There is too much democracy in American politics. But there is not enough democracy in American government today.
This isn’t the paradox it seems. Government and politics are not the same thing.
Politics is the business of political parties and elections. Parties’ core functions are recruiting and selecting nominees for office, running general election campaigns and organizing party caucuses in legislatures. All these activities have become more democratic in the modern reform age, 1968 to the present. The rise and dominance of popular primaries since 1968 is the towering achievement. More democracy in the parties, however, has created monster campaigns that shackle democratic government and weakened the party leadership needed to make Congress work.
Government is the business of those who already have legitimate power — legislators, presidents (and governors), civil servants and judges. Our most democratic institution, Congress, is meant to be balanced by executive and judicial power. Since the Clinton-Gingrich wars in the 1990s, dysfunction in the legislative branch has caused power to flow to the less democratic institutions, especially the judiciary and the Supreme Court. The designated voice of the people, Congress, babbles incoherently.
America’s political parties are mistrusted. But they need to be stronger for the federal system to regain proper balance. That means parties need to compromise their internal democracy.
This is heresy in reform doctrine, which prefers open democracy in all civic institutions. But we’ve learned that parties without bosses and whips are like wagons without drivers; they wander aimless trails marked by horse manure.
Political Reformation has tilted at three windmills: democratizing the nomination process with primaries, getting money out of politics and, most recently, retooling primaries so they produce more moderate nominees who will vanquish partisan polarization. (The preferred formats are nonpartisan blanket primaries, also called Top Two primaries, used now in California and Washington, for example.)
The problem is, our two parties are reform resistant, according political scientist Seth Masket’s new book, “The Inevitable Party.” Parties are not stagnant, structured institutions like corporations or agencies; they are wily, perpetually evolving “networks of intense and creative policy demanders.”
Masket’s right. Just look at the record of modern reform.
The nomination process is more open but at an unacceptable cost – the current, broken election process. Campaign finance reform hasn’t just failed; it has backfired – more money than ever comes from fewer donors with less disclosure. And scattered anti-polarization reforms haven’t had much impact and probably won’t; if the country is truly polarized (a big “if”) tinkering with primary formats is like having a pizza party in Baghdad.
The reform impulse is fundamentally confused. It dreams of a democracy without competitive, power-hungry parties, though history offers no examples. It has faith that there can be boss-less, egalitarian parties that will yield stronger, nobler government.
The Founders knew better and disliked parties and didn’t mention parties in the Constitution. (Big mistake: more on that later.) Once in power, of course, they formed parties. Parties appear to be a necessary ingredient of democracy, no matter how unsavory.
The idea that democracy within parties was important is new. The Founders, I suspect, would have thought it silly.
Members of Congress and then conventions selected presidential nominees for our first two centuries. Popular primaries were a reform of the Progressive era. They didn’t become ubiquitous until after 1972. Coincidentally or not, public trust and confidence in government and its leaders has declined inexorably since. The length of campaigns has increased inexorably and grotesquely. No other country has campaigns nearly so long and few use popular primaries.
Candidates at all levels no longer need parties. Donors finance campaigns, not parties. Campaigns have direct access to voters through social media and the web; they are not dependent on party permissions. Bernie Sanders isn’t even a Democrat and doesn’t pretend to be one! It is absurd. FDR and LBJ must be spinning in their graves.
Among the many unintended negative consequences of the reform movement, one stands out: Party leaders in Congress have no real power over their members, no whip. This exacerbates gridlock and partisan paralysis. The branch of government intended to be the most democratic is now sclerotic and handicapped.
I hope against hope that the embarrassment of this year’s election scares the country enough to act. My heretical, un-American recommendations aren’t progressive reforms but Machiavellian repairs.
First, the system needs to be rigged more.
Voters and donors should have less power in the nomination process; elected officials and party officials should have more. Primaries should have a diminished role and shouldn’t be permitted until after the Fourth of July in election years. Some corrupt party practices need to end as well. Parties should have no role in drawing legislative districts; let the judicial branch govern that. And traps the current two-party duopoly built to abort new parties should be dismantled.
Most of this is impossible or impractical under current law.
Thus my second argument is that the Constitution must no longer be silent on political parties. They are entrenched in our political system and should be governed, in part, by constitutional authority in the form of amendments. The passing ideological predilections of various Supreme Courts have mucked up the job for long enough.
Is this fantasy politics? Perhaps, but Donald Trump has proved that conventional wisdom isn’t always wise. The very fact that he is on the cusp of power is another indicator that the parties need to be less democratic in order to make government more democratic, which is what matters most.