The Political Party in the United States: A Candidate for Disintermediation?
[Regular readers of this blog have read a lot about recent, current and coming disintermediation. Whether it be the travel business, stock brokerage, media, real estate or insurance it is clear that in this major historical period of transformation, the Internet has brought about clear disintermediation. Practically any industry will have some structural change due to this phenomenon. What we will now start to look at from time to time is larger cultural and political institutions that may well be ripe for disintermediation to some degree in the next ten years.]
In 1831 the national nominating convention started to replace the congressional caucus method of choosing nominees for the office of President of the United States. The delegates to the early conventions were either appointed by a party leader or were chosen under a party caucus system. This system remained in place until the early 1900s when the primary was first introduced. The first primary to be used as a means of selecting delegates to the presidential nominating convention took place in Florida in 1904.
Even though primaries were introduced they did not attract many voters, and the nominating process for both parties continued to be controlled by politicians in ‘smoke-filled rooms’ who made deals and brokered candidates. The number of state primaries for both parties in which delegates wer chosen stayed at 14 until the 1950s. Even though President Kennedy demonstrated electability by winning primaries, he won the convention nomination in 1960 by working the back rooms where the key party leaders agreed to support his candidacy.
In 1968, the upheaval at the Chicago Democratic convention lead to a reform movement that emphasized the primary system as a way to make the process of selecting a candidate ‘more democratic’ and one that was controlled by the voters, not the politicians. In 1968 37.5% of Democratic delegates and 34.3% of Republican delegates were selected by the primary system. By 1976, those figures were 72.6% and 67.9% respectfully. These percentages continued to increase to 2000, when 85.7% of Democratic and 93.1% of Republican delegates were selected by primaries. So, in the last 30 years of the 20th century the power of selection of the party presidential nominee moved from the politicians making deals in back rooms to the voters at the polls in the primaries.
The other significant influence to the party convention institution was the adding of broadcast coverage. The first radio broadcast was in 1924, for both parties. The first TV broadcast was in 1948. The TV coverage grew steadily through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s both in terms of amount of coverage and also the number of media outlets that covered it. Even local TV stations sent reporters to cover the ‘local angle’. What this did to the convention was make them ‘staged for TV events’, platforms to display the party candidate to the voters watching on TV.
Since the 1990s, coverage of the conventions has shriveled up, in large part due to the fact that they were no longer unfolding news stories but were increasingly party messaging events and the networks did not want to be expending resources and valuable air time to non-events. In the past two presidential election years, the broadcast networks did not even devote three hours of prime time coverage, let alone the gavel to gavel coverage of prior years.
It is interesting to note that in the 1800s there were conventions that went on for days, with a large number of ballots, where the political party leaders brokered non-stop to find acceptable nominees. The party was adding true value as they completely controlled the process. Even in the early 1900s there was, particularly on the Democratic side, conventions that had multiple ballots. There were 46 ballots in 1912, 44 in 1920 and even 103 in 1924. However, the last time that it took more than one ballot to nominate a candidate was in 1948 on the Republican side (3 ballots) and in 1952 on the Democratic side (also 3 ballots). Since 1956 every single Republican and Democratic nominee won the first ballot. Simply put, the value of the politicians, those that used to control the back rooms, has been eliminated due to the primary system and the glare of the media.
What do we hear today about the two parties regarding what they stand for? Republicans who joined the party because of it’s commitment to fiscal restraint and smaller government say things like “What happened to the Republican Party that I joined years ago?” Democrats look around and say “Where is the leadership of the Democratic Party?” In other words, whatever happened to the political parties? Republicans are fighting wars of intervention and spending for big government, and Democrats don’t have any idea as to what they stand for.
Sounds like the two American political parties no longer serve any real purpose. They aren’t really needed to provide the electorate with candidates. They don’t really stand for anything. Polls show that the electorate feels that the country, led by the two parties at least in all aspects of government, is going in the wrong direction, so they aren’t providing leadershp either. The political party, as currently defined in America, feels like an out of date, anachronistic apparatus whose value is in the past, not the present and certainly not something aligned with the future. If it is to survive, it must reconstitute iself or crumble under its own historical dead weight.
I have written in the space that we are in the middle of a 50-60 year age of transformation; one of those times that comes along every few centuries when society gets fundamentally reorganized. Insititutions that had importance coming into such an age often get relegated to the trash cans of history by the end of the era. Each of these recent ages had a force of disintermediation that was of the times: Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press in the 1400s, the invention of the steam engine in the 1700s, and now the Internet in this age. How might this current age of transformation and the Internet change the institution of the American political party, eithe by replacing it or reinventing it?
I have my own thoughts and will post them soon, but I look to the readership of this blog to, as you have in the past, expand my thinking.