There’s been a lot of punditry emitted in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election to replace Teddy Kennedy. All of it that I’ve seen is aimed at making some partisan point in the Democratic vs. Republican tug of war. But the facts of the Brown victory seem to me to suggest something different and more radical: that political parties as we have known them for the last 200 years may be obsolete, or at least well on their way to becoming so.
Here are the two facts that have given me seriously to think about this:
1. More than 50% of the Massachusetts electorate is registered independent.
2. In the last week of the campaign, Scott Brown was able to raise over a million dollars by going direct to potential supporters via the Internet.
These data strike at the heart of the two essential functions of the political party: getting out the vote, and raising campaign funds for its candidates. Scott Brown proved that he could succeed, in a traditionally Democratic state and without significant backing from the national Republican party, pretty purely on grassroots enthusiasm and the leverage provided by Internet social media.
Nationally, the percentage of voters refusing to affiliate with a party isn’t over 50% yet, but it’s been heading steadily upwards. Straight-ticket voting has been in decline for decades.
Furthermore, both major parties are showing signs of disintegration as factions near their edges grow increasingly restive and (in part) bolt to form separate movements.
This is clearest on the Republican side. The Tea Party movement has an ambiguous relationship with the national Republicans, sometimes behaving like a fiscal-conservative party faction but often proclaiming itself a separate movement and opposing party-backed Republican candidates.
On the Democratic side, the “netroots” around sites like Daily Kos and Democratic Underground are putting increasing distance between themselves and the national Democrats. The left-wing revolt against the Pelosi/Reid/Obama health-care reform bill is a leading indicator here.
What the netroots and the Tea Partiers have in common, of course, is that they’re both virtual organizations that rely on the Internet for the reductions in internal coordination costs they would normally get from having offices and org charts.
Glen Reynolds and a few others have noticed this; there’s been some muttering in the blogosphere about “disintermediation”, but nobody until now seems to have thought seriously about the medium-to-long-term effects on the major parties.
The major parties have anyway been looking both battered and sclerotic for a while now. On the Democratic side, the party has had to rely increasingly on the personal charisma of adventurers (the Clintons, Obama) to draw voters who no longer have any loyalty to the party’s platform or history. On the Republican side, that party is so bereft of leadership that it has in effect outsourced that function to conservative talk-radio hosts.
Now, the political parties increasingly find that they have to compete with the Internet-mediated political networks — and the parties are losing.