Is the whole concept of political parties on the decline in the American political scenario? Is the nation moving away from parties to personalities as elections become more media responsive?
During the Nineteenth Century, then two parties most associated with America had clear and defined roles so that both could be clearly identified as parties with a political function. Both the Republican and the Democrat parties controlled elections, organised Congress and had government offices allocated to them. However, this century saw the peak of their power as since then and more so as the Twentieth Century progressed, their power at a national political level has decreased. The increase in the number of independent voters and the importance of the media have all lead to a decreased role for both parties.
By the end of the Twentieth Century, both parties were using professionals to run their election campaigns and the input of well-meaning party amateurs has been swiftly pushed sideways if only because the stakes are too high in a national election for the tasks involved to be handed to and handled by amateurs. The concept of party does still exist in America but political analysts now refer to 50 Democrat parties and 50 Republican parties as opposed to two extending their power across the nation.
American political parties have to operate within a very diverse society and a federal system of government; they, therefore, tend to be broadly-based coalitions of interests organised in a decentralised way rather than tightly disciplined hierarchical structures. The organisation of American parties has traditionally lacked a strong central authority.
In America, politics is often thought to be more based on personalities than policies and party unity. This was probably more true in the 2000 campaign when the Republican Party played on Al Gore's surname, tagging him “Al Bore”. Likewise, the Democrats retaliated by digging up political dirt on George W Bush's past business life playing on the fact of whether a man with Bush's alleged background in business and earlier lifestyle problems could make him a trusted national leader.
An argument in favour of supporting the view that parties remain relevant is that political recruitment of potential government leaders occurs through the political parties. Close ties and a long history of party connections are usually needed to become a candidate to lead the party. The vast majority of the political elite has risen through the party systems.
In America, the national parties play a relatively limited role in electoral politics because over recent years, election campaigns have become candidate orientated rather than party-orientated. Parties in America used to control elections: candidates were nominated by the party through what was effectively a “boss” system. Voter loyalty was high and parties concentrated in getting their votes out. There are now more candidate-centred campaigns; activists prefer to work on behalf of individual men and women and are concerned solely with their victories rather than the success of the party ticket as a whole. Often, party workers at state and local levels will distance themselves from a presidential candidate who is unpopular in their state.
Direct primaries have strengthened the grass-roots of the parties at the expense of the centre. They have also encouraged the development of candidate-orientated elections which have helped to undermine party loyalty in Congress. Candidates often have to fight to gain party nomination and they do this with personal organisations rather than using the party. So the advent of the direct primary in America has also added to the apparent lessening influence of the political parties. The parties have lost direct control over the nomination process as more candidates are being selected by the primary process.
National parties in America do not lay down a strong party line because their control of the legislature is insufficiently strong to enable them to enforce the line. Given the candidate-based electoral campaigns that occur, members of Congress are aware that they owe their positions to their own organisations, local parties and constituents. It is to these bodies that they will give their loyalty; party loyalty in Congress is weak. During the Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton found that some of his strongest critics were those in the Democrat Party including Representatives who called on the president to resign rather than damage the party's prestige.
Candidate-orientated election campaigns lead to candidate-orientated government. At a presidential level, a candidate once adopted as the party's candidate, has the freedom to determine policies and the party is expected to get behind these policies and support them.
However, there is evidence that America is still heavily influenced by political parties. With the exception of the support given to Ross Perot and his Reform Party primarily in the 1992 election when he got 19% of the national support (but no success in the Electoral College), independent candidates have not been successful in America. In 2000, Ralph Nader failed to make any dent in the overall result in that the Electoral College only needed to take into account the results achieved by the Democrat Gore and the Republican Bush. Any other party was smothered in the election and the chances of an independent candidate or a different party making any inroads into the electoral structure barely exist.
The electoral system favours only the two main parties and in this sense the concept of party influence is great. Both parties have the ability to fund elections : other parties are severely hampered by their lack of financial backing. Which major backer would financially support a party that had no chance whatsoever of gaining political power? Therefore the major backers support the two main parties and this support gives both parties momentum and political relevance. The two main parties are also capable of adjusting their policies to cope with policies raised by minority parties. By absorbing these policies, the Republicans and Democrats tend to politically stifle other parties - hence the total dominance of the Republican and Democrat parties in America.
Clearly the Republican and Democrat parties have an influence in American politics if only that they stifle the development of any other party. However, America remains divided over loyalty to a federal system. Is an individual loyal to his state party which at least has proximity to allow some form of accountability or to a national party structure which is based in Washington DC and beyond accountability? Electoral campaigns are controlled by the candidates themselves assisted by professionals; a candidate's image is also controlled in such a way as to present that candidate in the best of light. Such handling can only be done by professionals and must therefore exclude traditional party members who are still expected to do the hard work required by a successful candidate during an election campaign. As an election campaign lasts for nigh on nine months in America, such a commitment is important for success and the ground work for this is done by party members. In recent years, the main political parties at both state and national level have tried to enhance their standing within the developing political structure in America but whether they will come up to the importance of those professionals now involved remains to be seen.
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