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Power and (Lack of) Control in the American Party System

On November 18, the Kluge Center, in partnership with the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, held its fifth event in the Pillars of Democracy series. After the previous event looking at the administrative state, this conversation shifted to another institution that exercises a great deal of influence despite it lacking a clearly-defined constitutional role: political parties.

For well over a century, the Republican and Democratic parties have held much of the power over the legislative process, who can be considered a viable candidate for office, and other essential functions. Party control has recently changed and even declined in some areas like the selection of candidates, but there is still little sign that either party will lose its central place in the American political system.

The full video is available here.

Moderator and Kluge Center Director John Haskell began the event with a definition of US political parties, asking participants what they would change about that definition: “Parties are informal organizations of intense policy demanders who coordinate with other groups to win control of office so as to pursue their policy goals. These policy demanders control politics in the US by nominating candidates with whom they agree.”

Participants Sophia Jordán Wallace, Henry Olsen, Tasha Philpot, and Lee Drutman offered their changes and additions.

Wallace,  a political scientist at the University of Washington, added that parties serve an important role in providing information to the public. “They definitely cue different positions to the public,” she said, and people, whether voters or not “absorb messages from the party,” which shapes our public discourse.

Olsen,s a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), said, “American parties don’t have a top-down system,”  “Even a leader like President Biden has to negotiate, as we have been seeing painfully in open view for months, with people who owe him nothing other than some degree of nominal allegiance,” Olsen added.

Philpot is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin Department of Government. She suggested that “parties are valuable in terms of signaling to voters, at least in a short-hand way, what a candidate can stand for,” providing information that helps in voter decision-making. Reinforcing Olsen’s point, Philpot noted that parties “are not disciplined, and you do have people who can go completely rogue from the party.”

Drutman who works in the Political Reform program at the New America Foundation, added that American parties are “strange and unusual” and “uniquely porous,” allowing anyone to run as a Democrat or Republican in a primary election. “It’s kind of a tug-of-war,” Drutman said, “ between the politicians, policy demanders, and the voters who play an important role in shaping what the parties stand for.” Parties are also identities for people, he added.

Asked later in the event about preferred reforms to the party system, Drutman made the case for a move to a proportional representation system and large, multi-member districts in the House of Representatives. Olsen had proposed that eliminating primary elections entirely, saying it would make it harder for disreputable candidates and demagogues to attain office, and Drutman agreed, saying primaries wouldn’t be necessary in a multi-party proportional system. For the Senate, Drutman proposed ranked-choice voting. “And while we’re at it,” he said, “let’s eliminate the Electoral College and move to a two-round national popular vote system.”

Philpot said she would like to see changes that incentivize parties to cooperate on legislation in the interest of doing the most good for the greatest number of people, rather than “ramming through legislation” to appear to be victorious, as is currently common. Olsen named abolishing or severely curtailing partisan use of the filibuster as a key reform. The filibuster became a “tool of party leaders to frustrate anything they didn’t like in the majority party” beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, he said. If that was stopped, he said, we would see much more legislation passed, even if it isn’t necessarily bipartisan legislation.

Wallace added that understanding and preventing the spread of misinformation would be an important step to limit the extremes of partisan polarization. This would allow people to feel more positively about the parties, she said, and allow us to better address policy challenges.

Watch the full video below.


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