Unbundling the Parties

I don’t mean to go all contrarian this morning, but after getting agitated about injunctions to “ignore early polls,” I ran across this effort by Taegan Goddard to salvage the “rise of the independents” meme via an ingenious interpretation of what the “rise of the Super-PACs” might mean in the near future. After an elaborate wind-up on the American consumer’s desire for “unbundled” options in entertainment, Goddard makes this pivot:

If a voter agrees with Democrats on social issues but with Republicans on tax and budgetary issues, it’s unlikely there will be a good choice on Election Day. The two major political parties are putting forth precious few candidates who fit that profile.

So how could we unbundle American politics? Interestingly, it’s super PACs — those secretive, big-money groups widely accused of ruining our politics — that could help with the Great Unbundling.

We’re already seeing super PACs beginning to erode the power of the political parties. Some super PACs are taking over major functions of campaigns. And it may soon be possible that a super PAC could run the entire campaign with the candidate not needing a party at all. It’s not outlandish to imagine a super PAC whose interests aligned with a millennial-friendly, libertarian-lite candidate who was liberal on social issues, dovish on foreign policy, and conservative on economics. Such a super PAC could put real dollars behind a candidate who would never be nominated by a major party. In a world where there were 10 such super PACs backing 10 such ideologically diverse candidates of various persuasions, suddenly our politics are unbundled and American voters have real choices.

That’s an interesting thought, but one that seems to be built on a house of dubious assumptions. First of all, it’s not at all clear that Super-PACs primarily represent a dilution of the power of candidates, much less parties: it’s just as likely they are, as Jeb Bush’s Super PACs will almost certainly demonstrate, a way for the same old conventional forces to get around campaign finance regulations, such as they are. Second of all, money’s not the only, and arguably not the main, obstacle to third parties or new parties: there are ballot access rules, the first-past-the-post and winner-take-all characteristics of our political system, a host of powerful interest and constituency groups deeply invested in the two existing parties, and the fear of enabling enemy parties by defecting from either of the two main parties.

But third and most important, this scenario is based on the idea that there is a great untapped demand for multiple parties or less ideologically rigid parties that’s being artificially blocked. This is undermined by the wealth of indicators that the rank-and-file of the two major parties are becoming steadily more united around ideologically-driven agendas. Indeed, one of the main sources of poll numbers showing dissatisfaction with the GOP among Republicans is the powerful desire for more ideological rigidity.

So while there are (as there have always been) ways one can identify to “break the mold” of the two-party system, as was the slogan of the now-defunct British Social Democratic Party of the 1980s and remains the aspiration of the now-struggling British Liberal Democratic Party, it’s very unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.