Believe it or not, our political parties are too weak

“I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Will Rogers’ famous line is part of my answer to a question I get asked all the time: Why are our election campaigns so long and so expensive? (Have you noticed the 2016 presidential campaign has already begun?)

I’ll get back to the relevance of Will’s quote in a minute. First let’s compare our form of government with the parliamentary systems in many other countries. Political parties are all-important in Great Britain, for instance. Voters don’t cast a direct vote for Prime Minister. They vote for a member of parliament who they know will, in turn, vote for the leader of his or her party. They can’t cast the kind of ballots that Indiana voters did in November, when they elected a Democratic senator at the same time they gave Gov. Romney a 10-point margin over President Obama.

It is hardly unusual for one of our senators or representatives to buck party leaders. That doesn’t happen in the British parliament, where party discipline is strong.

And because British voters know that the opposition leader in parliament will become Prime Minister if his party wins the next election, they don’t need a long campaign to sort out their choices. General elections in the United Kingdom are brief – a matter of weeks – and relatively inexpensive by our bloated standards.

Around the world, strong political parties lead to short election campaigns.

Our political parties are weak and getting weaker. States are passing laws that allow voters to cast ballots in party primaries even if they don’t belong to that party. Self-professed independents now outnumber voters who register as either Democrat or Republican. And what Will Rogers said in 1935 is now nearly as true for Republicans as it has always been for Democrats. We send a message that we don’t want strong parties when we celebrate senators and representatives who break with their parties on important votes.

Although never as strong as they are in parliamentary systems, our parties were once much stronger than they are today. One major cause of their weakness today at the national level was the result of needed reform to eliminate corruption – the elimination of patronage and the creation of a strong civil service system. If you have seen the movie “Lincoln,” you saw raw political patronage in action. Votes and loyalty to party could and were bought with the promise of jobs. Although to some degree this is still true at local levels in this country, it is no longer a factor in our national party system.

The second major cause of the decline of our parties was the development of the primary election system. Up until the early 1970s, candidates for president were picked at national conventions by delegates who had been chosen at party caucus meetings in their own states. Those delegates were long-time party loyalists and many owed allegiance to powerful state and city leaders who actually did meet in “smoke-filled rooms” to decide on candidates.

That system is still alive and well in countries with a parliamentary system, but here at home the vast majority of delegates are chosen in primaries. As a result, people who don’t have the backing of party leaders can make direct appeals to primary voters. They can be independent operators or political entrepreneurs, and a long, drawn-out primary season gives them the kind of exposure they could never have achieved under the old system.

Weak parties mean long elections.

The incredible increase in the cost of those long elections can be laid comfortably at the doorstep of the Supreme Court of the United States and its recent decisions to allow unlimited contributions to campaigns by corporations, unions and individuals. Without a constitutional amendment on campaign financing, or a reversal by the Court, campaigns will undoubtedly become even more expensive.

While I am strongly in favor of limiting the influence of big money on campaigns, I am less concerned about their length. Certainly a case might be made that the old system of strong political parties gave us candidates like Roosevelt and Eisenhower. But they gave us Harding as well. Given the fact that the primary system is here to stay, should we want to make it much shorter? If we did, primary elections would always be won by the best-known candidates. A virtually unknown candidate wouldn’t have a chance.

When all is said and done, with weak parties, I come down on the side of a long election process that gives democracy its best chance to work.

Originally published 9 February 2013 on