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We need to rethink party democracy

Bernie Sanders rally.
Bernie Sanders rally.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The latest round of "who should be in charge of parties" has begun. While candidates and some of their supporters decry the undemocratic nature of the superdelegates, closed primaries, and even delegate allocation formulas, parties have a few defenders.

One of the commenters on the FiveThirtyEight liveblog did a nice job articulating the opposite view — closed primaries require that decisions are made by people who have "skin in the game." Elaine Kamarck explains this argument in a phenomenal interview. Jonathan Bernstein, a skilled defender of parties, also draws out the case for why parties should choose their own nominees, partially in response to Ezra Klein's take here at Vox about the 2016 "legitimacy problem." Bernstein writes, "The real problem isn't that people can't accept certain party procedures, whether closed primaries or the caucus system or superdelegates. It's that a century after the Progressives preached against political parties, many in the U.S. don't really accept the parties themselves as legitimate."

This has long been my view, more or less, too. You can trace the thread of anti-partyism (as Nancy Rosenblum does in this book) from the American founding to the frontier spirit of independence to the Progressive Era and beyond. I've written quite a bit about how incomplete reforms have screwed up the party system, how 20th-century reforms in particular have destroyed formal decision-making mechanisms, and how the idea of making parties truly democratic is missing some foundational thinking.

But I'm starting to think we've lost the battle. Wishing that progressive anti-partyism never happened is a pointless exercise.

The first thing to consider is legitimacy. When it really comes down to it, legitimacy is pretty subjective and is mostly in the eye of the beholder. It's true that very few other countries have as much input into the process of nomination candidates as we do. But Americans seem content to be international outliers on all sorts of things, and party nominations may not be the hill for exceptionalism skeptics to die on.

Old-school party organizations — the kind that political scientists like me tend to wax nostalgic for — were viewed as legitimate when they first formed here in the 1830s because they involved the people in the process far more than anyone had seen in a long time. They were gloriously messy and highly popular (as in drawing directly from the people) for the time. But they weren't perfect; they were exclusive of women and racial and ethnic minorities. They brokered compromises that defended slavery and other terrible abuses. And they were vulnerable to corruption. There are always, to say the least, trade-offs when designing democratic institutions.

So legitimacy is a moving target, and if people think something isn't legitimate, that's kind of the definition of it not being legitimate. Even if political scientists think it's BS. No one listens to us anyway. Well, probably not.

The norm of plebiscitary, participatory democracy that's emerged from the Progressive Era, is powerful and resonant. Maybe this seems especially pronounced to me as a resident of Milwaukee, a place where Theodore Roosevelt spilled blood in the course of pursuing this ideal of a more direct democracy (ideally, one that would directly elect him to the presidency again). The idea that the people should have more control over political outcomes may not be in perfect harmony with the original design of the Constitution, but it is consistent with how many people understand the fundamental principles of democracy. As a result, this norm has taken hold in a way that I don't think even the most clever blog posts can challenge.

There are two other changes in the political culture that I think will make a return to parties especially difficult. One is the way we've come to embrace neutral administration. Rosenblum describes the historical roots of anti-partisanship, which kind of gets at this idea. But now several generations of Americans have grown up with a fairly extensive administrative state and with a Hatch Act that regulates political activity among federal employees.

For people under 40, we've also only ever known a political world with another layer of post-Watergate sunshine reforms. We expect that official party organizations will be neutral in nomination contests and can't accept that the rules might be designed to favor certain types of candidates because the party thinks that's how it can achieve its main goal: winning political office.

If the broad cultural expectation is that broad participation and neutral administration are necessary to make something legitimate, then, as much as it pains to me to say it, those ought to be taken into consideration in how party politics works. This could be a good opportunity to reform the election system, including nominations, in ways that are badly needed. Some uniformity across states and some updated technology would serve us well.

Finally, at the risk of truly disappearing down a political culture rabbit hole, it's possible that American political life is simply too atomized and individualized for the main mechanisms of party coordination to work. It's worth noting that I don't think we can pin this one on the progressives. These ideas come, instead, out of the kinds of developments that Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol have identified: the decline of membership associations and face-to-face interactions.

These analyses were controversial in political science for lots of reasons, but they give us something to think about in the party politics arena. Associations are sometimes depicted as alternatives to what parties can provide, with their rise coinciding with the decline of machine politics. But a general lack of enthusiasm for this kind of participation — alongside a steady stream of political rhetoric that glorifies individualism — might help explain some of the attitudes people seem to have about political parties and especially about events like state conventions and caucuses.

I don't know that we have any hard data on this, but it seems like the way most Americans define democracy is more compatible with big rally than a party caucus of engaged supporters. The emphasis on individuality also privileges a candidate-centered approach, and casts the best choice as the candidate who pleases the most voters, rather than the candidate who appeals across different factions, read: groups, within the party.

My own normative sense, based on more than a decade of teaching, researching, and reading about this stuff and thinking about democracy from all angles, is that these shifts represent some true losses. A colleague suggested that caucuses and state conventions are unlikely to be the solution because of the highly unrepresentative sample of people who turn up at these events. I'd prefer to hold out hope that this is a bug and not a feature; I think of it as the Cheap Trick theory of face-to-face democracy. I want us to want it.

But there's not a ton of evidence that we do. Like Bernstein, I agree with E.E. Schattschneider that democracy is unthinkable without parties. Maybe it's time to update our vision of party democracy to incorporate the values and possibilities of our time. The first American political parties were formed that way. They were creative institutional solutions to the problems of the time, and they accommodated and maneuvered around the realities of the society they served. These organizations resolved a lot of issues, but there was nothing special or magical about them. They, like the people who designed them and carried them out, were compromised and imperfect. If we've learned nothing else from progressive reforms, it's that we are no better.

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