride too. There are glimmers of hope. The piece starts with, "Political parties are civic institutions." Yes! But then things take a turn, as they usually do.

We know we are in conceptual trouble when Sanders and Trump are both lumped under the umbrella "anti-party men." It's true that anti-party sentiment can occur on the left, right, and center. But while Sanders has kept the socialist label instead of calling himself a Democrat, he's been in Congress for more than 20 years. He's on the periphery. Trump, though, is a different animal, compared with all sorts of people who aren't even politicians by some historians in this Politico piece and written off fairly convincingly as entertainment by Seth Masket here at Mischiefs of Faction. (See also: Nate Silver's informative piece on the Sanders-Trump comparison.)

More troubling is Brooks's diagnosis of why these candidates are attractive right now. His assessment is that we're "solipsistic" and mired in a culture of "expressive individualism." Trump is expressive — in that his politics are all about rhetoric and have no policy substance to speak of — but it's not an individual thing. Rather, the expressive buttons he presses are about all group identities, drawing on anxieties about the changing status of women and minorities in American life.

There are lots of reasons people might be drawn to Trump's brand of nationalist expressiveness and Sanders's economic populism. One of them is that the political system is not responsive to the preferences of average people. What's become known in political science as the "policy-demanders" school of nomination politics suggests that organized groups of elites, not voters, drive the behavior of parties. And a big study came out in 2014 suggesting that American government is far less responsive to average citizens than to economic elites. Before we start blaming our indulgent culture, we should look at basic factors like power and money.

The idea that parties are civic organizations also deserves more attention. The turn against parties predates a lot of the cynicism that came out of the Watergate-Vietnam era, with progressive reforms early in the 20th century. And machine politics had lots of problems with corruption, to be sure. But these more organizationally robust parties did something really important: They recruited ambitious politicians who were eager to climb the political ranks. The presence of a steady supply of people eyeing the top job helped enforce the two-term norm for presidents before the 22nd Amendment.

Term limits, fragmented parties, and the buildup of national party organizations (rather than local ones) have all led us to 2016. The Democratic field has a flawed but generally high-quality candidate in Clinton (despite everything, she's experienced, well-financed, and well-known). The party's search for a backup plan, though, reveals a field that's mostly over 60 years old. The Republicans have coordination failures, entertainers, and some people who don't really seem to want it. Healthier, more robust parties would never have looked clean or pretty, but they might have done a better job at the core jobs of recruiting and coordinating.

Finally, polarization is not an artificial creation that the right politician can just solve. Society is polarized because politically engaged people disagree about big stuff like the Iraq War, race issues, and how we should address poverty. It's true that we will probably need some creative leadership to get beyond some of the stalemates that keep happening. But Brooks calls for a "sensible" version of the anti-party characters to come in and fix things. The thing is, no one ever said that "politics is the art of the sensible." You have to build coalitions with interests that already exist, and the leader who does that will probably have to put together deals and strange bedfellows that won't look like anyone's idea of sensible centrism, at least not right away.

The unexpected candidacies of 2015 are clear products of the political system we have. And that system has a lot of problems that are increasingly hard to explain away. But we don't need an anti-party hero to rescue the nation. Any change will have to happen by managing the elements of the system that are already in place.

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