The Best Way for Democrats to Grow the Party

(Bloomberg View) -- I have two important items to strongly recommend today. The first is a Brookings paper from Jonathan Rauch and Raymond J. La Raja; the other is an op-ed by Julia Azari and Seth Masket. Both are absolutely must-reads. 

Rauch and La Raja explore the explosion in campaign activity and especially candidate recruitment by what they call outside groups -- first the Tea Party several years ago, and now the various organizations suddenly active in progressive politics during the current election cycle. They see both advantages and disadvantages in this surge, which essentially comes down to the same thing: The new groups massively open up candidate recruitment to many who were discouraged or even locked out of the party system. On the good side, this has led to an upswing in women running as Democrats in 2018. It also means, in their view, a breakdown in vetting and therefore new potential for candidates ill-equipped to govern, including perhaps demagogues. 

Azari and Masket also argue for greater gatekeeping. Their concern is specifically in the Democratic Party, and especially efforts to displace superdelegates and other forms of what they consider establishment control of nominations. 

As a defender of the supers, I agree with both teams when it comes to the question of candidate quality and the important role of parties in vetting their candidates. I tend to agree, too, with Rauch and La Raja that relaxing regulations on formal party organizations would be a good idea. 

While we're mostly coming from the same perspective -- all of us believe strong parties are important for democracy -- I do have some quibbles.

I share the concerns Rauch and La Raja have about candidate quality. I disagree that formal party organizations are always best positioned to separate the good from the bad. Yes, staff and officials of those groups will say that all they care about is winning. But that's not necessarily true. Formal party organizations can become bureaucratized, which can create perverse incentives. For example: No one is going to get fired if they recruit a candidate who looked good on paper. That leads to recruiting not for quality but for what looks good to the head of the department, or the party chair, or perhaps to party donors. It's not just that diversity can be shortchanged (and to their credit Rauch and La Raja recognize that side of the problem, and offer alternative solutions). It's that quality itself can be damaged if party organizations evolve in certain ways.

Grassroots groups such as Indivisible are not threats to the party. The question isn't so much about organizational form, but of how to create healthy incentives for all party actors -- politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned interest groups and the partisan media.

The problem with the Tea Party wasn't so much that they were organizational outsiders. It was that they promote values such as reluctance to compromise, knee-jerk suspicion or worse for an amorphous "establishment," and disrespect for governing expertise, all of which tend to threaten stable democratic government (including, yes, health conservative government). But those values have been shared by many Republican party actors long before the Tea Party came along. The problem was never outsiders getting involved; it was outsiders getting involved who took their cues from the Newt Gingriches and Rush Limbaughs and Ted Cruzes of the party, who themselves have had their own set of perverse incentives (chief among them that their ratings go up and their books sell faster when Democrats are in office). 

So whether party activity is centered within formal organizations or outside groups isn't inherently all that important. Both types of organization can be healthy; both types can be dysfunctional. The trick for parties (and for the polity as a whole) is to design incentives properly to keep them healthy.

As far as Azari and Masket: I think it's a real mistake to frame the debate about party governance, as they do, as one between more or less democracy. Direct democracy isn't more democratic than various forms of indirect or representative democracy; it's just different. And all kinds of democracy can go bad. In the pre-reform era, indirect democracy delivered in conventions mainly run by party officials went bad in part because formal leaders found ways to insulate themselves against efforts by the rank-and-file to challenge them. As long as those leaders are elected, however (as the Democratic National Committee is, albeit indirectly), then having its members involved in nominations is perfectly democratic. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the best system, but those who defend it need not concede any democratic deficit at all. 

I'd push things a little farther, in fact, and argue that the only people who must have real say in nominations are those party actors I referred to above. They are the party; just-plain-voters are not. And that's not a problem as long as the latter group may, at any point, join the former group just by starting to get involved. 

In other words, if the Democratic National Committee or the Colorado Democratic Party were blocking Indivisible and the other new groups from having a say in nominations, that's a big problem. But as long as those groups do have a say, it's fine if the DNC or the state and local parties also weigh in. Especially if those new groups also will have an opportunity (as they will) to elect those formal party leaders. 

All of which goes back to Rauch and La Raja's very sensible concern with the "invisible primary" not just in presidential elections, but in all nominations.

We should expect party actors of all kinds to fight hard over nominations: to recruit candidates, build the reputations of those candidates, and otherwise devote their resources to the fight. That's how parties define themselves. It's not unusual for new participants to be impatient as they find their ability to get their way blocked by those who were mobilized long ago, and to fight back against it. That, too, is the nature of the game. It sometimes takes newly mobilized citizens and groups some time to learn that parties entail cooperation and coalition building as well as conflict, just as those already comfortable within the party can sometimes take time to accept that they have no right to indefinite party control. 

At any rate, whatever one thinks of my views about this stuff, please to read both of these important pieces.


1. Micah Altman and Michael P. McDonald on why numerical formulas aren't the best solution for districting

2. Todd A. Curry and Rebecca A. Reid at the Monkey Cage on the lawsuit over Bears Ears

3. My View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on why the electoral effects of the tax bill are overrated. Absolutely correct. Only quibble: To the extent it might affect the economy, it could matter, and I don't think Trump's current polling numbers suggest that the economy won't matter in 2018 or 2020. 

4. Ariel Edwards-Levy looks at the polls in Alabama.

5. And Nate Silver on the polls in Alabama

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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