America’s Third-Party Parties

I wrote yesterday about the para-political economy of scammers, and have been thinking a bit more about the organization of the American parties.  Both parties have nearly completely-opaque institutional structures, for a reason I touched on briefly yesterday: there’s no there there.  There are central party committees, sure.  There are people whose business cards say “Democratic/Republican National Committee”, or the DCCC/DSCC/NRCC/NRSC, which is about as official as it gets.  But “the parties” are vastly wider than the card-carriers.  They encompass vast, fuzzy networks of groups and individuals of varying degrees of officialness.  Is the NEA (the teacher’s union) part of the Democratic party?  Not officially, in any way, shape, or form.  But in a more meaningful sense it’s clearly part of the Democratic coalition and wields considerable influence within the party.

It’s even less clear at the individual level.  Many individuals will only spend short times working for the party in any official capacity.  We are most familiar with the “revolving door” when discussing the government-business pair: officials who rotate between stints in the government to build expertise and networks, and more lucrative stints in the private sector.  But an analogous revolving door exists within the party infrastructure itself.  Individuals will rotate between more and less official roles in the party itself – moving from the party or government to non-profits, think-tanks, or pressure groups that act as semi-official parts of the party coalition.  For example, imagine a union leader who organizes campaign mobilization, moves to the Labor Department after an Obama victory, and shifts to the AFL-CIO’s DC office after a few years.  In each of these roles, he is clearly part of the Democratic party, but he may never once carry a DNC business card.

The party is not so much dependent on these loosely-affiliated third-parties as it is composed of them.  Which is the best way I think to frame two interesting recent stories.  One is Rupert Murdoch attempting to strangle the nascent Romney campaign in the crib; the second is on the Koch Brother’s intention to spend almost a billion dollars on the 2016 election.

However, it seems like the parties have been substantially diverging in their unofficial structures, particularly since campaign finance was loosened in Citizen’s United.  The Democratic coalition has more or less retained its traditional structure – heavy on labor and some interest groups, but with the primary financing and mobilization mechanism remaining within the party itself.  On the other hand, the Republican Party has changed a lot.  To a much greater degree, the locus of financing and mobilization has moved outside of the party to rest in the hands of a few individuals.  Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and Sheldon Adelson can more or less make or break a candidate.  The patronage model distinguished the 2012 GOP primary – both Adelson and the less-well-known Foster Friess bankrolled quixotic longshot candidates more or less purely to irritate and exact concessions from Romney.

The central mystery: why has this change in campaign finance completely revolutionized the internal organization of the GOP but not the Democrats? What does this change reveal to us about the nature of political parties?


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