Collapse of the American party system
The US presidential election of 2016 was a shock. The Democratic Party found itself in disarray when Hillary Clinton lost. Barak Obama, speaking in the days before he left office, analysed the Democrats’ problem as a failure of organisation. He was partially right: Hillary had been a poor choice; she repelled younger voters and independents, who stayed home on election day, and had little party apparatus beyond her own campaign staff.
Read also Jerome Karabel, « The year of the outsider », Le Monde diplomatique, December 2016. American parties are not really parties, at least not in the way most other democracies understand them. Parties elsewhere are membership organisations with permanent electoral machines and policy thinktanks. US parties have no formal membership process, require no dues and seem barely visible in between elections. The parties do make an effort, on occasion, to recruit candidates and during presidential elections they try to get out the vote. Though the Republican Party has a more substantial infrastructure than the Democrats, especially at the state and local level, mostly all these tasks are left to the candidates.
Americans are, of course, not strangers to electoral machines. In the past, parties organised patronage, with political appointees offering a cornucopia of prizes. The importance of political appointees, many of whom could influence the procuring of lucrative government contracts, gave rise to big urban political machines. Harry Truman, president after FDR, was a product of the Pendergast machine in Missouri. In the south, machines like that of Harry Byrd in Virginia mobilised to protect a racist social order. Racial and ethnic identity often provided the glue that kept the machines together.
Then times changed. The children of immigrants moved into the middle class and the suburbs and away from the old, urban machines. Bureaucracies were professionalised, the low-rent corruption of the old party bosses, favouring their ethnic brethren (and taking a generous cut for themselves), gave way to the theoretically honest graft of campaign donations.
Donors frequently gave directly to candidates, bypassing a party infrastructure that seemed unnecessary. These donors were not seeking old-fashioned patronage jobs, and claimed only to expect ‘access’ to the candidate should he or she be elected; they wished only to ‘make their point of view heard’. Donors’ interests were expected to be taken into account. The quid pro quo was unspoken, but nonetheless real.
The deathblow to the parties, though, was the invention of the party primary. Primary elections are an excellent example of unintended consequences. They were first championed to remove elections from the clutches of party leaders, whose motives were not to be trusted; the idea was to make recruitment of candidates more open and selection processes less opaque. Almost anyone, no matter how inexperienced or unconnected, could have a chance to be nominated for public office. The intention was to make nominations more democratic.
Primaries remove the emphasis on gaining political experience through party work, where one might rise through the ranks; indeed, they offered opportunities for candidates who had no political experience at all. The nature of parties changed, and the party label became a prize to be gained at the end of a campaign, not an apparatus to create campaigns. Worse, the skills needed to win a primary were unrelated to the skills needed to govern. Candidates with indifferent experience, but with ready access to cash, were favoured; and those who are telegenic, with marketing savvy and independent resources, do best in primaries. Political experience might be helpful, but not necessary. In the United States, where politicians are mistrusted and ‘outsiders’ are preferred, political experience can be a disadvantage.
All this was tailor-made for Donald Trump. A wealthy star of reality television, Trump had exactly the skills and assets that primaries require. While a lack of experience might have hurt him in other venues, his simplistic message was just what the Republican base wanted.
Of course, Clinton did well in the primaries of her own party, too. While she may have benefitted from a biased party structure (as revealed by WikiLeaks), she was able to scotch a challenge from Bernie Sanders. But she was a candidate with few rhetorical skills, a tepid platform performance and certainly without the transcendent vision of her predecessor. She may have been a technocrat, but it wasn’t hard to paint her a political hack.
More importantly, she had only the ghost of a party to support her.
Clinton had her own ‘turn out the vote’ machine, much of it borrowed from Obama. But it was a personal machine; Democrats lower down on the ballot were entirely dependent on the high profile of the presidential campaign to attract their supporters to the polls. And as it turned out, the top of the ticket was not a magnet. The Democrats lost not because Trump was more popular, but because many Democrats, especially young people, stayed home.
An old fashion party machine would not have permitted that outcome. True, Hillary won the popular vote, but a real party machine would not have left rustbelt workers in Michigan or Pennsylvania to their own devices, especially when the real prizes were often at the state and local level.
Europe seems to be going the same route. Populism is defined by charismatic politicians who seek no intermediaries between themselves and the crowd. And UKIP, AfD, Italy’s Five Star Movement, and even to some extent the French Front National, offer their candidates labels rather than institutional support. Even the centrist campaign of Emanuel Macron has little by way of a party.
Barak Obama, upon leaving office, said his main task in the next few years would be to rebuild the Democratic Party infrastructure at state and local levels. As Donald Trump and his Republican allies get to work repealing health care legislation and undermining most social protections, Obama’s ‘legacy’ may be the apparatus he ignored during his time in the White House — the party structure he intends to create.