Recall that Ron Fournier wrote a recent column about how the Republicans and Democrats are in danger of cracking up, and that Brendan Nyhan and I wrote responses bashing him a bit. Well, Fournier apparently doesn’t read TAP, but he did respond to Nyhan in a column today that I think is very helpful at sorting out where Fournier — and his informants, who are political professionals — have something worth saying, and where they get things wrong.

The short version: what Fournier and the political professionals are seeing is the potential for change within the parties. They are (or he is) mistakenly confusing it for the potential for third-party change.

I’ll start with what’s useful, which is what Fournier reports about what the world looks like to established party professionals. For them, the world is unstable; new technologies mean that new people, and new movements, can emerge at any point and from anywhere.

They’re right! Partially right: I’m not convinced that technology is the cause, or at least not this particular set of technologies.

Indeed, a lot of this is just “it’s always been that way.” There’s never been a point in time in which top-down national parties controlled everything, and the only way to get involved was to work one’s way up within that party. Presidential campaigns have always been contested, and often won, by outsiders who challenge party leadership and then partially displace and partially are absorbed by the old leadership. For that matter, the idea that the Washington party establishment was a separate, self-sustaining thing is itself on the new side: until some 50 years ago, there were very few party professionals (formal party staff, consultants, Hill and White House staff, and more) in Washington.

That’s also true for Fournier’s concern about the party committees. He says:

A senior official inside the Democratic National Committee told me that he considers Obama to be the head of an independent party. The president built an infrastructure outside the DNC, the official argued, and wields powers once monopolized by the DNC: Fundraising, messaging and voter persuasion.

In a sense, we already have a third party — the BOP, Barack Obama Party. Isn’t it possible that Obama paved a path for a more radical readjustment?

But the party committees never really have a “monopoly” on party activity even when the party doesn’t have the White House, and when the party does have the White House there’s always a president’s party that co-exists, usually with a fair amount of tension, with the formal party organization.  That’s just a function of the way that the US political parties are organized, which in turn is in part historical accident, in part the consequences of political regulation, and probably in part the consequences of a largely decentralized system.

What else does Fournier have?

I believe that Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean and even Wesley Clark are examples of how a political system can be challenged by a disaffected electorate, even in the absence of a strong candidate. In particular, Dean’s campaign illustrated the magnifying effect of technology. What if Perot and Buchanan had access to the Internet?

Well…since Dean’s campaign failed to, you know, win anywhere, it’s hard to be too impressed by its mythology. But regardless: all of these candidates other than Perot (and I suppose Buchanan in ’00) were very much party efforts to control their own party. That they failed, or that Obama’s sort-of insurgent campaign succeeded, may tell us something about influence within the parties, and within the party presidential nomination process, but it doesn’t say anything at all about third parties. In fact, the Buchanan story is useful for that. As an insurgent conservative campaign against a president who had disappointed conservatives, Buchanan was able to make a fair amount of noise; as a factional nomination candidate in 1996, Buchanan was able to win a quarter of the votes in many states in a crowded field. As an independent candidate in 2000, however, Buchanan was a big nothing.

What that leaves is Perot. Perot — and John Anderson, before him — certainly shows that when the conditions are right it’s possible for a third-party or independent candidate to make a significant showing. But Perot and Anderson also show that they can do so without having any lasting effects whatsoever. And that’s because Perot and Anderson were almost exclusively voter-supported ego trips. They weren’t pushed into their campaigns by organized groups frustrated at their lack of representation by the major parties, or by dissatisfied organized groups within the major parties.

And the key thing here is that these two points — the Dean, Clark or Buchanan party attempted takeovers, and the lack of any significant third-party candidate with significant organized group support since at least 1968 — go together. Our political parties are (apparently) doing a good job of assimilating new groups and new movements and new interests. Tea Partiers don’t need an alternative to the Republican Party because they believed (with good reason) that they could get much of what they wanted out of the Republican Party. Opponents of the Iraq War didn’t need an alternative to the Democratic Party because they believed (with good reason) that they could turn the Democrats from mixed on Iraq to almost solidly opposed. Nor are there large pools of emerging interest groups who are shut out by the existing parties.

Granted: each party is always going to have some internal tensions, and it’s always possible, if you squint hard enough, to imagine cleavages that could emerge. What if the Wall Street portion of the GOP finally gets fed up with the evangelical portion of the GOP? But for the most part, what we’ve seen over the last fifty years is that if groups do want to split, they’re usually more than welcome in the other party. And most of the time they don’t want to split; to say that there are tensions is a long, long way from saying that they’re better off on their own.

One important part of that is partisanship itself. One of the effects of the growth of truly national parties and stronger state parties in the last fifty years is that both institutional structure and partisan networks have been established on both sides, and that the strength of those structures makes breaking with them relatively more costly. If you’re a politician thinking about entering a House race in Michigan or Georgia, the fact of national party networks makes your job much easier. Hiring a pollster who won’t just make up numbers, a fundraiser who won’t steal from you, a media outfit that will give you what they promise…that’s a lot easier if you can rely on your party network and party institutions. So is tapping into existing fundraising networks — even in these days of easier fundraising.

Moreover, because parties are now more network-based than they once are, and what ties all these different parts of the party together is partisanship, I suspect it’s a lot harder to split off than it once was. Think about a stereotypical 19th century party, which might take the form of a series of fiefdoms — urban or rural machines of one kind or another, with a Boss at the top of each. What ties the various fiefdoms together is the need to come together to nominate candidates — governors, or presidents. It seems to me that there’s relatively little to keep a Boss from switching sides (that is, from one political party to the other) or, perhaps, for Bosses on the losing end from both parties to agree to team up and form a new party. Since the fiefdoms are largely independent outside of presidential (or statewide) races, they can do that without changing anything within the Boss’s territory.

That’s not what parties look like these days. Instead, local, state, and national parties are interconnected in all sorts of ways. Leaving almost certainly has higher costs. And because the parties are less hierarchical, the choice of sticking and fighting is more appealing.

So, to put it all together as far as third parties are concerned…while one can never fully predict what will happen, what we can say is that the current major parties are very strong. Neither shows any of the kinds of weaknesses that could lead to a crack-up and a third party forming. It is still true, nevertheless, that an independent run is possible at any time, although it’s less likely to happen in an open-seat presidential contest that we’ll have in 2016 and it’s at least a bit suggestive that nothing turned up in 2012 when the circumstances might have been fairly good for one. If we do get a strong independent run, it’s even vaguely possible it could do as well as Perot or even better, although there are good structural reasons that it’s very unlikely. Even if it happens, however, the most likely aftermath is that it will disappear without a trace.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.