Throughout America’s history, public officials and average citizens have questioned the value of the political party as a mechanism for electoral governance. Even in the founding era, America’s framers hesitantly adopted and developed an electoral system organized around parties. Madison, Jefferson, and Washington, among others, understood that parties did not perfectly filter the will of the people and were susceptible to the rule of political elites. Reforms over the centuries have attempted to reshape the party system to address these issues. In their book The Party Decides, Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller argue that reforms to the party system in the late-20th century, designed to involve voters in primaries and limit the parties’ nomination power, did not effectively change the role of parties.
Instead, American political parties have remained dominant and group-centered; “the most important party business is the nomination and election of office seekers who will serve the interests of the party’s intense policy demanders.” Parties are large groups of people who place specific people in politics that will fulfill their interests. In terms of networks, political parties are organizations of intense policy demanders, ranging from political elites to lobbyists to local community members, that form a coalition through social relationships centered on an agreed-upon platform.
Just as other citizens in democracies around the world struggle to participate in politics, average American citizens do not direct the party and its nominations, but rather “weigh in” once the party has filtered the options. Parties link citizens to their political system insofar as they enable voters to elect suitable candidates, but they nonetheless wrestle control over the electoral process away from voters and place it in the hands of a smaller network of people. The party is ultimately a well-organized network; power is decentralized across a variety of leaders in various levels and divisions of government. The network remains centered around a common set of principles that form and sustain relationships in political institutions, town halls, university clubs, and grassroots organizations. Although the principles and ideologies may be within everyone’s grasp, the ability to shape the political arena is not. Party leadership and the politicians that come to represent the people are shaped by professional, personal, and familial relationships between these party elites. As a reader, briefly pause for a moment and ask yourself: is is likely that I could get elected to a national political seat? More than likely, the answer is no — the notion that the path to changing that answer goes through certain careers (law, business, and the military, among a few others) and certain influential people, generally aligned with a party, is an illustration of the power of social networks and relationships.
What kind of networks have influence? Family, for one, is an easily understandable network. In 2005, Gallup found that 7 in 10 teens say their social and political ideology is about the same as mom and dad’s — no surprise there. Illustrative of the power of relationships, however, is that familial ties to those in politics make people more likely to assume power. According to the New York Times, “sons of senators had an 8,500 times higher chance of becoming a senator than an average American male boomer.” In the 2016 Presidential race, Clinton and Bush stand as examples of dynasties in party politics. Another elephant in the room is lobbyists and business elites. The American political system is designed for interest groups and corporations to have a role in political outcomes. Although politicians have to balance the recommendations of these interests with the voice of their constituents, lobbyists and parts of the private sector have an established social network with policy-makers and legislatures through the party system. By the mere fact that their offices are blocks from the halls of governance, among other factors, their voice is more likely to be heard and acted upon than the average citizen.
A poll released by Gallup in January 2016 identified a key change in the organizational networks of American citizens that may impact the organization of politics. According to the poll, four in 10 Americans identify as politically independent: more specifically, 42% identify as independents, 29% as Democrats, 26% as Republicans. In an article responding to this poll, Claire Zillman of Fortune contends that political gridlock is alienating voters and causing citizens to reorganize their political affiliations. Drawing on the concept of organizational networks, this trend indicates a shift in how people think of their political selves and their political environment. Instead of identifying with a specific party and platform, citizens instead are identifying with a body of “independents”; a term that covers a broad range of political, social, and economic beliefs.
Independents are just what they say they are — they are not tied down to one ideology, platform, or perspective on the world. Such a declaration does not mean that people are doing politics alone; quite the contrary, it is an indication that the American people’s networks are diverse and varied. In 2010, a Pew Research Center report characterized Millennials as “Confident, Connected, and Open to Change.” These millennials, who are leading the category in independent political identification, have formed a different sort of network than the party organization can fulfill. It follows that today, Americans are more likely to organize themselves in networks and relational structures predicated on other commonalities outside the category of Democrat or Republican.
The American party system attempts to facilitate democracy by allowing all citizens to vote, filtering the best candidates, and thus enabling some citizens to pursue their policy goals in line with the positions expressed during that process. Nonetheless, America’s voters and average citizens have less say than they prefer. The party, controlled by intense policy demanders that include political insiders and interest groups, minimizes the role of voters and seeks to achieve the group’s policy goals with suitable candidates within the proper political networks. As the authors of the Party Decide note, “The American people may want a president who will rise above party and govern as the president of the whole nation. Parties, however, do not.” Parties often veto candidates that are not aligned with the core interests of the network, and have not historically just nominated candidates that are popular with voters. This organizational system, although facilitating political participation in some ways, does not allow the mainstream American public to have a more open and accessible avenue, in both elections and everyday advocacy, to shape their political system. In response to gridlock and party alienation, people are reorienting their social networks and how they think about, and act on, politics. The movement to “independence” could have an impact on how American democracy conducts business as usual; whether or not it will rests in the hands of citizens to ask for a discussion of change and the political community to allow it.