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8.5: What Are the Limits of Parties?

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Explain trends showing the decline of the party system.
    • Discuss the weaknesses of the party system in the United States.
    • Describe patterns of party decline around the world.

    Historically, political parties have held considerable power in recruiting candidates, mobilizing voters, and securing funds for nominees. Many Americans’ image of party politics involves William Tweed, or “Boss Tweed,” a 19th-century Democratic Party operative who used corrupt methods to exert power and influence within New York City politics. He remains a significant figure in American political history as an example of the height of both the potential corruption and power of the party system, a system that some argue has begun its descent in terms of its ability to fulfill its basic roles.

    The Decline of Parties and the Rise of Candidate-Centered Campaigns in the United States

    What is the current state of political parties? University of California professor Martin Wattenburg and Harvard University professor Thomas E. Patterson argue that since the late 1980s, the United States has seen a rise in what is called the candidate-centered campaign. This is the idea that the declining influence of political parties and their decreased ability to mobilize voters’ opinions and actions has set voters politically adrift, and that candidates themselves have stepped in to fill the power vacuum.74 These types of “entrepreneurial” candidates further weaken party influence in that they do not need to depend on the party for resources in order to launch a campaign or reach voters.75 There is no better example of a candidate-centered campaign than that of Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire who funded his own run for president as a third-party candidate against George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1992.76 Perot did not win the election, but he managed to take 20 percent of the popular vote. Yale University professor Ian Shapiro bemoans this trend in candidate-centered campaigns and the weakening party system. According to Yale News reporter Mike Cummings, “the transfer of political power to the grassroots has eroded trust in politicians, parties, and democratic institutions, culminating in the rise of divisive, populist politics in the United States and abroad.”77 Former President Donald J. Trump is also an example of a candidate who ran outside of the traditional Republican Party platform, who was able to garner media attention despite his inexperience with politics, and who very much manifested this idea of the candidate-centered campaign.

    On a stage with two podiums, Bill Clinton shakes Ross Perot's hand while George H.W. Bush looks on.
    Figure 8.6 Ross Perot (right), shown here with Presidents Bill Clinton (left) and George H. W. Bush (center), was a third-party candidate for president in 1992. (credit: “P37161-12” by George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain)

    The Decline of Political Parties Around the World

    Political parties have weakened not just in the United States, but across the globe. European University Institute professor Peter Mair and Leiden University professor Ingrid van Biezen found both that levels of party membership have declined as a proportion of the electorate and that there has been a major decline in the absolute numbers of party members across all the long-established European democracies.78 University of Essex professor Paul Whiteley likewise describes a well-documented, long-term decline in party activism across Europe and attributes this trend to parties being too close to the state and no longer working to recruit and rely on membership for their work.79 Other reasons for the global decline of parties include the rise of candidate-centered campaigns (as in the United States), economic factors like deindustrialization, and the rise of communications technologies as an alternative to traditional groups.80 The declining salience of class as an identity in political mobilization is also a factor in the decline in party identification, as seen in the United States and in countries like France and Britain, where left-wing parties have seen a decline in working-class voters. In all three countries, voters with low incomes and lower levels of education had tended to support left-of-center parties, while high-income, highly educated voters had aligned with those of the right; however, as London School of Economics and School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences professor Thomas Piketty has pointed out, this is no longer the case. Party alliance has flipped: those with higher education and income levels tend to be more liberal and support candidates on the left while working-class and less educated voters support conservative policies.81 The outgrowth of this trend has, according to Piketty, also led to a rise in populism, or the appeal on the part of public leaders to the belief by ordinary people that established elite groups disregard their concerns.82

    In countries such as Venezuela and Peru, the collapse of the party system is attributed to a myriad of causes including but not limited to corruption, lowered party identification, weakened party organizations, and ideological underrepresentation.83 Seawright notes that in the case of Venezuela, traditional parties dominated politics throughout the 1980s before losing power in the 1990s and culminating in the rise of Hugo Chávez, a charismatic, populist leader who took the country from moderate US ally to “confrontational populist leftism.”84 Similar party weakening has occurred in Indonesia. While party coalitions were meant to facilitate cooperation among different parties, the party system in Indonesia was ultimately weakened by its reliance on patronage (giving government jobs to family and supporters), an institutional failing that academics suggest led to the rise of populist leaders such as President Joko Widodo.85

    8.5: What Are the Limits of Parties? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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