Mark Schmidt has a very much worth reading piece over at TNR in which he makes the counterintuitive case that the problem leading to the shutdown is party weakness, not party strength. I recommend it, but I'd take the same facts and put it in a different way. To some extent, this is just terminology, but I think that there's more to it than that; properly understanding party strength is necessary to understanding what's gone wrong with the GOP.
Here's a taste of his argument:
In fact, “partisanship” isn’t the cause of the shutdown. And we’d probably be better off if politicians—that is, Republicans—were thinking more about the interests of their own party....Yes and no.
[T]he modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who Businessweek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House. Many of its politicians have deliberately cut themselves off from all the incentives that traditionally moderate and stabilize politics—earmarks, constituent service (many offices say they won’t help constituents maneuver the ACA), and infrastructure spending. With safe seats, and hearing little dissent at home, they are able to do so. Cutting themselves off from the incentive to build and maintain a strong and viable party is part of the same story.
What I'd say is that the current Republican Party is both strong and dysfunctional.
The parties - both of them -- are strong in the sense that almost everything in US politics runs through the parties.
That hasn't always been the case. In the nadir of party strength, which was roughly in the postwar era,* much of what happened in US politics didn't run through the parties at all. To begin with, we had an era of "candidate-centered" politicians, who recruited their own supporters who were personally loyal to them; found their own sources of money that were personally loyal to them; and, generally, did what they wanted. It wasn't just about campaigning for office: once elected, politicians generally turned to either personal loyalists or to partisan-neutral governing professionals. Think, for example, of Nixon surrounded by Haldeman and Ehrlichman (both of whom had no GOP ties but were pure Nixon creatures) and Kissinger. The neutral press dominated information flows. Even many of the early campaign consultants of the time worked for politicians from both parties.
That's all changed. Now most campaign professionals and a large number of governing professionals are party people -- not (usually) from formal party organizations, but people who have made their careers working within one political party, usually for a series of candidates and party-aligned groups. The party-aligned press is strong, especially on the Republican side. Candidates raise most of their money from party donors, often through party-aligned groups of one kind or another.
Because (or at least probably because) most of this party growth has taken the form of informal networks of party loyalists rather than under the control of formal party organizations, it's meant that our contemporary strong parties are not inherently hierarchical. Put it this way: if you want to run for Congress, you may be able to find a party faction or party-aligned group who will support you, even against a same-party incumbent...but you usually won't have a chance as a pure outsider to the party. Primary elections, then, often serve as tests of strength between different party groups or factions. Not, however, between party and anti-party groups.
(It's further confused because the participants often don't use that kind of language. Tea Partiers, who are not only GOP-aligned but pretty close to being the core of the Republican Party, often talk as if the Republican Party is an enemy, rather than saying that they -- the Tea Party -- are the true Republicans. But that, in my view, is in fact just semantics).
Schmidt talks about campaign finance and outside spending, but quite a bit of that outside spending is party money, in one way or another. He says that such money can "destabilize and decenter the process," but for the most part it was never stable or centered in the first place -- one of the big things that's happened over the last forty years or so is the rise of national political parties, which hardly existed for most of the nation's history.
So the best way to think about, say, the Koch brothers is that they are influential national Republicans who have some limited ability to influence the party, but must compete with others for influence.
OK, that's all about party strength. But what's happened to the GOP is that it's become broken and dysfunctional. In particular, there's a strong chunk of it that seems to be dedicated not to normal politics, but to making money by fleecing the rubes and easy marks that appear to have an enormous appetite for purchasing cultural/partisan products. And that, indeed, produces all sorts of perverse incentives.
Again...to some extent it's just semantics to want to call this dysfunction within a strong party rather than just calling it a weak party. But it matters because it's the very strength of the parties that makes it such a big deal when one of them is broken. And because extremely strong parties tend to suck in everything around them, so that the Crazy Caucus becomes a fringe, and then an important group, within the GOP, rather than just existing out there in the nowhere by itself.
I wish I had a solution for the broken GOP, but I don't. One thing, however, that this analysis suggests is that making the parties "stronger" isn't going to do it. Increased partisanship (what Schmidt wants) might well lead, in these circumstances, to an even bigger conservative marketplace, and even more perverse incentives. Increased hierarchy might give a John Boehner more influence...or just wind up meaning that demagogues and snake oil sellers feel compelled to take over formal positions if possible, and they might well succeed.
I do think that the path for a solution has to found in recognizing that the people, institutions, and groups causing the trouble are found within the (expanded, in my terminology) Republican Party, not outside of it. But alas that's about as far as I can get. If there's an obvious solution to the broken, dysfunctional Republican Party and the damage it's doing to the US, I sure can't see it.
*The timeline is complicated, and much of it is undocumented. Some apartisan elements in the system seem to have been strongest in the immediate postwar period and were already fading by the 1960s and 1970s; others, however, didn't show up until the that later portion of the era. By the 1980s, all the indicators (as far as I can see) were all pointing in the same direction (towards stronger parties), but in roughly the eight decades before that there are plenty of things working in opposite directions from each other.