Since the birth of the American political party, its primary mission has been to amass power by recruiting candidates, raising money and spreading messages. In short, a holding company that elects people — with a monopoly for a century and a half by Democrats and Republicans.
But a chain of events in recent history — from the Internet’s astonishing ascent and a Supreme Court ruling on political money to today’s maelstrom of voter anger — is changing things.
The major political parties are inching now toward a decision point: change with the times or risk diminished influence.
Results of primaries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas last week illustrated the threat that the party establishment faces. Elections are becoming fragmented as populist coalitions thwart the will of Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington.
“People have decided they don’t need big centralized gatekeepers to make decisions for them,” says Alex Castellanos, a former Republican National Committee adviser and a longtime GOP strategist.
“The same thing is happening all over to every institution,” he says. “It’s a bottom-up world, not a topdown world anymore. And people are empowered to cut out the middleman.”
To some degree, this is democracy at work.
People rise up, make their voices heard and choose leaders without being told by Washington party bosses whom to support. But the outcome could mean it’s harder to get things done.
Even if they carry the party label, free-agent candidates elected without the establishment’s support owe it little or nothing. More insurgent lawmakers in Washington could make it tougher accomplishing anything on Capitol Hill, where building coalitions already is tough enough.
And it doesn’t have to be about movements. Wealthy special interest groups could recruit and fund candidates, too.
“Both parties need to recognize that people who don’t feel like their voices are being heard or their concerns are being addressed now have the abilities and the motivation to organize on their own,” says Karen Finney, a former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman.
“So,” she says, “the parties need to rethink how they reach out to supporters and engage supporters. That’s part of how they will stay relevant.”
Carl Forti, a former strategist with the House Republican campaign committee, puts it this way: “The parties need to evolve. … It’s about changing how they talk to voters and take advantage of new technology.” Still, he adds: “Even 20 years from now, the parties are going to play a central role. The question is how other groups evolve.”
Mindful of the wake-up call from voters, both parties have been studying Tuesday’s results intently.
In Kentucky, the tea party coalition rallied behind political novice Rand Paul for the GOP Senate nomination over the candidate preferred by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his home state and the Senate GOP’s campaign committee.
In Arkansas, unions split from President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, pouring money and manpower into a Senate race to force White House-backed Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff.
Democratic voters in Pennsylvania rejected the party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter, a five-term institution and the recipient of campaign help from Obama, in favor of a lesser-known congressman who rejected White House appeals to abandon his candidacy.
Last fall, Republicans in a House special election in upstate New York sent a message to party leaders who had chosen the GOP nominee: They voted against her in favor of a third-party candidate — even though it handed Democrats the election.
Certainly other factors were at play in all those races. But look around the political landscape and there’s ample evidence that the parties are being challenged, if not supplanted.
_The Supreme Court recently cleared the way for corporations or unions to run campaigns calling for the election or defeat of candidates. The ruling means parties will lose some control of election-season messages.
_Candidates are creating bases of support separate from the parties by harnessing technology and feeding the public’s thirst to be connected. Obama built his “Obama for America” coalition in 2008, and Republican Sarah Palin now has legions of Facebook and Twitter followers.
_Countless online communities have popped up to force political change by drafting candidates into races and helping their campaigns. Republicans who argue that GOP chairman Michael Steele is ineffective have created a network of outside organizations intended to pick up the slack.
The parties have adapted to societal changes before. Decades ago, they were just as much social organizations as they were political organizations. Big-city bosses controlled local “machines” in New York City, in South Boston and in inner-city Chicago. They empowered communities by drawing power from neighborhoods of like-minded people.
As party leadership became more entrenched in Washington and more focused on issues, that role changed. The parties also became more ideological, repelling people who used to follow the lead of precinct bosses with little question. People also now are getting what the party used to provide — connectivity, community, a sense of purpose — in all manner of different places.
Now, as then, the changing country raises questions. And here’s the main one: If nontraditional coalitions, unfettered companies and ragtag online groups of people succeed in supplanting the parties’ traditional role, is the American political system on the verge of realignment?
Possible but unlikely, if the history of political parties is any indication.
“They’ve always had to find ways to maintain their relevancy,” says John Aldrich, a Duke University political science professor who wrote “Why Parties?: The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America.”
Today, he says, “There is some diffusion of power. And it’s conceivable that there’s some room for third or fourth parties … but we haven’t had success at changing who the two parties are since 1860.”
Attempts to create third parties of comparable strength have failed miserably. Independent candidates still face fierce battles in getting elected. That makes it difficult to see how the Democratic and Republican parties become obsolete.
Certainly, political parties now have an opportunity to retain their power. But how will they approach the challenge?
“A good number of people seem very alienated from the parties,” says Sidney Milkis, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of “Political Parties and Constitutional Government: Remaking American Democracy.”
“Maybe,” Milkis says, “what will happen is the parties will become better connected to the citizenry, and the organizations will become less centralized — and maybe, at the end of the day, more reflective of how the rank and file feel about politics.”
Whatever the political landscape turns out to be, there’s no doubt it will contain a lot of voices saying a lot of different things. For the parties, the challenge is how to harness those voices and stay relevant in the new social order that is 21st century politics.
Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.
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