At the municipal level, in most cities across this country, political parties matter relatively little.
Political parties are essential to mobilizing large numbers of otherwise unattached voters. In most cities, however, elections are settled by an admittedly small percentage of residents who are truly tied in to their communities. The longer one lives in a city, the more one has invested in the city (e.g., owning a home), the more likely one is to vote in any given election. In most municipal elections, these vested individuals make up an overwhelming percentage of the electorate. Because most cities aren’t large, these individuals tend to know the candidates, or at least know people who know them, and vote accordingly.
Once in office, so much of what municipal officials must do amounts to keeping the lights on, the water flowing, the streets smooth and the community safe. Everybody agrees that these things must be done. If they are done reasonably well, we’ll probably let the same folks keep running the show. It’s not fundamentally about policy direction. It’s about service delivery and about fiscal responsibility and accountability.
But at the state and national levels, legislative decisions are as much about declaring a course to follow as about delivering the services . . . maybe more. And because these larger questions admit of a much wider range of answers, and with much less certain evidence against which to test them, the political possibilities become infinitely diverse. Because these legislatures are much larger, that diversity is relatively evident in each chamber. Someone must chart the course, work the deals and find the means to assemble majority coalitions to get things done.
Such are the functions of parties in legislatures.
Governing is a different task from campaigning . . . though in practice the two seem increasingly blurred. Symbolic votes can be taken and speeches given for nothing more than campaign purposes, but eventually, one must pass something, once in a while, to justify the pay and privileges of legislative office.
What this means for our country, indeed for any functioning democracy, is that we need our parties. We need parties to articulate alternative visions, present a choice among candidates, and remind us of the importance of our participation, defining the stakes so that we choose to participate. Once in office, we need parties to herd the cats so that, though each representative may think of themselves as autonomous, a majority will pull more or less in one direction to get things done.
It is in light of these realities that I continue to be drawn to the news about the GOP and its struggles for self-definition.
Two stories this week about the GOP nationally drew my attention. One, a piece by Eliza Newlin Carney on RollCall.com, concerns the failure of Republican-supporting business SuperPACs to raise money at a pace consistent with that of their Tea Party and liberal (Democrat, of course) rivals. What was heralded last fall as an effort to save the party through the recruitment and support of more moderate conservative candidates appears to have failed, at least according to the analysis presented by Ms. Carney.
The other is a piece in Commentary by Peter Wehner that succinctly and sympathetically makes the demographic argument against the survival of the Republican Party as the party of white conservative males . . . let alone the party of white extremely conservative males. Like scientists pointing to the trends in surface ocean temperature, average earth surface temperature, declining glaciers and a host of other measures, this author assembles the evidence that points to a slow but inexorable demographic tide that will sink a Republican ship moored to its 1980s, Reagan Revolution harbor.
If we take these two accounts together, they suggest a fairly dismal future for the Republican Party. Not tomorrow, probably. Indeed, this coming fall’s elections may well deliver considerable additional power to the Republican Party. The forces of second mid-term elections (consistently bad for the party of the sitting lame-duck president), a still-shaky economy (especially where jobs and wages are concerned), and the cluster bomb effect of Obamacare’s technical problems and political problems (and the failure of the Democrats to build an effective case for the law, beginning almost the day after it was passed) may depress the turnout of reliable Democratic voters, leaving the ballot box to those reliable, more vested voters . . . Who tend toward the Republican side of the spectrum.
But all of these trends are the political equivalent of bailing out the ship as the water keeps coming in. If water is rushing over the sides, and one does nothing to lift the gunwales above the water level, that ship’s going down . . . and staying down.
I’m convinced that there’s an opening for something new here. The Democratic Party’s coalition, in its neo-New Deal incarnation, is an odd collection of folks, certainly more genuinely united than Roosevelt’s original coalition, but still subject to powerful cross-cutting concerns. Republicans have successfully exploited those cross-currents in the past, but always in an election-specific way. Building a more stable majority . . . That seems to be as elusive as points were for the Broncos.
We need political parties to frame the national debate, recruit the candidates and support their campaigns. But needing at least two parties is not the same thing as needing these two parties. The fact that we have had the same two parties (at least in name) since 1856 does not mean that we always will . . . nor that we should.