OPED: Two strong parties, one dysfunctional

Jonathan Bernstein
Tribune News Service

I was fortunate to attend the State of the Parties conference last week, hosted by the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron. It's a quadrennial event featuring scholars of U.S. political parties, and it provides both an excellent overview of how political scientists are thinking about all aspects of parties and more quantitative and qualitative data than you could shake a stick at.

It's the only group that finds party politics as interesting as I do.

There was plenty about polarization, about negative partisanship, and other things that would be familiar to those who read political science bloggers and columnists. I wish I could pass along some clear findings, but one of the things I heard was that a lot of questions about parties remain contested. Are U.S. parties currently unusually strong, as I think, albeit with a dysfunctional Republican Party — or, as Julia Azari argues, do we have "weak parties with strong partisanship"? I think the best we can say is that both perspectives fit some of the evidence, and both can illuminate some of what's happening in U.S. politics.

What everyone agrees about is that parties are not strictly controlled from the top down. That's evident from what's happening in the current Alabama Senate special election: If the national Republican Party could dictate things, Roy Moore would never have been nominated, and he certainly would have been removed and replaced (if at all possible) at this point given the accounts of him pursuing sexual relationships with teenage girls. That might mean that U.S. parties aren't very strong.

What I'd argue, however, is that almost everything that happens in U.S. politics these days runs through the parties. So the way to understand the Alabama special is through understanding the various factions and fault lines in Republican Party politics — not, as it might have been in the weaker party era of the mid-20th century, through the personal preferences of individual politicians and their supporters, or through the politics of interest groups unaligned with either party. So for example Christian conservatives play an important role in the Moore story, but in large part precisely because they are aligned with the Republicans. As dissenting Republican Charlie Sykes says, "Tribalism trumps everything." That parties are not hierarchical, in that way of thinking, doesn't make them weak; it just means that more things within each party will be hotly contested.

The real things that makes parties weak within the political system are those things that are fully outside of them. A bureaucracy run by civil service rules instead of a spoils system; campaign and governing specialists unattached to either party; mass media that believe in strict neutrality (whatever biases that brings in practice); indeed, any kind of "neutral" expertise. Of course we have some of that in contemporary politics — and Trump is running an unusually personal presidency — but much less than was the case some 50 years ago.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.