Where are political parties in popular culture? Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Where are political parties in popular culture? Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Paul Waldman argued last week that “Conservatives Have All the Best Talismans”:

Liberals really lack any talismanic physical objects they can display to their supporters to demonstrate their ideological bona fides. If a Democrat went before a liberal audience and wanted to offer a quick, easily understood visual to demonstrate to the crowd that she's one of them, what could she hoist over her head in defiance of the people they all hate?

Kevin Drum tried to make the case for liberals, but admitted it was a pretty weak one. Is there a difference? I don’t know; I suspect it depends on what counts. Waldman was thinking (based on Mitch McConnell’s gun-brandishing CPAC appearance) of physical objects, and that’s certainly interesting, but the truth is that liberals have plenty of people from show business (Drum mentions Bruce Springsteen) and maybe even a few physical objects to draw on. I’d also note that liberals have a much broader group of political actors they worship: Kennedys, King, FDR and an array of second-tier leaders. The only real certified non-RINO out there for conservatives is Ronald Reagan. No wonder they flirt with giving Calvin Coolidge icon status!

Anyway, what's important here is that virtually all of these are liberal and conservative symbols, not Democratic and Republican symbols. At least, I think it’s a big deal.

What is empirically possible to show is that, save rites and rituals, political parties are central to U.S. politics today; virtually everything that happens goes through them. Compare parties now to their postwar nadir, and whatever you look at -- money, electioneering, formal organization, governmental ties -- it’s just no contest. But as far as I can tell, parties haven’t benefited from this resurgence in terms of their place within popular culture. Nor have our party networks fabricated new rituals that are central to their identity, in the way that conventions used to be. “Proud to be an American” isn’t a Republican Party anthem in the way that “Happy Days Are Here Again” was most definitely a Democratic anthem.

Perhaps this is why so many die-hard Democrats and Republicans (measured by behavior) think of themselves as independents. Or why other solid mainstream liberals and conservatives are convinced that their party is always selling them out. Or even why RINO makes sense in the first place -- why simply being an “R” isn't meaningful to many Republicans. At least, perhaps it’s somewhat related.

That the parties have simultaneously grown much more important and lost ground in popular culture seems to me a genuine phenomenon -- and one that party scholars should pay attention to.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.