Political parties have arrived at an odd and precarious place in American politics. As Republicans and Democrats lob insults at one another over everything from border security to the well-being of immigrant children, it’s becoming evident that we have developed a love/hate relationship with the major players in our legislative establishment—that is, we love our own party and hate the rival parties.
Research has shown that Americans increasingly hold their party affiliation to be as core to their identity as gender and race. At the same time, surveys find that we hold negative feelings — often bordering on mistrust — toward those who hold opposing political beliefs. Psychologists and political scientists believe that this phenomenon, known clinically as negative partisanship, contributes to our overall sense of antipathy toward political parties — at least, toward the political process as a whole. This animosity is only compounded by the growing sense that parties are elitist entities more concerned with servicing those in power than with representative democracy.
While most Americans think of parties as omnipotent organizations, the reality is quite different: In recent decades, parties have lost much of the power and influence they are able to wield in our politics. Since the 1970s, parties themselves have made significant adjustments to the rules they use for nominating presidential candidates and running primaries, allowing so-called long-shot candidates more opportunities to win delegates — like the current president.
If we can accept that parties and partisanship are separate things, we can take the first step toward getting beyond the sense that our politics are diseased.
Parties have also been greatly affected by changes in campaign finance laws, granting more autonomy to individuals — and corporations — who wish to support a candidate. Taken together, these reforms have effectively sidelined parties as strong structural features of electoral politics. Gone are the days of party bosses in smoke-filled rooms handpicking candidates. Now parties are hard-pressed to edge out well-financed or popular outsiders who gain momentum despite having few connections to party leaders.
Our love/hate relationship with parties comes about in partisanship: We strongly identify with our own party identity and have disdain for those who ascribe to another party. Political scientist Julia Azari distinguishes these sentiments by noting that our current political climate is one of “weak parties and strong partisanship.” In other words, whereas our political system is itself fragile, we also live in a time of heightened ideological competition. That’s a dangerous combination, but one that we can perhaps distill: If we can accept that parties and partisanship are separate things and acknowledge that anti-party sentiment is primarily anti-elitism, then we can take the first step toward getting beyond the sense that our politics are diseased.
For as long as this antipathy toward parties has existed, political scientists like me have been fighting back against it. That’s because we understand the crucial role parties play in a democratic society with representation. Where citizens must elect representatives to make their laws, they require some institution to help recruit good candidates, get them elected, and hold them accountable for what the people want.
But how can parties possibly accomplish these immense tasks if people hold them in such disregard and see them as a source of our unrest? Consider the nomination of Donald Trump. He was an outsider who chafed at a number of long-held party positions and norms, yet he was able to win its nomination anyway because of the support he built from voters seeking a non-elite, anti-insider candidate.
In hindsight, Trump’s victory shouldn’t be all that surprising: People become disillusioned with parties and seek something different. They are lured to political movements that offer a new perspective. Yet, in the end, these movements require a mechanism to help coordinate them and bring a majority on board. That mechanism, it turns out, is a political party. Parties have the potential to provide the coordinating functions that party activists seek, the skills and experience to recruit and support quality candidates, and the resources to help bring their supporters to polling booths on election day. But when the rules governing campaign finance prevent parties from serving those functions, it is difficult to see what good they really do.
The populist trends now bubbling in both political parties make it difficult to argue that what our politics need are stronger party elites with more powers. Savvy activists know that such changes would disempower their movements — and they’re right.
American politics would improve by addressing the mismatched branding problem parties face and reforming the parties’ tools so they can perform their most essential functions. Maybe then we could learn to love parties again.