Monday, December 7, 2009

Parties Adapting

Great post from Seth Masket talking about the transformation of the Democratic Party in Colorado after changes in regulation, sparked by a new book by Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer. The part that interests me (and I think Seth, too) is this from Schrager & Witwer:
In hindsight, what Colorado Democrats did was as simple as it was effective. First, they built a robust network of nonprofit entities to replace the Colorado Democratic party, which had been rendered obsolete by campaign-finance reform.
Seth has interesting comments on the Colorado Dems, including a cool network map of what they've done. I recommend it and the whole post.

The part of it that most interests me is that this is another demonstration of perhaps a central recurring cycle of American politics: parties emerge, regulators try to take them down, and the parties survive and adapt. There are lots of examples from the last century or so, including party changes after progressive era regulations and changes after presidential nomination (and campaign finance reform) in the early 1970s. That last one is a good example. Parties controlled presidential nominations before reform; parties, after a couple disruptive cycles, controlled presidential nominations after reform. But parties themselves changed in the interim. Different actors -- different types of actors -- were empowered in the new parties that emerged. Some of what happened was possible to foresee from the beginning; some of it probably wasn't. It mattered, though; it most likely produced different nominees, with different nominating coalitions, and therefore different policies, and eventually different government policies.

In other words, it's pretty important stuff. We understand a lot of it, but not all. We understand, as Seth gets to in the post, that when formal party organizations are disrupted one option is to turn to informal networks -- what I call expanded parties. Other reforms might push people back into formal party structures, or shape those structures in various, and perhaps important, ways. In all of this, who will be important within the parties -- organized interest groups? Volunteers? Dispensers of patronage? Those whose strength are in numbers, or those with specialized, professional, skills? How important will candidates be?

Mostly, reformers don't think about those sorts of questions, but the consequences of reform for the answers to those questions tend to be very, very important to political outcomes. I haven't had a chance to write about the nomination process reforms going on now -- follow Josh Putnam to keep up with it -- but more than anything, those are the kinds of things at stake when people in or out of the parties start messing with the way that parties do things. Not that they shouldn't reform, but that they should realize that it's not just a question of changing the way that parties conduct their operations. Because once you start imposing changes in that, you may really change who and what the parties are.

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