David Karol has a wonderful item in response to some phony nostalgia occasioned by the death of Democratic bigshot Robert Strauss. It’s a must-read to understand how parties have changed as institutions.
The key points:
1. The parties’ national committees have never been very important.
2. National party organizations are far more active and have more resources now than they did when Strauss was Democratic National Committee chairman in the 1970s.
3. Parties are important for their role in connecting voters, activist groups and candidates, not for providing any particular organizational framework.
I also like David’s emphasis on coordination as the central party function: It “is the coordination and not the committees that makes parties matter. The key question is whether partisans stick together in the electorate and among office-holders. Can they agree upon candidates and public policy enough to capture control of the government and get the policies they want?” As he points out, parties do that much better now than they did in the 1970s.
It’s worth emphasizing again that this is especially true of national parties, which hardly existed as continuing, independent entities until fairly recently. There were strong state and local parties in many places in the 19th century and into the 20th, but their range was spotty. National parties were little more than temporary, ad hoc alliances put together every four years for presidential elections. They evaporated as soon as the polls closed. As David says, national formal party organizations were unimportant, and party networks at the national level don’t appear to have been particularly extensive.
I disagree with David and his coauthors about what they see as the central place of policy in political parties (in my view, policy is only one of several potential reasons for parties). I strongly agree, however, that coordination is at the center of what parties do. This allows us to see that officials and staff of formal party organizations are only one set of party actors within our expanded parties, and often not very important ones.
Read, as they say, the whole thing. And: Great catch!
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