We’d be better off if the parties were still relevant

To the Editor:

A few weeks ago the Republican National Committee issued a 100-page report aimed at reviving the GOP after its poor showing in last November’s elections. It was remarkably blunt about the specifics of the party’s shortcomings, but it missed one key development: the diminished influence, if not irrelevance, of both major parties in American politics.

In the early years of my political career the parties were pretty much the only game in town. If you wanted to be a candidate, there was no one else to turn to for help with building a campaign organization, finding volunteers, making contact with activists and donors or creating a network of supporters. People could and did win elections without official party support — but not often, and not easily.

All this is much less evident these days. At the very top, once the nomination is sewed up, presidential candidates run independently of the party. And the rise of increasingly influential outside players has done much the same thing for candidates lower down. Scores of groups representing various factions within a party have emerged as significant players in the political process. The parties are simply outmatched in resources and organization.

This loss of influence is especially obvious when you look at primaries. Where party approval once was tantamount to nomination, today it’s anything but. In last year’s elections any number of party-approved candidates were beaten by well-funded outside challengers.

Obviously, the parties are not entirely out of the game. Some roles only a national party can play, as with the presidential nominating process. But where they once were able to exert control, now they can at best hope for a bit of influence.

I favor strengthening the role of political parties in our system. They once played a central role in identifying candidates, articulating ideas and positions and identifying talent for government; today, those jobs often are not performed at all.

Robust political parties might even help break the impasse in Washington. They used to bring a wide array of Americans together under one banner and pressed their members to learn how to build consensus on behalf of a larger cause. This was a skill that carried over to Capitol Hill. Independence from the party may be a fine thing for self-expression, but it comes at a cost to the country.

 

Lee Hamilton

Bloomington, IN

 

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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