Monday, October 25, 2010

Influence Within Parties: Money, Technology, and Regulation

I want to steer you all to a couple pieces out today: Jamelle Bouie in defense of political parties, and Henry Farrell on money flows and influence within the Republican Party.  See also Henry's earlier post on the same subject. 

I wrote a longish, fairly technical piece on campaign financing late last week, which I really hope specialists on money in politics (and/or parties) will look at.  The gist of it is that it's more complicated than it seems to figure out whether money should properly be counted as coming from parties, interest groups, or unaffiliated individuals.  Out of that, however, I'll say that if the GOP has evolved a work-around because campaign finance laws prohibit them from using formal party organizations (such as the RNC) for certain types of coordination, and because the current RNC is too dysfunctional, then I don't think that the outcome will necessarily be weaker parties.  Instead, it might just be stronger parties that lean more on informal networks than on formal structures. 

I think the discussion should be focused, then, on two questions.  How influential are the parties are compared to their competitors, and who within the parties has the most influence.  Unfortunately, these questions get complicated very quickly when one accepts that a lot of players -- interest groups, candidates -- have an ambiguous relationship with the party, properly understood.  Interest groups can be both independent actors and party members.  So can candidates, or at least their candidacies.  That is, party networks can infiltrate both interest groups and candidacies so thoroughly that they act as if they are party components, not rivals.  So parties can weaken as politicians get stronger if those pols are able to operate as rivals to party, but parties can also gain strength from strong, party-aligned candidacies. 

Even in those circumstances, however, there's still the question of which party components have influence.  And here, I think Henry Farrell is right to look at how money flows, and the regulatory and technological (or organizational) changes that affect them.  My sense of it is that loosing regulation through Citizens United and other judicial and FEC decisions is probably relatively less important: in my view, these decisions may change how money is collected and spent (which might matter!), but it probably doesn't really change how much truly independent interest groups will spend.  They've always had loopholes large enough that they could spend what they wanted.  On the other hand, the kinds of mobilization of very large networks of small (and smallish) donors through cable network and activist web site agitation strikes me as really different from pre-2004 campaign cycles, and I do think it's meaningful that it has spread from presidential candidates to Senate and even House contests.  If I'm right and that money is basically partisan money, then it's likely to tie candidates even closer to their parties. 

One of the big questions -- and we don't know the answer -- is what percentage of all money spent in Congressional campaigns is truly party money; how much is from independent interest groups (that is, groups not aligned with either party); and how much is personal, generated by individual candidates from sources that are not particularly tied to party networks.  My guess is that in Congressional elections the third category peaked 30-50 years ago and has been declining ever since, but that's just a guess. 

I do think that Henry's questions about coordination are important, but I don't think that he has it quite right.  All types of parties are going to be interested in coordination, but different types of parties, with different regulation regimes, different components, different institutions, different....hmmm...strength, in the sense of how closely various components are tied to the party, are going to be able to coordinate more or less efficiently.  (Even if individual actors within the party network claim to have little interest in coordination, the logic of elections, beginning with the need to agree on nominees, push everyone in that direction, at least if they want to be influential players).  Stability matters too: rapid changes, whether or the rules of the road or in electioneering technology, probably make coordination a lot harder. 

That's not to say that all forms of coordination yield the same outcomes.  Using Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (or using Kos) as a means of coordination for large numbers of small and smallish donors can impose all sorts of constraints on the party, and it's well worth paying attention to what those might be. 


  1. Ahh... but isn't this whole campaign finance thing pluralism taken to its natural extreme. Coordination should not matter, the most persuasive idea, candidate, etc. should garner the most money/votes and the people willing to invest the most money are apparently the most motivated to participate in the decision making... Politics is, after all, the marketplace of ideas.

  2. Politics is in *no way* the market of ideas. It has occasionally earned that description, but rarely; primarily, politics is an exercise in the legitimisation of power. Yes, I'm being cynical here, but I'm not being irrational; examine Congress, or the UK Parliament.

    In the States, we have a clear distinction between factions; one party sells ideas, which one may describe as misguided or not depending on tribal affiliation, and has tried to turn those ideas into functional, fact-based policy. The other side is *actively proud* of selling no ideas; of, instead, selling anti-ideas. There is no urge to govern; only to legitimise the self-interests of power by any ploy necessary.

    Even back in the day when Democrats were the party of racism and parochial evangelicalism, they were trying to sell actual ideas. Those ideas may have been quite wrong (white men are better than black men, women's place is not in our workforce, bomb everyone and invade Vietnam; but they were still actual ideas. Today's GOP are not selling ideas; they're *hiding* ideas behind rhetoric, propaganda and simple, flat out lies. They know the market *does not actually want the ideas they have to sell*.

    And yet, they are out there, getting paid (in votes, seats, elections, air time). There is no product here, and yet somehow, people are buying. Since what they're buying clearly isn't ideas, the market we're examining must be trading in something else. I would propose that in the US, the political market now trades in *emotions*, not ideas.

    In the UK, on the other hand, you have a three-party political class in which *no-one* is selling anything at all.

    The Tories are, on the American spectrum, in an equivalency range from the Blue Dog democrats to the non-Tea Party GOP in ideology; but they have much worse economic advice. You can't really call austerity an idea that they *sold*; they didn't sell it, they just did it.

    New Labour have been functionally equivalent to the Blue Dog Democrats ever since the original, labour-oriented party was dismantled in the mid-90s. In so far as New Labour have an idea to sell, for the last 20 years it's been 'We're not the Tories! We'll do exactly the same things as them, but we're fluffier'. That idea was solidly rejected at the last election, precisely because it's not actually an idea at all.

    And the Liberal Democracts are in breach of contract; they *did* sell some ideas during the last election, and but when delivery date came, they found they had an empty warehouse. No ideas to sell, no power to deliver on sales they already made, and no new sources for the future.

    Anglo-Saxon politics is not the market of ideas; it cannot be, since no-one who's allowed on the trading floor is selling any ideas at all. The only thing they're selling is leveraged derivatives with hidden costs.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?