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Are the Parties Over?

Political parties as we know them are disintegrating. But what happens next?
 
 
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American political parties, as we have known them for two centuries, are disintegrating. They are being replaced by shifting coalitions that are forming and reforming constantly. This transition is leaving an awful lot of Americans adrift.

Because most of our founders did not trust the idea of political parties, they came into existence only reluctantly. Parties seemed too much like the dreaded "factions" that had arisen in Europe, what today we would call interest groups, concerned more with their own good than the common good. America's founders, steeped in the ancient Greek and Roman republican ideal, wanted their new fellow citizens to be concerned with the commonwealth. The more people fell into or formed narrow or special interest groups, the less they would be committed to the ideal of the new republic, that which was held in common by all and over which all were sovereign.

One of the highest compliments for a citizen of the founding era was to be called "disinterested." That did not mean uninterested. It meant not interested in one's own concerns at the expense of the commonwealth. The founders held the quaint notion that if we were all concerned, or interested, in what we held in common we would all benefit individually. Likewise, the more a citizen was interested in getting only what was best for him and those like him, the more corrupt the American republic would become.

But, by the late 18th Century, parties arose, largely dividing between the Federalists led by Hamilton who saw the need for a strong central or national government, with a national bank and national army, and the Republicans led by Jefferson who suspected the power of the state and preferred local authority and local control. As the Federalists were by and large Northern merchants and traders and the Republicans were by and large Southern landowners and farmers, the issue of slavery, unresolved in the founding era and documents, also came forcefully into play.

Over the following two centuries the industrial revolution, the Civil War, and America's emergence as a world power all caused tidal waves and tectonic shifts in power structures and coalitions. Well before the 20th Century the two major parties had come to exert hierarchical control over virtually all political processes, including the nomination of candidates for office, at the national and state levels. They were the conduits for campaign financing, access to the media, dissemination of political information, the structuring of ideas and policies, and the exercise of political discipline.

In recent years, however, the parties' entire role and therefore their power has been collapsing. If a candidate is clever enough and has something to say, he or she can get direct access to the media. As political entrepreneurs, most candidates now raise their own financing and depend on money from the parties less and less. Candidates form their own policy groups or court the flourishing idea forums that span the political spectrum. Self-confident and ambitious candidates put themselves forward for any office they desire, up to and including the presidency, without seeking the approval of party officials. Individual office-seekers form their own coalitions by shopping for support among the smorgasbord of interest groups.

Except for the ideologically devout, voters likewise are shaking loose the bonds of party loyalty and more and more joining the third party, the independents, either figuratively or literally. To a degree, the process becomes self-fulfilling. As voters less and less need the party to tell them what to think and whom to vote for, the parties more and more retreat to their hardcore ideological bases, thus further alienating mainstream voters who are less doctrinaire partisans and more eclectic individuals.

Finally, the information revolution disintegrates old media and political structures. Virtually anyone in America today can organize his or her own individual information network tailored to his or her increasingly individual concerns. Nothing symbolizes this stunning fact more than the explosion of personal blog sites. Now everyone has opinions and a forum, the Internet, for expressing them. We are all consumers and producers of opinions if not also "news." You can choose to focus your attention on defense and foreign policy, or fiscal and monetary policy, or health care and education, or the environment, or anyone of hundreds of individual areas of interest, or any collection of them. You don't have to adopt an entire party platform, in any case a kind of 19th Century exercise that has become basically meaningless. You can write your own platform. You can be a party of one. And that is increasingly what millions of Americans are becoming.

Out of power, the watchword among Democrats, and many independents, is: "I don't know what the Democrats stands for." That's because the Party's old coalition -- traditional liberals, labor, minorities, women, environmentalists, and internationalists -- is in the process of disappearing and a new one has yet to be formed. Millions of people wait to hear what the 21st Century Democratic Party stands for, and Democratic Party "leaders" are not saying until they see what the new coalition is going to look like. They are afraid of taking principled stands for fear of alienating some group they think they need. So there is a kind of stand-off. Voters afloat want to hear what the Party has to say, and the Party is trying to find out what they want to hear.

But many traditional Republicans don't know what their Party stands for either. It used to stand for balanced budgets, resistance to foreign entanglement, laissez faire economics, smaller government, and individual freedom. Not any more. That old coalition has disappeared as well. The new Republican Party stands for big government, huge deficits, pre-emptive warfare, massive nation-building, neo-imperialism in the Middle East, intrusion on your privacy, and a semi-official state religion dictated by fundamentalist ministers.

This new Republican Party is merely a temporary diversion because its new political base is too far out of step with mainstream America, an America which includes the traditional Republican base. Democrats used to be the Nanny Party in the secular realm; the neo-Republicans have become the Nanny Party in the religious realm.

We Americans, though, are a nation of independent, socially tolerant, fiscally cautious, environmentally concerned, well-informed, globally-conscious citizens. This pretty much leaves most of us adrift, at least from the two old parties and the increasingly dogmatic, rigid, orthodox, intolerant neo-Republican party, a cabal that seems intent only on consolidating political power in fewer and fewer hands, reducing its elected officials and judges to disciplined automatons, protecting corporate excess, secret policy making, and forcing all of us to become fundamentalist Christians of the sort that would make even John Calvin appear liberal.

Democrats, however, are sadly mistaken if they rely on this fact to assume that the power pendulum will automatically swing back to them. Until the dust settles metaphorically and politically from 9/11, the neo-Republican Party will hold an advantage where security is concerned, despite its almost totally inept performance on homeland security and the hornet's nest of radical fundamentalism it has thoughtlessly kicked open in the Arab world. But that advantage will also not last very long, and Democrats would be well-advised to use this time, which they so far have not done, to create a sweeping new understanding of security and how to obtain it in the 21st century.

Over and beyond this traditional party-based struggle for power is the greater tsunami overtaking the very nature of partisan politics itself. The old party structures are becoming obsolete. The prize of future power will go to the next Machiavelli, the next Montesquieu, the next Bismarck, the next Jefferson who both appreciates, before all others, that we are in a totally new political age, an age beyond traditional political parties, and then creates the next political paradigm.

May I provide some hints: this paradigm will be based upon authentic and original American principles, it will also be enlightened and informational, it will be participatory and decentralized, it will be empowering, and it will incorporate the ideals of the democratic republic. Most of all it will be politically transformational and it will become so by restoring our deepest beliefs, our sense of national honor, integrity, dignity, courage, and duty.

Gary Hart is a former U.S. Senator for Colorado who twice ran for the Democratic nomination for president.